CBS' apology is clear warning Television: Even the esteemed '60 Minutes' suffers the effects of diluting newsmagazines.

December 14, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The year of the journalistic mea culpa hit yet another low last night when Don Hewitt, the esteemed executive producer of "60 Minutes," went on air to apologize for a phony report.

In 30 years, it was the first time Hewitt, the man who invented the TV newsmagazine genre, appeared in such a role on screen. And, while the transgression for which he apologized is worrisome enough, even more troubling is what it says about the effect of competitive pressure on television journalism in this era of wall-to-wall newsmagazines.

The false report, which aired June 1, 1997, was about a Colombian drug operation and included the claim that the Cali cartel had opened a new smuggling route through London. Dramatic footage showed one person identified as a courier swallowing what was said to be 60 fingers of latex gloves filled with pure heroin. Viewers then saw film of the courier on a plane and were told that the courier slipped through British customs with the load of heroin.

"Was all that on the level?" Hewitt asked rhetorically last night in his apology.

No, it was all faked, he told viewers. The person identified as the courier, as well as two other persons identified as a "loader" and a "drug kingpin," were, in fact, actors hired to play those roles. The "secret location" at which an interview with the kingpin was said to have taken place was actually the hotel room of a documentary filmmaker.

The filmmaker is key, because he does not work for "60 Minutes," and he was the one Hewitt was laying the blame on last night. The footage in the "60 Minutes" report came from a British documentary, titled "The Connection," that was made by Marc de Beaufort for Britain's Carlton Communications, a production company, to air on the ITV network. The phony pictures and reporting for which "60 Minutes" apologized came from de Beaufort's film.

What "60 Minutes" did in June of 1997 was air portions of the film with an introduction and narration by correspondent Steve Kroft, along with interviews of de Beaufort and a DEA agent. CBS News got the footage from "The Connection" free from HBO, which bought American rights to the documentary and aired it several times on its Cinemax premium cable channel.

What HBO got out of the deal was a chance to promote the film with a "60 Minutes" audience of some 20 million viewers: free advertising for Cinemax.

We still might not know of the fraud if not for the British newspaper, The Guardian, which challenged the film's authenticity in May.

As Hewitt told viewers last night, "Alerted by a member of the production staff of the documentary, The Guardian called it a fake. And, after a lengthy investigation, Britain's Carlton TV said substantially the same thing. The bottom line: We, you and television viewers in 14 other countries were taken in. To make amends we felt obligated to lay it all out in detail and ask you please accept our apology."

Give Hewitt credit for going on air himself. In 1993, when NBC apologized for rigging a GMC pickup to explode in a "Dateline" report, anchorpersons Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley got to do the honors. When CNN retracted its "Newsstand" newsmagazine report in July that nerve gas was used by the U.S. government on American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War, anchorwoman Jeanne Meserve read the statement.

When asked why Hewitt went on camera last night, Kevin Tedesco, a spokesman for the show, said, "He wants people to know how sorry we are. It's the broadcast that made the mistake -- no one person. And who better to represent the broadcast than Don? He wanted to make sure viewers understood how we got snookered."

Despite the staggering level of deception in the "60 Minutes" report, what Hewitt apologized for last night does not seem as egregious as the CNN and NBC newsmagazine debacles. That is mainly because the false pictures and words were not the work of "60 Minutes" staffers.

But there are deeper issues here, which "60 Minutes" cannot simply walk away from by saying it was "snookered."

Why was "60 Minutes" using the freebie from HBO in the first place? One reason was pressure from CBS brass in the wake of increased competition from other networks' newsmagazines to produce more original pieces during the summer months instead of going to reruns. NBC's "Dateline," which was enjoying great ratings gains and expanding into extra nights, does original stories year-round by and large.

The other pressure from CBS brass -- even though "60 Minutes" is the greatest prime-time money-maker in the history of network television -- is to contribute even more in the way of profits.

"The Connection" was free. Just slap on an introduction by Kroft, interview a DEA agent and de Beaufort, and you've got a red-hot segment -- especially by summertime standards. Using a staff producer to fully check out the film would not be nearly as on-the-air quick or cost effective.

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