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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'60 Minutes': Time Out for a Correction : Ethics: It took the repetition of a mistake in a head-wounds-research story to force Mike Wallace to apologize on camera.

August 23, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The recent past sometimes offers more illumination than the present. Take the case of "60 Minutes" vs. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), for example.

It's a keyhole look at how business is sometimes done at the Sunday-night CBS behemoth, the most popular and arguably most influential news program in the history of television.

Last Jan. 24, "60 Minutes" aired a segment reported by Mike Wallace that all but gave a standing ovation to controversial biomedical research on cats that had been done by Dr. Michael Carey in the name of saving lives of U.S. soldiers with battlefield head wounds. The research was funded by the Army and done by Carey, a neurosurgeon, at Louisiana State University.

Claiming his subjects were properly anesthetized and felt no pain, Carey drilled small holes into the sculls of approximately 700 live cats, placed their heads into a vise and shot BB pellets into their brains.

Observant viewers may have noticed the various techniques used by "60 Minutes" to gain sympathy for Carey's $2-million research project, whose funding was yanked by the Army in 1989 on advice from the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm. The GAO's probe of the research was requested by Livingston who, a Carey supporter charged on "60 Minutes," had been "hoodwinked" by animal rights "zealots." There was no rebuttal from Livingston.

What no viewer could have known, however, was that Wallace was not speaking the truth when he said in the segment that Livingston had declined to be interviewed "on camera" by "60 Minutes." In fact, Livingston had refused to be interviewed on camera unless he could appear "live and unedited." That's a significant difference, and based on the segment's bias toward Carey, Livingston's fears about his comments being distorted in the editing booth were justified. However, live interviews are against "60 Minutes" policy.

On March 11, Livingston wrote to "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt complaining about "the many offenses against journalistic ethics in your story" and demanding an on-the-air apology.

The congressman sought three "corrections." He wanted "60 Minutes" to admit inserting file footage of yelling and protesting animal-rights activists in a way that made it appear to the casual viewer that they were demonstrating against Carey's research. They weren't. Although unconnected to Carey, the footage gave the impression that opponents of his research were, indeed, ranting zealots.

Easiest of all, Livingston also wanted something done about the erroneous statement that he had flat-out refused an interview on "60 Minutes." And he wanted the program to "correct" the implication that he was a dupe of animal-rights activists.

In fact, as the conservative congressman said last month in a House speech excoriating "60 Minutes" that he had entered into the Congressional Record, he generally supports biomedical research on animals and is no ally of the animal-rights movement. He said he had asked the GAO to look into Carey's research only after receiving allegations that the project was not worthy and was wasting taxpayers' money.

Shortly after writing Hewitt, Livingston received a phone call from Wallace, a tape of which was made available to me by the congressman's office. In their conversation, Wallace defended the Carey segment, saying, for example, that the misleadingly juxtaposed footage of animal-rights demonstrators was "not intended as footage specific to Carey's research." He said its interpretation was "in the eye of the beholder."

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Wallace, however, did concede Livingston was "dead right" about the "live and unedited" omission.

"My friend, I apologize to you, I really do," Wallace said. "I'm ashamed of myself because you told it to me and how the hell (the story) got through without it, I don't know. It's unfair, because you were perfectly willing to go on and I told you we don't do it . . . " Later, Wallace added that he was sorry about the omission because "that was dishonest of me, and that was stupid of me."

Their conversation ended on a friendly note. Case closed.

Wrong.

Summertime is rerun time on "60 Minutes." On July 25, with a freshly taped intro by Wallace, "60 Minutes" repeated the Carey segment. It aired intact, again with the statement by Wallace that Livingston had refused to be interviewed on camera, as if their earlier conversation hadn't occurred.

This time Livingston protested by phone directly to Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Group. Later that day, Livingston received another call from Wallace, a tape of which also was made available to me. Wallace was contrite.

"I confess that we blew it," he said, adding "I should have put that on the air." He took full responsibility and promised to make amends. "It is my fault," he said. "And I should have damn well done it."

On Aug. 8, he damn well did.

At the end of that night's "60 Minutes," Wallace corrected the record. Livingston "had agreed to appear on camera if his remarks were live and unedited," Wallace said. "We've already apologized personally to the congressman, and are happy to do it again publicly."

Now case closed? "It was a nice apology," said a spokesman for Livingston. "We should have had it four months ago."

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