‘60 Minutes’ whiffs it

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 1, 2013

In the days of the late Mike Wallace, “60 Minutes” was known for hard-hitting, aggressive journalism that asked the questions viewers wanted answered and held the powerful accountable.
The Jan. 27 program on which Steve Kroft interviewed President Obama (at his request, no less) and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fell far short of that high standard. It was the kind of softball toss you might have expected if Oprah Winfrey or Barbara Walters had conducted the interview.
The president said of Clinton, “…a lot of the successes we’ve had internationally have been because of her hard work.” Kroft should have asked if one of those successes included Russia, a nation with which Clinton promised to push the “reset button.” Yet, as the Washington Post reports, “A poisonous unraveling of U.S. relations with Russia in recent months represents more than the failure of President Obama’s first-term attempt to “reset” badly frayed bilateral relations. It threatens pillars of Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda as well.” And how about the Middle East?

Late in the interview, the president rattled off his administration’s foreign policy successes. He mentioned Egypt and said, “…had it not been for the leadership we showed, you might have seen a different outcome there.”
Kroft should have followed up with: “Different from Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president and Muslim Brotherhood proponent, who agrees with the Koran that Jews ‘…are descendants of apes and pigs’”?
Kroft brought up the 2008 presidential campaign during which Clinton had some tough things to say about Barack Obama, including that he had little or no accomplishments to speak of. That would have been a good moment to remind viewers what she said. Instead, Kroft said, “I’m going to spare you reading some of the things that you said about each other…” Why? He might have asked, “Did you mean it then, or was this a political game?”

Kroft did concede that there had been no big foreign policy achievement in Obama’s first four years in office, though the president maintained that winding down two wars, keeping pressure on terrorists and “dismantling” al-Qaida’s core leadership constituted success.
Kroft could have countered with: “Terrorism appears not to be about leaders, but followers of an ideology. Is your policy simply to keep killing terrorists? Do you think you can kill them all?”
Kroft mentioned the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya and properly called it “…the biggest diplomatic disaster of this administration,” but the question he put to Clinton was limp: “Do you blame yourself that you didn’t know or that you should have known?”
Before conducting the interview, Kroft should have read several questions tweeted by CBS News’ investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson. As published on Breitbart.com, Attkisson wanted to know, “Who is the highest-ranking official who was aware of pre-9/11 security requests from U.S. personnel in Libya?” “Who is/are the official(s) responsible for removing reference to al-Qaida from the original CIA notes?” “What is your response to the president stating that on Sept. 12, he called 9/11 a terrorist attack, in light of his CBS interview on that date in which he answered that it was too early to know whether it was a terrorist attack?”
Politicians go on shows that won’t confront them with hard questions they don’t want to answer. If those questions are asked, they’ll likely not appear on those shows again. The media need ratings and to get them they need high-profile guests. Politicians know this. That’s the unholy alliance.

Something similar occurred on Sunday’s edition of ABC’s “The Week.” Reporter Martha Raddatz interviewed Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and never asked him about reports in The Daily Caller alleging that he has frequented underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, sometimes flying there on private planes paid for by a campaign contributor. Menendez’s spokeswoman has called the report “unsubstantiated garbage.” Still, Raddatz should have asked him about it.
The primary role of journalists is to question authority. In these two instances, Kroft and Raddatz fell short.

Readers may e-mail Thomas at tmseditors@tribune.com.