Dave Itzkoff, culture critic at The New York Times, succinctly captured the disgust and disbelief many felt last Sunday after watching a report on “60 Minutes” about the National Security Agency.
“‘NSA Doing Great Job, NSA Says’ – 60 Minutes,” he tweeted.
Itzkoff was not alone in his criticism, nor was his summary much of an exaggeration. Jeers were easy to come by during and after the two-part story, fronted by CBS reporter John Miller. Miller, who told viewers that he “once worked in the office of the Director of National Intelligence,” said that the NSA agreed to the piece in order to tell its own story. The 25-minute segment did not contain the views of any of the NSA’s numerous critics.
“We’ve heard plenty from the critics,” Miller said in an interview about the story. He also said the segment was a chance for the NSA “to make their case.”
Despite this premise, however, the “inside look” did not hold NSA officials responsible for claims that have proven false or misleading, nor did it uncover any substantial new information. In the days since the broadcast, it has been up to others to challenge the premises that Miller and “60 Minutes” seemed willing to accept unquestioned.
CBS allowed itself to be used by the intelligence community to make the case that the NSA needs all the powers that it presently has, or that it thinks it presently has, and maybe even additional powers too, in order to gather a vast quantity of information about where we go and with whom we communicate.
The intelligence community offers two justifications. First, that terrorism must be stopped, essentially at any cost, since the costs are never mentioned. This goes hand-in-hand with the claim that the collected information, which could so easily be misused for commercial or political gain, or even for blackmail, is safely protected behind legal and technological restrictions.
But, at the same time, in the same “60 Minutes” piece, the NSA said that a then-29-year-old, non-college-educated contractor (whose character CBS gleefully participated in assassinating) was able to walk away with, as one NSA spokesman put it, “the keys to the kingdom.”
If Edward Snowden could get his hands on that information, how are we supposed to believe that no one else can? This question overwhelms the “60 Minutes” segment, and it is the question that “60 Minutes” did not bother to ask, presumably in order to make time to show an NSA employee solving a Rubik’s Cube in 90 seconds.
CBS found itself in an even worse position when, less than 24 hours after the program aired, a federal district judge ruled that the NSA’s program to gather and retain records of Americans’ phone calls most likely violates the Constitution.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary’ invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” Judge Richard Leon wrote in his ruling.
More legal challenges to the NSA’s program are pending. The intelligence community is going to have to answer a lot of questions that are long overdue. CBS had a chance to ask some of those questions; instead, it chose to give the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, and other employees a platform from which they could continue to assure us that we have no reason to worry, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise.
It’s not necessarily accurate to call the “60 Minutes” segment bad journalism, because it is not clear how it qualifies as journalism at all. It provided no news and it essentially told no story other than one that the NSA could just as easily have put in a press release.
If networks wonder why their audience is disappearing, John Miller’s NSA fashion show ought to be exhibit A. Audiences are not watching network news because, in too many cases, there is not much worth watching.