Sunday, December 09, 2007

TV: 60 Wasted Minutes

Tick-tick-tick . . . "I'm Steve Kroft. I'm Scott Pelley. I'm Lesley Stahl. I'm Andy Rooney." And we're confused as hell. We thought we were watching a news program on CBS last Sunday, one entitled 60 Minutes, but instead found something so awful, we got on the phone to a friend who was with Dateline until the most recent great purge.

Tiffany schmiffany, he insisted, with the oh-so-loving close-ups of Anderson Cooper, that show's far from its roots and as bad as every other news magazine on network TV. Though we'd missed the Baby Cries A Lot of network and cable fame (Coops wasn't on), we had to agree we'd seen something other than news.

In terms of visually, we were still recoiling from the site of 62-year-old Steve Kroft 'rolling' down the streets of Philly with Will Smith's posse and consider it to be one of the most jarring moments of broadcast TV all year as well as a 'profile' that made Matt Lauer's glossy and gauzy interview Jennifer Lopez years ago seem far less appalling in retrospect. For all the fluff Lauer offered at the height of Bennifer, he didn't confuse popularity with art and, after we got over the visuals, the fact that Kroft did may have been the most shocking detail of all.

Kroft was pimping hard and it didn't help that Smith was off -- blowing his well rehearsed ahead of time joke about his 'work ethic' in which he was supposed to pause, look off and then make the comments about sex. He rushed it, despite the practice ahead of time, and it wasn't funny (debatable whether it would have been funny regardless) and it was about as real as seeing Tom Cruise attempting to play 'natural.' No one forced 60 Minutes to open their segment with a joke (bungled or not) and no one forced 60 Minutes to rewrite history. But there was Kroft praising the bravery and ambition of a young Will Smith in taking on the role of a gay hustler in the movie adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation. Bravery? Apparently we're supposed to forget that it was a follow up for a bad TV actor who'd had bit parts in two bad films previously as well as never mention the very real lack of bravery and homophobia tied to that film?

For those who forgot or never knew, Smith's role required a same-sex kiss and had included it in the play. It was supposed to be in the film as well. Smith refused it. Smith refused it and, at times, tried to hide behind another actor stating he'd explained how wrong it was to Smith. The excuse and the excuse on top of the excuse reeked of homophobia and, if a news program had any reason at all to mention that film, it shouldn't side-step the repeatedly aired homophobia in interviews from that time and immediately after. That may seem years ago, despite Ian McKellen raising the issue in 2004, but it's not as though many of Smith's films haven't trafficked in homophobia (see especially Hitch and Bad Boys II). We doubt even Barbara Walters would have shied from the topic of 'Big Willie Style' so it was a bit distressing to see 60 Minutes do so but it was distressing to see their "Nothing's Gonna Stop Will Now" portrait to begin with. For the record, someone whose biggest box office was in 1996 (second biggest in 1997) isn't really 'on the rise,' he's peaked a decade ago. Maybe they felt the Brans and Depends set that tunes into CBS wouldn't notice?

Another big story was Lesley Stahl's 'update' to an earlier story. We caught the original story when it first aired as well as last week which was the same broadcast story with Stahl standing in front of the cameras providing a few sentences of an 'update' from the CBS studios. The 'update' mainly existed as a commercial: Those wishing to take part in a charity (which CBS couldn't really tell you whether it was under fire from big business or not), have until the end of the year when the offer ends.

Is 60 Minutes unaware that a writers' strike is effecting scripted television? (Or that one may soon lead to CBS journalists joining the strike?) We're aware of the strike but we're also aware that past strikes were ratings bonanzas for 60 Minutes as they could promote 'all new' episodes at a time when everyone else was doling out repeats.

As irritating as the above could be (and was), it was the opening 'report,' the heavily promoted piece from Iraq, that most disappointed. On the plus, correspondent Scott Pelley did cut off professional liar Andrew White (more popularly billed as "Reverend Canon White") when he was about to launch into another of his praise-the-war speeches. Whether Pelley knew that was coming (and grasped how ridiculous it would sound when White had just admitted things were beyond worse for Iraqi Christians today and, yes, much better under the rule of Saddam Hussein) or he just grew of tired of White, who knows? But it was needed and something other interviewers should consider doing if they're unable to say, "Hey, Crazy, you've just talked about the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Christians since the start of the illegal war. Where do you get off preaching that this war is a 'good' one?"

Pelley really doesn't have the 'seasoning' or experience for the role he currently holds which is why his reports are hit or miss. That lack of 'seasoning' and experience is rather sad when the 'youngster' we're discussing is fifty-years-old. Only on 60 Minutes could Pelley be the 'new boy.'

The 'new boy' was smart or lucky enough to interrupt White but it bears noting that the slaughter of Iraqi Christians didn't begin in the last few months. In fact, due to the slaughter and the large exodus out of Iraq, there may actually be less Christians dying today because there are so few left in Iraq. But, for those who missed it, White was selling the war on American television back in May declaring, "If American troops were to leave now, sadly we would see an escalation of violence. We have got to see that we were part of its instigation and by overcoming the evil regime of Saddam Hussein. So we've got to be patient." And, as we noted then, he's been selling it all along, including April 2005 when he put forward the laughable claim that "the most dangerous parish in the world" wasn't in Baghdad, it was "somewhere in British suburbia." Who knew hundreds of thousands of Christians were being slaughtered in England?

White's a liar so any fact or figure he gives is questionable. CBS edited well and the statements of White that they did air could largely be backed up. But that required a lot of work because it's not just the war Liar White lies about, he lies about everything. In July he was giving testimony (which he didn't realize would be made public) to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that all the Jews in Baghdad had left. That was a lie. That was testimony to an organization whose chief concern is the abuses and persecutions targeted at religious people.

"I know every single one of the Jews left" is the lie he offered. The 19 previously remaining Jews had gone down to eight as would be revealed in August and, at that time, White would avoid press questions about why he had claimed they had all left while also asserting that he gives the Jewish residents money regularly. Uh, Fibber McGee, did you miss doling out the charity in July? Since the point of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was to identify targeted communities who needed support, White's testified lie was especially appalling. Again, he had no idea his testimony would be made public which provided you with rare insight to the disgusting liar.

CBS didn't lie about White but they did leave viewers with an impression that was false. As White went on and on about his goodness (when you have to brag that much, you're probably not all that goodly), viewers were apt to think, "That wonderful man, spending all his time in Baghdad." No mention was made that White flies in and out of the Green Zone. (In fact, viewers may not have been clear that they were watching footage filmed in the Green Zone when White was present.) White's not only leaving to visit his family, he's leaving to hawk his books. That's why he was on US television in May, he was on a book tour.

White made the claim that the reason women and children were so present in the service that CBS filmed was because many of the adult males had been killed. That may be true. It certainly is true of other segments of the Iraqi population; however, as two who've seen White lie on television and in person, we feel required to note that he did the shifty-eye move he's prone to when attempting to peal off a whopper. Something about those remarks was untrue. It may have been about those assembled and how they were assembled or the way they were dressed or the fact that all were not only well dressed but also freshly washed. This was in the Green Zone, true, but the visual footage indicated that the church only 'assisted' the well scrubbed -- in the midst of an illegal war. (As two who have been in missions in Latin America, we're quite aware that conflict is messy and dirty and that's what we're getting at for anyone wrongly thinking we're implying that Iraqis can't be 'clean.' That's not the issue. The issue is the most effected, the neediest, don't usually clean up so well due to the circumstances they live under, even when TV crews are present.)

Why White was utilized, we have no idea. He's far from the only Christian leader in Baghdad if CBS was only interested in Christians. As CNN noted Saturday:

Meanwhile, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church, on Saturday celebrated his first Mass in Baghdad since Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to cardinal in November, The Associated Press reported.
"We pray to our Lord that this occasion will be a beginning for a new era of peace and prosperity for our beloved country," said Bishop Shlemon Wardono, according to AP.

Pelley demonstrated how far 60 Minutes was from news shortly after the service and the shots of the soup kitchen. (Pelley failed to ask White if the sudden 'upping' of meals served by the church on Sundays had anything to do with the fact that a TV crew was present.) Pelley was out on the street, in the open (which should have clued viewers into the fact that for all the talk of 'hidden' church, they were in the Green Zone), speaking with various church goers who not only did not appear nervous but also were not desperate to cover themselves in what would be considered more 'traditional garb' (a concern if you were truly in the open in Iraq). A couple spoke with him and handed him photographs. The photographs were of their slaughtered children.

Remember 60 Minutes airs on television, not radio. So, since this is billed as a news program and has a lengthy legacy of hard hitting broadcasts, you naturally expect the photos to be shown. Taking a page from Katrina vanden Heuvel's book, Pelley goes the non-journalistic route and instead of holding the photos up to the camera, decides to 'explain' what they show. He declared they were too graphic for television.

The parents didn't think so. The parents readily offered the photos which they either always carried with them or carried with them to that Sunday service because they knew a TV crew would be present. The parents wanted to get the story out and a real reporter would have assisted them.

Watching Pelley grimace as he looked at the photos and then 'explain' them by merely noting the children had been shot and the photos were too graphic ("They're just too much"), we wondered if maybe Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, reporting on East Timor today, would have to, in order to attract network attention to the massacre, say, "Well there was a lot of blood but we can't go into it because it was really, really graphic."?

While Pelley censored reality from news viewers, he also censored reality regarding the persecuted unless he just assumed that all viewers would know that Iraq's persecuted religious community includes far more than Christians.

Also surprising was that the occupation of a Catholic Church by the US military was not an issue to be explored. Abandoned or not, we found the occupation offensive and it's not as if churches are the only abandoned buildings in Baghdad (we were still in Baghdad, though Pelley may have confused viewers by referring to it as Dora, a neighborhood, not a city). For a better report on the same story, refer to Jaime Tarabay's audio broadcast (NPR's All Things Considered). And, it should be noted, Tarabay provided a better report on radio -- with no visuals -- and in under four minutes. That goes a long way towards explaining why 60 Minutes left us confused as to what exactly we were wasting an hour on.
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