Gotcha journalism

The first big story I noticed when I was out of town last week was the death of CBS News’ 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace at the age of 93. He was one of those old-fashioned hard-nosed reporters who irked politicians, the powerful, and occasionally his own network with his investigative television journalism from the show’s debut in 1968 until his retirement in 2006, and even to his 2008 piece on Roger Clemens. Here is the New York Times obit, and his story in The National Memo. His interviews with the Ayatollah Khomeni, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and cigarette company insider Jeffrey Wigand, among many others, were legendary.

One of the trademarks in 60 Minutes reporting, used by him, but not exclusively, was the use of the hidden camera to ambush some person changing the odometer on an automobile or making some unsubstantiated medical claim. One of my favorites, and I don’t recall the reporter, involved a black couple in Illinois going to see if a property was available for purchase, and told it was not. Then, a shot to,me later, a white couple would show up, and the property would sudden;y be available again. Next the reporter would come in and expose the duplicity. While effective, CBS tended to shy away from the technique, dubbed as “gotcha journalism.” It was my contention that the hidden camera reporting should only be used when no other way would expose the fraud.

What occurred to me is that the notion of “gotcha journalism” has been turned on its head. When Sarah Palin complained that the “lamestream media” was using “gotcha” questions, it wasn’t a hidden camera trying to entrap her over some wrongdoing. It was an open and aboveboard question over what newspapers she read or why she would be competent to be President, if John McCain had been elected, and then later was incapacitated.
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The next story I read about was the Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillien getting in trouble for something he said; not that unusual. But I didn’t really catch what the content was until he apologized for saying it and was suspended five games. What the heck did he remark? The Venezuelan told Time magazine he loves former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and respects the retired Cuban leader for staying in power so long. But he claims his intent was lost in translation: “I was saying I cannot believe somebody who hurt so many people over the years is still alive,” Guillen told folks at the follow-up news conference. My inclination is to believe him, and the calls in the Little Havana community to fire him I find a bit troubling. This may be more of a public relations problem than a substantive issue.

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7 thoughts on “Gotcha journalism

  1. I have a troubled reaction to Mike Wallace, which is the main reason I haven’t blogged about his death. On the one had, I did enjoy many of his interviews, and I grew up with his version of Biography. However, he also did CBS Reports: The Homosexuals for which I have a really tough time forgiving him. Noted activist Wayne Besen called that broadcast “the single most destructive hour of antigay propaganda in our nation’s history.” And it was.

    In his later years, Wallace himself apparently came to realise how indefensible that programme was. But at the time, he had many gay friends whose lives were nothing like those depicted on that propaganda piece: He should have known better, he should have done better.

    So, even though there was a lot of his work that I liked or even admired, all of it will be forever tainted by what I consider the single biggest mistake of his career.

  2. Omigosh I’m so frustrated these techniques have ended.

    Can they be abused? Yes, definitely. Using these kinds of investigative reporting techniques on the private lives of public figures is just sneaky gossip.

    But I think the whole technique should be judged on the type and social impact of the information. For example, Peter Gleick getting raked over the coals for using slightly underhanded techniques to expose the financing of The Heartland Institute, an anti-environmental regulatory institute, is totally disgusting.

    You’re right: Palin – and other politicians – are abusing the definition. But there has a steady creep among politicians where they can say “Pbbt. I don’t like that question…” and their supporters, rather than saying “Hmmm, this guy is not above board” instead says “Oh, how DARE those nasty reporters ask that! Why can’t they go back to what they’re supposed to be covering, like what brand of facial creme people should use?”

    And… noticed I’m ranting. But last point: check out John Pilger. Best… Investigative Reporter… Ever!

  3. Roger, thanks for the tribute to Mike Wallace, one of the last of his kind.

    RE: Gotcha Journalism… you rightly contrast the type Wallace used with the Palin mishigoss. She often tries to use Rush-type talking points when trying to evade questions my college-age daughter could (and should) be able to answer. “What’s your favorite amendment?” Puh-lease.

    Arthur, I am a practically lifelong LGBTQ Ally and have a gender-queer daughter. I really don’t believe that anyone was talking about gay issues at ALL in the mainstream media of 1967, and of course the American Psychiatric Assoc. did eventually take “homosexuality” off the list of mental disorders. I still respect Wallace for taking on the subject AT ALL, and my mother, another ally, encouraged all her daughters to watch and learn. She disagreed with a lot of it but said, “At least somebody is talking about my friends on national TV. I think that took guts on Mike’s part.” Hindsight is 20/20 and I hope you will reconsider this… I was mad at Nixon for years but did advocate for his becoming the commissioner of baseball years back, because he loved the game and I thought he could handle THAT job well…

    Amy http://sharplittlepencil.com/2012/04/18/bud-is-bummin/

  4. Journalism used to be for the most part like the fourth part of government keeping the powers that be in check. Somewhere along the line it’s been highjacked by large corporations. Their style may have faded with age but the guys at 60 minutes still have a function. Whether or not they can continue in the same or similar vane is debatable but I hope the concept isn’t lost.

    In asking Palin what newspapers she reads (she was a journalism major in college or so it’s reported) I can’t think of a more softball question. But her total lack of knowledge of foreign policy spoke reams about her qualifications. She reminds me of Russell Brand wanting to be a somebody but not having the talent.

    But should we be surprised at the responses from the right? It is after all right out of the Rove playbook. Only that book is getting quite stale.

    Final point then I’ll shut up. Had it not been for much of their gotcha journalism about environmental issues companies would continue to pollute with dire consequences for communities. It was their reporting on the Love Canal that helped start the EPA and advanced environmental laws.

  5. @ Demeur:

    Yes, the “fourth estate.” My grandfather read six newspapers every single day. When I asked him why, he said “‘Cause they all lie.”

    I think that’s why I’m particularly horrified by the conglomerate media. The purpose of reading six newspapers is to get diverse lies from all sorts of different liars (or, more politely, all writing is subject, not objective, and a diversity of viewpoints helps in the development of an accurate, nuanced view.)

    But if they’re all owned by five major corporations, then you can buy six newspapers that appear to be independent – written by differ liars – but are actually all written by the same “liar” or group of “liars.”

    The Love Canal incident is a good example of publicity about an issue. But there’s other “in plain sight” environmental problems that are desperately serious and not being covered.

    For example, did you know that many forest preserves are actually dump sites for military waste? No kidding; I can give you some cites from the EPA if you’re interested.

    But “everybody knows” who is “in the know,” and the general populace remains uniformed because the fourth estate – and publishers in general – are not diverse enough where diverse issues are covered in depth.

  6. Connecting the dots: Why doesn’t the public trust the press anymore? http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/170769/connecting-the-dots-why-doesnt-the-public-trust-the-press/

    Having the data isn’t the same as having the answer.

    We know the public’s level of trust in the press has been falling for decades. We know it thanks to data from the Pew Research Center and Gallup polls, among other sources. The data are not in dispute.

    What is up for debate, however, is why this happened. How did we get here?

  7. It’s funny how daily experience can be educational.

    At first when I saw that article you cite I thought “Just what I was saying: the media wasn’t self-critical at all!”

    However, today we had seminar in our department. Everyone insisted more veggies should be served at the pre-seminar snack. Yet, after seminar, all the cookies were gone, but the carrots, broccoli, etc. were still there.

    Maybe it’s something like that in the media as well. People say they want high quality media, but when that’s offered they don’t want it.

    I’ll also note that the author cites numbers for various institutions, but not the police or military. By the numbers he provides, people are very trusting of the police and extremely trusting of the military and that trust seems to have gone up.

    Maybe the news constantly screaming about lascivious crime and dangerous terrorist nations has lead people to believe that only the police and military can be trusted.

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