No wonder "60 Minutes" can't be ignored.
It's a microcosm of what TV should be. It's TV's hot ticket or hotfoot, TV you adore or shake a fist at. It's a real kick or a kick in the teeth. It can be achingly good or merely an ache. It can be rewarding and maddening, gorgeous and ugly, and all of those within the same hour, even within the same story. Never, never, never , though, is it neutral or dull.
The past Sunday, especially. I found myself enthralled by "60 Minutes"--and ticked off.
One segment (reported by Morley Safer and produced by Marti Galovic Palmer) detailed the fascinating Cubanization of Miami. Another (reported by Ed Bradley and produced by Jeanne Solomon Langley) was an exquisite, poignant and intimate profile of Judy Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, a recovering alcoholic and prescription-drug addict at age 40.
"She's back from living on the edge . . . ," Bradley said.
There was Liza singing: "Nothing's impossible, I have found for when my chin is on the ground, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. . . ."
There also was an earlier Liza at 18, looking angelic and tentative on stage beside her famous mother, an alcoholic and druggie who would die in 1969.
And there was today's Liza at the London Paladium, singing the title song from the 1972 movie "Cabaret," for which she won an Academy Award as Sally Bowles. The song is about a high flyer named Elsie who dies from booze and drugs.
Original lyric: "When I go, I'm going like Elsie. . . "
The way Liza sings it now: "When I go, I'm not going like Elsie . . . ."
It was the first "60 Minutes" segment--a different kind of drug story--that was the most jolting, though, and least honorable.
Reported by Harry Reasoner and produced by Patti Hassler, it began with a woman recalling giving her daughter a marijuana joint for her 13th birthday.
"And I took it to her room where two or three of her girlfriends were . . . 12- and 13-year-old girls--and I handed her this joint. And I said, 'You and your girlfriends smoke this before the party.' "
The girl, now 16, and her parents were interviewed on camera, but were wearing heavy theatrical makeup, Reasoner said, to hide their identities. He called the girl Melissa and her parents Bob and Doris. The parents are both recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who began supplying Melissa with drugs when she was 8, Reasoner said.
With a boffo opening like that, viewers weren't about to doze, leave the room or change channels.
That was the idea, for much of the segment was not about children whose parents purposely gave them drugs. There is no evidence of that being a major problem in the United States. The segment was mostly about something far more prevalent but less sensational--children who are exposed to drugs merely through parents using them at home.
In a case of journalistic false advertising, "60 Minutes" had deployed the provocative statements of Bob and Doris and Melissa apparently as a come-on.
Melissa is under the care of Next Step, a San Diego therapy program for children of alcoholics, whose executive director, Cathleen Brooks, was interviewed in the "60 Minutes" segment. Some of the younger children in Next Step also spoke candidly on camera about their parents' alcoholism or drug abuse.
Even worse than using Melissa and her parents misleadingly, it seemed to me, "60 Minutes" had given children treated by Next Step (one of them appeared to be about 9 years old) harsh national TV exposure that could haunt them for years. How many of those children would be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again?
I called Brooks to get her views.
She had found the "60 Minutes" piece "very well done," but faulted its "narrow focus on the drug issue." Fighting drugs, not booze, after all, is the current White House and media chic. "But the most abused drug in the United States is alcohol," said Brooks, herself a recovering alcoholic and daughter of an alcoholic.
"People are now talking about drugs, and that's good, but it's also dangerous because the primary choice for all of America is alcohol, and that gets lost," Brooks said.
"I probably shouldn't say this, but I've gotten to the point where I turn off all these drug documentaries. I'm tired of hearing how awful the 'other people' are, because then the person behind the microphone goes home to his own four martinis. That's his drug."
Brooks believes that the national anti-drug obsession reflects a "massive case of denial." However well-intended, such efforts as the "60 Minutes" segment give viewers "an out," she said. "They allow people to say, 'This is something I don't do,' " (and rationalize the drug they do --booze).
An hour after "60 Minutes," ironically, CBS aired a movie called "Under the Influence" that was about a man who refused to acknowledge his alcoholism.
Meanwhile, won't telling their stories on "60 Minutes" stigmatize those Next Step youngsters? Not likely, Brooks said.