Sunday, April 27, 2008

60 Minutes of Propaganda and Pandering

I used to love the CBS news program 60 Minutes. I liked it because it offered accessible investigative news reports on the issues of the day. I continued watching it religiously up until three years ago or so when I went off to college and didn't have a TV. Since my break with 60 Minutes I have learned a lot about the world. Coming back to 60 Minutes now and again I would watch it much more critically, and sure enough, as with most mainstream media programming, holes began to appear.
Tonight's 60 Minutes program was possibly the worst product I have seen come from this bastion of mainstream television journalism. It was such an utterly pathetic program I could not stand to sit through the last 30 minutes. It was a perfect storm of unabashed propaganda, war baiting, sycophancy, and castrated questioning.
To understand why this 60 Minutes program was so bad you really have to watch it, but I will try to communicate what I found so disturbing briefly to the untainted reader. 

The first segment was on the Israeli Air Force. Bob Simon prefaced the piece by saying that "in return for access to its planes and personnel, we had to agree to rigorous censorship." Rigorous censorship? The credulous viewer might argue that Mr. Simon is saying that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) only has veto power over what is shown of their "top secret" bases. That's nonsense. There are countless examples of the damage that "access" with stipulations can have on journalistic integrity. Quite recently I wrote on the perversity of this access game (see here). The truth is that 60 Minutes latched on to the IAF for an easy and cheap story, full of militaristic jingoism and official Israeli talking points, all with a dearth of any substantive information. Bob Simon - the same Bob Simon who was assigned to question the Iranian president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, in a combative and shockingly unprofessional manner - was sucked, most likely willingly, into what was a blatant Israeli PR operation to prepare the citizens of this country for a probable strike/war against Iran. It was all beautifully done. Firstly, the mise en scène was painstakingly established, no doubt with the help of Israeli censors: Mr. Simon toured a high-tech military base, talking to soldiers, some partially obscured, purportedly to hide their identity, but more likely to lend to the sense that what we were seeing was all very hush-hush. The special access suggests that we, the American viewer, have some common cause with Israel, that we are good friends willing to share secrets (I couldn't imagine seeing Mr. Simon spending a day on an Iranian military base talking to soldiers. No, all we see of the Iranians is video of them marching in formation). This initial "inside" look into the IAF was followed by a one-sided history lesson about how Israel took control of the Middle East skies, and how they used their air power to deter the likes of Iraq from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This directly lead into considering how Israel might bomb Iran into stopping nuclear research that they claim is two-years from fruition; a time-line Bob Simon dutifully repeats, failing to mention the U.S. intelligence communities own report (here) that comes to some very different conclusions. To make sure that Americans really comprehend the threat that Iran posses to Israel, we are reminded of the Holocaust, and of how Mr. Ahmadinejad is a new Hitler. The connotations suggested by bringing up the Holocaust are incredibly distasteful, along with comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler, especially since there are around 30,000 Jews living relatively peacefully in Iran, allowed many more rights than the majority of Palestinians who once called Israel their home.
By the end of this segment the keen and critical observer could see exactly what sort of conclusions the creators of the program wanted the viewer to walk away with: Israel is under threat; Israel can act decisively and humanely (they have "smart" bombs, never mind the thousands of Palestinian dead); If action is needed, Israel has every right to bomb Iran, just as it did against Saddam. The piece was propaganda, nothing more. Shameful propaganda. I don't know why or how something of its low-caliber and dubious type was produced. CBS ought to be ashamed.
The next section of the long hour was not quite as bad as the IAF piece, but it certainly showed just how far 60 Minutes has fallen. Lesley Stahl was assigned a two-part interview Antonin Scalia, the Conservative Supreme Court Justice. She brought up a few good points, which were subsequently brushed aside by the affable Scalia, including the infamous Bush v. Gore decision which handed the election to Bush. Right away the problem was obvious: Ms. Stahl was incredibly underprepared to actually press Scalia for answers that were half-way decent. Her duty is not to give the guy a pulpit from which to preach his point of view; as a journalist she must ask tough questions and get responses. Her lack of ability became too painful to watch when she brought up the question of torture, and then was quickly put on the defensive as Scalia cross-examined her on what she meant by saying that those being tortured were victims of "cruel and unusual punishment". "When he's hurting you trying to get information from you, you don't say he's punishing you; what's he punishing you for?" Lesley Stahl bumbled a response. How about talking about the Geneva Conventions Ms. Stahl, and how the Constitution instructs all members of government to abide by all treaties "made, under the authority of the United States," including the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War? When the interview then cut to commercials instead of a followup question on this very pertinent point about torture, I could not watch any more. I left the room, got my computer, and began writing this little polemic.
The Scalia interview is nothing knew to the mainstream media. We hear soft-ball questioning all the time. What was really disturbing for me was recognizing the ever loudening drum-beats moving us towards war with Iran. I hope that the amorphous interest group that wants to fight this new, and undoubtably costly war fail miserably in the ill endeavor. I hope that more people speak up against attacking Iran than spoke up five years ago when we blundered, guns blaring and bombs thundering, into Iraq.

Here is part one of the 60 Minutes program.
Excuse the commercial; they couldn't do the good work they do without it.

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