Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Pathology on Parade

Powerline has a sharp fisking of the Mary Mapes press release.

The Mapes statement demonstrates another problem with 60 Minutes groupthink: they confuse controversy with news. This is separate of their liberal bias. There was no political slant to airing tape of Julie Andrews flashing her breasts, but it was provocative and therefore judged broadcast-worthy.

60 Minutes has been taking the same tabloid approach to current events for at least two decades. They find a shrill voice of complaint, no matter how illogical, indefensible, or extreme, and through carefully controlled editing, a sizeable budget, and a fearsome reputation, they build twelve-minute segments for their program.

The pattern exists separately of their political views. It can be applied to commercial-ethics and social-values stories as well as to politics.
Will welfare reform create a permanent class of homeless Americans?
Does Walmart destroy small-town America?
Is there anything truly bad with medical marijuana?
Is illegal immigration necessary for the economy?

The confusion of Controversy with real news is made worse by the staging of segments as dramatic conflicts between Hero and Villain.
Sometimes the Hero is the hardworking Establishment beset by quixotic Crusaders (this was their approach to the Vince Foster controversy).
Sometimes the Hero is a decent Crusader fending off the Establishment juggernaut (their usual approach to any corporate story, although sometimes it is used regarding the government, as in the Daniel Lamp Co. v EEOC story a few years back).

But the problem, for 60 Minutes producers in search of material, is that whenever a lone voice cries "Establishment Conspiracy!", they are trained to see a Story.
They'll have to investigate a bit to see who sentiment, bias, and marketing research cast as the Villain, but there is undoubtably a Story.

This left the organization open, operationally, to accepting a document-trail that even Hollywood would have rejected as bizarre and incredible.

This mindset is evident in Mapes' statement:
The new documents also were corroborated by retired Gen. Bobby Hodges, the late Col. Killian’s commander, who said that the documents showed Col. Killian’s true sentiments as well as his actions in the case. After the broadcast, Marian Carr Knox provided the same corroboration in her televised interview. Yet, despite the panel’s recognition of the heretofore unchalleneged integrity of my work in the past, the panel was quick to condemn me here on the basis of statements of people who told my associates and me very different versions than what they told the panel.

...It is noteworthy the panel did not conclude that these documents are false. Indeed, in the end, all that the panel did conclude was that there were many red flags that counseled against going to air quickly. I never had control of the timing of any airing of a 60 Minutes segment; that has always been a decision made by my superiors.

...If there was a journalistic crime committed here, it was not by me.

...I believe the segment presented to the American people facts they were free to accept or reject, and that as those facts were presented, there was nothing that was false or misleading.

I told a Story with a Hero and a Villain. I verified that the Hero and the Villain actually exist. I "corroborated" the Controversy as valid to the extent verifying that the people involved had actually walked the face of Texas in the Vietnam era. I kept it vague, suggestive, indirect, and provocative, so that the public could not resolve the Controversy solely on our broadcast. I myself don't know what the hell happened in Texas in 1973. What more do you want of me? Why pick on me for following the format? Was it the timing? I don't control the timing! You just want a scapegoat.

Completely lost is the ideal of a television news segment as reliable, accurate, knowledgeable, and verifiable, as an encyclopedia entry.

In a human sense, it is tragic that having refined the attitudes, value judgements, and thought processes of the perfect 60 Minutes producer, Mapes is now barred from fulfilling that role; because those carefully cultivated traits are handicaps just about anywhere else.

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