60 Minutes’ bad run

The 'cleantech' report is the latest in a series of missteps

Another day, another 60 Minutes debacle. Last Sunday, the 46-year-old newsmagazine aired “The Cleantech Crash,” an unflattering look at the clean energy industry that argued it’s on its last legs in the United States. The segment claimed that, despite investing billions of dollars in clean technology, neither the US government nor Silicon Valley entrepreneurs had much to show for it.

Not everyone agrees with the show’s assessment. ThinkProgress denounced the segment as a “hit job,” writing that cleantech is actually booming. The 60 Minutes report revisited high-profile failures such as Solyndra (the solar energy startup backed by Department of Energy loans, which went bankrupt) and electric car manufacturer Fisker Automotive (which struggled with sales and battery supply issues), but as Silicon Beat pointed out, it barely mentions major clean-energy successes like Tesla Motors. Media Matters also complained that 60 Minutes completely ignored the Department of Energy’s Loan Program’s 97 percent success rate. And, as Recode noted, the segment made no mention of climate change, which ought to be central to any discussion of renewable energy.

But the cleantech kerfuffle is simply the latest in a series of embarrassments for 60 Minutes, alongside pieces on the NSA and Amazon’s planned drone service, both criticized for being lightweight, and of course, the Benghazi fiasco.

The issues raised by running puff pieces are different than those related to inaccuracies making their way into a finished piece. But both point to a possible lapse in journalistic rigor. And much of that may be traceable to the show’s strong culture of reporters and producers factchecking their work themselves, as do journalists on most other similar shows.

The final script for a 60 Minutes piece is usually the result of numerous rewrites between correspondents and producers, with an associate producer factchecking the finished product. “In the process of writing and revising, and writing and rewriting, and making changes and picking new soundbites, certain details can be dropped, can get changed, can be taken out of context,” said Steven Reiner, a journalism professor at Stony Brook who spent more than a decade as a producer at 60 Minutes.

This system may have served the show well before the rise of the internet led to instantaneous factchecking and democratized access to audiences. Now, though, voices beyond the show’s storied correspondents (average age: 59), are quick to jump in and correct perceived errors or misrepresentations. And that makes a show that has long been the gold standard of TV newsmagazines seem dated.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu