Suddenly enmeshed in an ethical crisis involving Michael Jackson at a time he should be enjoying a victory lap, “60 Minutes” founder Don Hewitt confesses only to bewilderment.
“This is beyond me,” he said. “I have no idea why this (story) has legs, about absolutely nothing.”
The murky ties between Ed Bradley’s interview with Jackson, broadcast Dec. 28, and the pop star’s CBS entertainment special on Jan. 2 have led to charges that CBS essentially paid for news access.
The episode clouds a startling ratings comeback for the newsmagazine Hewitt has run since 1968.
CBS News insists it never pays for interviews, and didn’t in this case. Hewitt and Bradley say they were unaware of any financial arrangements with Jackson.
“I don’t know what they paid for the special,” Hewitt said. “All I know is a story fell in my lap with no strings attached. It happened to be about somebody who everybody is curious about. So we did it.”
Jackson’s music special had been shelved by CBS’s entertainment division in November when the molestation charges became known. The network said it would not air unless Jackson talked about the case with CBS News.
Less than 24 hours after Jackson sat down with Bradley on Christmas night, CBS’ entertainment division rescheduled the music special. Jackson wouldn’t have been paid for it if the special hadn’t aired.
Many of the details are unclear, including how much he was paid. CBS and Jackson’s financial adviser have denied a report in The New York Times that Jackson’s deal for the special was sweetened after he consented to the “60 Minutes” interview.
The story sparked a brutal round of criticism: The New York Observer ran a front-page illustration showing Bradley and CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves in bed with Jackson, above the headline, “Lost in Neverland.”
For “60 Minutes,” it’s the biggest ethical mess since the 1995 incident captured in the movie, “The Insider,” which depicted the newsmagazine caving to pressure from CBS lawyers and not airing a whistleblowing report from an ex-tobacco executive.
Nothing about the Jackson story made him uncomfortable, Hewitt said, and the interview had no ground rules.
“I understand the tobacco thing that we once went through,” he said. “That sounded like a legitimate thing for people to be concerned about. They were no more concerned than I was. I have difficulty understanding” the fuss over Jackson.
The situation illustrates the dangers involved when news organizations are owned by large corporations with multiple interests, said Jane Hall, an American University professor and panelist on “Fox News Watch.”
When Hall worked for The Los Angeles Times in 1995, she wrote about how ABC agreed to run 10 free commercials for a new Jackson album in exchange for the rights to air his videos. The ads ran the same week ABC News’ Diane Sawyer interviewed Jackson in prime time.
The “60 Minutes” episode is disheartening because the newsmagazine has always embodied strong ethical standards, and resisted blurring the line between entertainment and news, said Jane Kirtley, head of the media ethics program at the University of Minnesota.
“One of the things that ethics scandals of the past few years have taught is that it’s easy to become myopic about your own operations and not see the problems that others outside might see,” Kirtley said.
“That’s not to say that everybody outside is right and everybody inside is wrong,” she said. “But I do think it’s easy to become subject to that sense of, because in your heart you know you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t see why that appears that way to anybody else. I think that may be part of the problem here.”
The Jackson interview seemed out of place for other reasons.
While countless news outlets have sought to interview the pop star since the charges became known, it’s the kind of splashy celebrity “get” that “60 Minutes” has rarely bothered with.
The network was rewarded with the first “60 Minutes” finish atop the weekly Nielsen Media Research rankings since November 1998. Hewitt said he believes this success is partly responsible for the criticism.
Before the Jackson flap, “60 Minutes” was riding high with the year’s biggest comeback story.
No regular series has gained more viewers this season than the 35-year-old warhorse (an average of 15.8 million viewers versus 13.7 million at the same point last year). Among the younger viewers that advertisers desire, it’s an even sharper 20 percent jump.
Hewitt resists a view that “60 Minutes” is scheduling more stories to court younger viewers, particularly men who watch the football games that air before the newsmagazine in the fall.
“60 Minutes” has done colorful stories on football legend Lawrence Taylor, the flap over Abercrombie & Fitch’s hiring practices and racy catalogue, and how pornography has become big business.
“The porn story — that’s not about younger viewers,” Hewitt said. “There are more old people looking at porn than young people: 60- or 70-year-olds are just as interested in porn as 17-or 18-year-olds.”
Rather, Hewitt believes the comeback is due to a nervous country more interested in a serious, solid news broadcast.
“By doing what we’ve been doing for 35 years, we’re back in the top 10,” he said. “By doing nothing different, by adhering to the same standards.”
Hewitt, 81, steps down as executive producer at the end of this season. With the lighter workloads of correspondents Mike Wallace and Morley Safer, it augurs a changing of the guard at “60 Minutes.”
“There’s a great song by Barbara Cook — it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Hewitt said. “I think I’m finishing at a pretty good place and I’m very happy about it.”