October 24, 1997

Sixty Minutes

I am a printer, and a printer of news; and I do hearken after them, wherever they be at any rates; I'll give anything for a good copy now, be it true or false, so it be news.

Ben Jonson, 1621

I have been a fan of Sixty Minutes for a long time. Besides being entertaining and having Andy Rooney, it is always interesting. But it is not always accurate or unbiased.

The people who do the stories are what used to be called "muckrakers." Their business is to find and expose the nation's and the world's dirty laundry. Usually they have one story that is pleasant and it is about some celebrity entertainer. But their main purpose is still muckraking.

I assume that they do a story by first tapeing interviews with the principle people concerned with it. They can slant a story by selecting whom they interview; and they sometimes do. After the interview, they select segments that are actually used in the broadcasted segment. They can slant the story any way that they want to by selecting segments of the interview that are favorable to their point of view, and they sometimes do.

It is possible to craft a relatively unbiased story by presenting all sides in equal balance. Unfortunately, such a presentation, like the Lehrer News hour on PBS, tends to be deadly dull. A clear attack, which may or may not be parried by the opposition, is exciting. And it is excitement that makes for large audiences and high ratings. Sixty Minutes has been on the top of the charts for a long time.

When I watched the Sixty Minutes segment on the Cassini project, there were a number of things that I found disturbing. Despite what superficially seemed to be unbiased reporting, it was clearly slanted toward the spectacular: That the launch could be a disaster if the rocket failed.What made it seem unbiased was an interview with a bigwig from NASA. The segment that they showed of that interview was not very convincing.

The interview with John Gofman left me feeling unsatisfied. Gofman always has something worth hearing, but what they presented was not. He has, in the past, made a particular point of emphasizing that low-level radiation is far from harmless. He has also been active in opposition to any attempt to minimize the consequences of nuclear power plant accidents and the effects of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.He is very concerned that valuable data are being lost on the effect of low-level radiation.I assume that he talked about some of those things in the interview, but those parts of the interview were cut out in favor of some personal opinions. I assume that he had no say in what was presented and what was cut out.

In my early days as a biologist I found out that interviewers can sometimes flagrantly misquote a scientist because the reporters are unfamiliar with the material. After one bad experience, I would grant an interview only if the reporter would agree to let me read it before it was published. I promised not to interfere with his style, but would merely point out any errors of fact. The first-rate science reporters usually went along with this since they wanted to give out accurate information. Others did not, and I would refuse to give an interview. I suspect that many people who refuse Sixty Minutes interviews do so for the same reason. However, when Sixty Minutes says that they refused, it seems as if they are refusing because they are "guilty" of whatever misdemeanor their writers have convicted them of in absentia.

In a trial a person can take the 5th Amendment, which protects a person from self-incrimination, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a judge or jury may see it as the attempt of a guilty person to conceal the truth about himself. Sometimes people take the 5th to protect a friend. The framers of The Constitution put that amendment in because they did not like the idea of inquisitions.

I will continue to watch Sixty Minutes, but I will keep a large box of salt nearby. There is a big difference in what is presented when a reporter is concerned with the truth, from what he presents if he is concerned with ratings.

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