In the news game they were called The Wrinklies, the old men who for years dominated TV news at 60 Minutes. Now they’re dying off. Don Hewitt, Ed Bradley, Andy Rooney — and, this past weekend, Mike Wallace. Obituaries rightly celebrate these men’s substantial accomplishments. Wallace and his colleagues adapted the news documentary formula to make it engaging for TV viewers, and kept them coming back week after week. But if newscasters want to celebrate that legacy, then they need to stop emulating the reporting style that the 60 Minutes team developed 44 years ago and find different ways to make investigative reporting relevant and sustainable.
Wallace became famous by putting bullies in the hot seat, casting himself as a crusader for common sense and fair play in a world filled with villains and victims. He did this most memorably with ambush interviews, capturing defiant subjects when they had nowhere to hide. Cameras reinforced the narrative in sit-down interviews by zooming in tight on the bad guys — so you can see every twitch, eyelid flutter, and bead of sweat — while framing reporters at a respectful distance. (Remember Saturday Night Live‘s send up of Wallace, played by Harry Shearer, interviewing tobacco lobbyist Nathan Thurm played by Martin Short?) Did stories often oversimplify issues, and prompt viewers to respond emotionally? You bet, and 60 Minutes was rightly criticized for doing so. Still, the mix of larger-than-life correspondents such as Wallace tackling subjects that clearly mattered made for great television. And with help from the NFL games that led into CBS’ Sunday prime time schedule, the newscast became the most profitable show on television.
But competition from cable and the Internet have pulled the TV news audience apart. In 1980, 60 Minutes was the No. 1 show on television with 28.2% of all households tuned in, according to Nielsen data. Now the show’s success is measured on a far more modest scale. Last season the show was No. 17, with 7.4% of all households — that comes to 8.55M, the lowest number to date. Other news magazines including 48 Hours Mystery, 20/20, Dateline Friday and Dateline Saturday have also seen their audiences decline. (60 Minutes appears to be having a resurgence this season: It has attracted an average of 13.5M viewers thus far, up from 11.7M for all of the 2010-2011 season.)
News magazine producers can’t blame the market for all their woes. They often cut corners by feeding audiences video versions of other people’s investigations, and feel-good stories that are easy to produce and have a long shelf-life. 60 Minutes has been guilty of some of the same sins. But Wallace’s generation of correspondents had the panache and gravitas to pull it off — most of today’s news personalities don’t. They also have a hard time looking like crusading heroes when they tackle serious stories. It’s hard for anyone to play that role after years of journalistic scandals and missteps. NBC didn’t help last week when it had to apologize for a producer who edited a 911 dispatcher’s conversation with George Zimmerman that made it seem as though his decision to follow and then shoot teenager Trayvon Martin was racially motivated.
Audiences also are inured to 60 Minutes-style techniques as they’ve become cliched and trivialized. NBC’s Dateline: To Catch A Predator uses them to sensationalize reports about child molesters. TMZ uses them to get celebrity gossip. And political activists such as the late Andrew Breitbart employ them to humiliate ideological opponents. The ambush interview “was so successful that it’s no longer controversial,” says Andrew Tyndall, who tracks TV news as publisher of the Tyndall Report.
Newscasters who want to galvanize people the way 60 Minutes did in its prime can begin by tackling tougher subjects — including major corporate crimes. Reports like the one the CBS news magazine produced in December asking why the feds didn’t prosecute any Wall Streeters for their role in the financial meltdown are all too rare. And you have to wonder whether the commercial networks’ reluctance to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s hacking and bribery scandals are due to their fear of ruffling execs at their parent companies. Investigative journalists also need to rethink the way they present and distribute their stories. They might learn some lessons by studying social networks and phenomena such as “Kony 2012.” The half-hour video that non-profit group Invisible Children produced about atrocities committed by Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony went viral and reportedly has been viewed more than 100M times online. It’s an imperfect model because “there’s nothing predictable about that,” says Stanford University communications Prof. Ted Glasser. “The big question down the road is, how can we sustain investigative journalism.” But the response to the Kony video indicates that even young people who don’t watch traditional TV newscasts are interested in serious subjects including ones that don’t affect them personally. That should provide some hope for journalists who recognize that the best way to pay homage to Wallace and his fellow Wrinklies is to chart a different course for investigative reporting on TV.