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Could this pop the balloon at '60 Minutes'?

Already on the rise, ratings expanded in an interview with singer Michael Jackson. But ethical questions are poised like pins.

January 07, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It's been three years since CBS' "60 Minutes" last ranked among the 10 most-viewed television programs of the season. So this year's comeback -- fueled in part by former pro football linebacker Lawrence Taylor's news-making interview on Nov. 29 -- has been a welcome turnaround for the network.

But now, "60 Minutes" finds itself in the spotlight for a different reason, batting down criticisms of how it landed correspondent Ed Bradley's recent face-to-face interview with embattled pop singer Michael Jackson, which happened in conjunction with a CBS entertainment show that was an uncritical retrospective of Jackson's career highlights.

This controversy has taken some of the sheen off what until now had been a successful year for the CBS News program, whose 81-year-old creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt, is stepping down at the end of the season.

CBS News said Bradley was on vacation and the network wouldn't make him available to comment. But the always feisty Hewitt was outspoken in doing damage control.

CBS admits that it didn't get the interview the standard way, by asking for it. Instead, CBS said it told Jackson it wouldn't air the entertainment special -- on which Jackson himself was executive producer -- unless he first talked to "60 Minutes" about the criminal charges for child molestation that have been filed against him.

The network vehemently denied a report published in the New York Times and attributed to an unnamed source that it paid Jackson to do the interview.

Hewitt said CBS -- far from paying for the Jackson interview -- almost walked away from it minutes before it was to start, when Bradley and his producer were informed that Jackson would sit for questions for a mere eight minutes, an unacceptable ground rule.

Hewitt said his staff countered that the interview would take place only if it could go as long as necessary, "and when we think we got enough, we'll go home." Jackson ultimately talked to Bradley for about a half hour, before the singer complained that his shoulder was hurting and he had to leave, Hewitt said.

The Jackson interview, he said, fell into his lap when "somebody in CBS management" told him the network was refusing to air the entertainment special without a companion news interview, and asked if Hewitt would be interested. "I don't know anybody in journalism who would have turned down a chance to talk to Michael Jackson" provided there were no ground rules, Hewitt said.

How the Jackson controversy will affect the show going forward is unclear. While CBS gets high marks from some for disclosing upfront how it landed the interview, the quid pro quo has also raised questions. Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training school, said that while the interview itself could have been perfectly sound, its credibility "becomes muddied to some degree because of how it was obtained." If an interview subject felt "pressed to comply with something he might not do otherwise," he or she might also feel compelled to say things that would please the news organization. "I'm not saying that did happen, but it begins to raise questions about the authentic nature of the journalistic enterprise," Colon said.

Moreover, he said, at a time when the lines between entertainment and journalism are already blurred, "When you start linking one journalistic enterprise with an entertainment enterprise, you begin to make people question where one ends and the other begins."

The Dec. 28 Jackson interview was the most-watched program on any network that week and gave the show some of its highest ratings in years. Overall this season, the show's audience is up 14%, to an average 15.8 million viewers. That's enough to land it at No. 10 among all the networks' shows, up from last season's rank of 18th. The show was last in the top 10 in the 1999-2000 season.

Newsmagazines in general have had a tough time in recent years. This season, CBS' "60 Minutes II" is down, as are both editions of NBC's "Dateline" and CBS' "48 Hours." ABC's "20/20," third among all network newsmagazines, is up about 11%. ABC's "PrimeTime" is up 20%, but that's still not enough to lift it out of sixth among its rivals.

Hewitt attributed the increases to Americans "looking for more serious information" at a time of increased terrorism and world unrest. "You can escape for just so long before you begin to wonder, 'Are they planning to blow up my town?' " he said, adding that viewers "depend on us to tell them what the state of the world is."

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