The Year in Media: Time expires on CBS’s ‘60 Minutes’; can news be saved?

TV news broadcast’s botched reports killed its credibility, but new investments in media offer hope

Lara Logan’s wildly inaccurate report on the Benghazi attacks was just the start of a string of embarrassments for “60 Minutes.”
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

If every year is a chance to reboot and get it right in the next trip around the sun, then 2014 can’t come soon enough for the U.S. media. Still, in the face of multiple flubs in 2013, there is some reason to be optimistic in the New Year. And despite the professional media’s Keystone Kops–like performance this year, crowdsourcing of news and information proved it is not ready for prime time.

The first of several low points came in the hours and days after the Boston Marathon bombings. TV news outlets did their usual premature reporting on arrests and suspects before apologizing and walking them back. But the erroneous reports reached a new level when a handful of individuals were reported as or implied to be suspects — including a missing Brown University student who was found dead less than two weeks later and a pair of marathon spectators. The two spectators filed a lawsuit in June against the New York Post, which plastered their photo on the front page with the headline “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” Users on Reddit, primarily, made the presumptions about and connections to these purported suspects, which spread quickly and prompted the site’s general manager, Erik Martin, to issue an apology for the site’s part in having “fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

It’s one thing for some presumably well-meaning but misguided Internet users to engage in wild speculation without verification. It’s another for CBS’s once venerable “60 Minutes” broadcast to do so. CBS News correspondent Lara Logan’s October report centering on statements by Dylan Davies (under the fake name Morgan Jones), a security contractor who, it was later revealed, wasn’t at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012, uncovered layers upon layers of what is wrong with the state of U.S. news. It hit a rare trifecta that included a high-profile, unverified and inaccurate interview, a reporter’s conflict of interest and the possibility that the report was an extended infomercial to sell a book published by another arm of the corporation that owns the network.

The Benghazi story was the first signal 2013 would become the year “60 Minutes” died. Once the show was done promoting its own company’s book, it turned into a marketing arm for Amazon and the NSA.

Charlie Rose’s giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store-style interview with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos launched a 24-hour buzz cycle around a conceptual drone delivery system that immediately went viral. More recently, the “60 Minutes” puff piece on the NSA was another example of the show’s new emphasis on boasting about access rather than acting in the public’s interest.

The Edward Snowden leaks will make most any year-end roundup you’ll read. But it’s important to note that while The New York Times is now collaborating with The Guardian in reporting of the material he still has and is releasing bit by bit, Snowden said he initially did not go to the Times because he worried it would cooperate with the government in quashing the information. Even after the story broke and before the Guardian partnership was announced, the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan noted the lack of urgency the paper showed in covering the story. 

Media’s new faces

Media ownership took an interesting turn in 2013 as some Internet billionaires, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network and others jumped into the game.

Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post for $250 million, in particular, set off alarm bells among purists — who apparently hadn’t noticed that rich dudes have owned U.S. newspapers for more than a century — lamenting the death of journalism.

After breaking the leaks by former NSA contractor Snowden, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald announced a new online journalism venture, backed by a reported $250 million from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Al Jazeera paid a reported $500 million to buy Current TV and secure cable and satellite distribution in about 50 million homes for a new U.S.-focused arm of its international network.

On the entertainment side, in a move that highlights the nation’s changing demographics, ABC and Univision partnered to launch Fusion, a “news, pop culture and satire” channel, according to its website, conceived, in part, to appeal to young, English-speaking Latinos. And Jeff Skoll, eBay’s first president and the founder of Participant Media, put significant cash in 2013 to launch a social-activism-meets-entertainment TV channel, Pivot TV, on Aug. 1.

The question of who owns the media is an important one, and audiences should hold outlets accountable for their content and what interests they are serving. It is too soon to know whether any, all or some of these nascent ventures will have a lasting impact on U.S. media, but given the failures of the old model, more than $1 billion in new investment and new ideas will make 2014 and beyond much more interesting to watch. 

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