The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, September 17, 2004

Previous 60 Minutes fakeries, actual and supposed

Naturally, Rathergate makes one curious about the august news show's track record. There should be a consolidated list of 60 Minutes controversies, but I can't find one.

A little online mooching produces:

A 1989 report on alar, a pesticide used by apple growers. Apparently, the show's claims of health hazards were well-founded, but an industry PR campaign (Hill & Knowlton, the incubator kings) established a Conventional Wisdom that they were phoney [1].

A 1997 report on a Colombian cartel running heroin into the US in the stomachs of mules actually was phoney [2].

A 1979 report on the Clinton nuclear site of the Illinois Power Company apparently included an interview with the company's president edited to have him say the opposite of what he did say [3].

A 1986 report in which an Audi 5000 was tested for, supposedly, accelerating at random, even when the driver was stepping on the brake pedal; apparently, the car was modified by the show to make this happen [4].

A 1997 report alleging US Customs Service collusion with Mexican cartels importing drugs at San Diego was based on - ta da! - a faked memo ostensibly from local Customs honcho Rudy Camacho but in fact cooked up by one Michael Horner, a supposed whistleblower [5].

(There will undoubtedly be other cases.)

The point is that the programme has a long history which is exceptionally hard to get at; the relevance of its history is enhanced by the fact that so many of its leading lights have been working on it for decades; but, in any case, past performance provides context for current controversies.

It's scarcely surprising that the show should embrace the oblivion of the memory hole with some vigour; and there's not much that the little people can do about it, except try to conserve what records there are.

(CBS do sell videos of past shows back to 1997 - at $30 per item - almost a bigger insult to the little people than not having them available at all.)

  1. A CJR piece from 1996; an NGO piece from 1999; an Alternet piece from 2000.

  2. AP report of a then upcoming apology. And extracts from a WaPo piece, apparently. The segment was taken from a documentary broadcast by the British TV company Carlton, The Connection. The company was fined £2 million by UK TV regulators.

  3. No satisfactory source for this: a couple of usenet posts the only online explanation of the complaint; the existence of an Illinois Power controversy involving 60 Minutes laconically referred to in several places online, including this CJR 25 year retrospective on the show. There is an Atlantic Monthly piece - behind the pay-wall, and a book, Punch, Counterpunch: 60 Minutes VS. Illinois Power Company.

  4. A 1989 Wall Street Journal piece; much further detail (caveat maxime lector: the guy is a Ukrainian with a huge beef about a 1994 60 Minutes item on Ukrainian anti-semitism, current and historical; this is his 60 Minutes page).

  5. The main source for this is a Newsmax piece (the Plawg lives on the edge!). This page says the story was reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune - its (pay) archives appear to confirm this.


A 1993 New Republic piece by Jeffrey Goldberg on a PBS documentary, The Liberators, on the segregated USA 761st Tank Battalion, a unit which it (apparently falsely) suggested had had a hand in liberating Dachau and Buchenwald.


I was waved off on my trip down Memory Lane by the transcript of a NewsHour discussion on Rathergate. One of the panel mentions the Food Lion case - where ABC's PrimeTime Live broadcast a report on poor conditions at a supermarket footage for which was obtained by undercover reporters. The supermarket sued - for fraud and trespass, rather than libel - but its award of substantial punitive damages was overturned on appeal.

The appeal decision (Food Lion v Capital Cities); CJR pieces here, here, here - and piece on the WCCO-TV/Northwest Airlines arbitration case; Food Lion's side of the story by Joseph Goulden [1]; a couple of post-Food Lion pieces on undercover reporting and ethics and the law (PDF); and this may have something of value.

A more general lecture, TV News Magazines and the Credibility Issue: The Scope of the Problem by Tony Silvia of URI, mentions Food Lion.

  1. Who I recall as the author of an early-ish book on the Tonkin Gulf Incidents.

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