60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft got a pretty amazing exclusive on the January 27 broadcast of the show: A sit-down interview with President Barack Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the top of the segment, Kroft declares:
The White House offered us 30 minutes, barely enough time to scratch the surface of their complicated personal and professional relationship, let alone discuss their policies on Iran and Israel, Russia and China, Egypt and Libya.
Apparently what that meant was, "So I didn't bother to ask them questions about any of that policy stuff." Instead, Kroft asked–at least according to the version of the interview that CBS aired–things like this:
- This is not an interview I ever expected to be doing. But I understand, Mister President, this was your idea. Why did you want to do this together, a joint interview?
- There's no political tea leaves to be read here?
- What did he promise you? And has he kept the promises?
- Has she had much influence in this administration?
- How would you characterize your relationship right now?
- You said the staff took a little longer to forget the campaign stuff. What about the spouses?
When the discussion got near actual policy, the questions Kroft asked were crafted this way:
This administration, I mean, you've generally gotten high marks, particularly from the voters for your handling of foreign policy. But there's no big, singular achievement in the first four years that you can put your names on. What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?
Kroft did eventually ask about one subject– the Benghazi attacks. Here's how that went:
KROFT: I want to talk about the hearings this week.
KROFT: You had a very long day. Also, how is your health?
Kroft also asked a question based on another critique of Obama from the right:
The biggest criticism of this team in the U.S. foreign policy, from your political opposition, has been what they say an abdication of the United States on the world stage, sort of reluctance to become involved in another entanglement, an unwillingness or what seems, appears to be, an unwillingness to gauge big issues. Syria, for example.
The interview led Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic to write (1/29/13) that Kroft's interview was "a performance that ought to earn him a rebuke from his peers in the news business, but almost certainly won't." He's certainly correct. And he noted that faux journalist Jon Stewart, in a much shorter interview, asked tougher questions of Obama.
Friedersdorf also wondered about how this piece might support the conservative critique of the supposedly liberal media. He found a 60 Minutes interview with George W. Bush in 2007 as a useful comparison. It wasn't conducted by Kroft, and it did spend substantial time talking about actual policy decisions the White House was making. Friedersdorf concluded that "there is a glaring double standard in the coverage that 60 Minutes has afforded the two presidents"–though he stressed that "the tough coverage of President Bush was entirely appropriate."
Indeed. But let's not get carried away. An important part of this record was what 60 Minutes didn't report about Bush. As a FAIR Action Alert noted (9/28/04):
In an outrageous politicization of journalism, CBS announced it would not air a report on forged documents that the Bush administration used to sell the Iraq war until after the November 2 election (New York Times, 9/25/04). A network spokesperson issued a statement declaring, "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election."
Holding a critical story about a president right before an election is a remarkable journalistic decision–arguably more more problematic than a softball interview after an election has passed. The point is that 60 Minutes, supposedly the gold standard when it comes to broadcast journalism, shouldn't be doing either.