60 Minutes, Meet the AP

Scott Pelley’s paean to Ray Kelly’s anti-terrorism juggernaut ignores the wire’s good work

On Sunday, 60 Minutes broadcast this fifteen-minute report, “Fighting terrorism in New York City,” in which CBS’s Scott Pelley delivers a glowing review of the NYPD’s counterterrorism bureau, which, we’re informed, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly built in the ten years since 9/11 at a cost of about $3 billion.

The piece sparked some buzz over Kelly’s remarks that the NYPD could bring down a plane if necessary. But that wasn’t the only extraordinary thing about the report.

Pelley gives viewers an “extraordinary look” inside the bureau and gushes about the “astounding technology” he finds there. This includes a surveillance system of 2,000 cameras—soon it will be 3,000—which makes walking a block in Lower Manhattan without being on television “nearly impossible.” The system can identify suspicious packages; last year the NYPD’s bomb squad homed in with a portable X-ray on a lunch bag dropped outside the Stock Exchange.

We also learned that the NYPD has officers all over the world, and that its patrol boats often pull over pleasure boats in the rivers and harbor when their sophisticated equipment detects radiation—emanating from people who have received medical radiation treatments. You never know.

Despite the obvious civil liberty and legal issues his report raises, Pelley never gets to them. Nor does he address the question of whether these high-tech gadgets, and the various lunch bags and pleasure-cruising cancer patients they single out, are actually worth the money. Pelley’s tone throughout the segment is unquestioning, awestruck.

Most extraordinary, though, is 60 Minutes’s failure to acknowledge the less-glowing findings reported last month by The Associated Press, after a long investigation into the NYPD’s anti-terrorism program. AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman found evidence that the “NYPD operates far outside its borders and targets ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government” through practices such as ethnic profiling and spying on Muslims through a “mosque crawler” initiative. (Pelley’s reporting on the NYPD’s cricket league—it’s what “most impresses” him about the bureau—which was initiated because cricket is the national pastime of Pakistanis, gets some context in the AP report). 60 Minutes may have chosen not to notice, but the CIA is looking into the matter.

Kudos to the AP for doing the serious reporting, and to Mother Jones for beating us to this punch.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.