Why 60 Minutes Tanked the NSA Story: The Producers Theory

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 16 2013 5:23 PM

Why 60 Minutes Tanked the NSA Story: The Producers Theory

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander won the fight, but it might have been rigged.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

It'll be a good 30 years until I can start collecting Social Security checks, and I can't say where I was when JFK was shot, so I'm not really in 60 Minutes' target audience.* Other reporters, who have closely covered the NSA story, were quick to point out just how bad the show's report on the agency was—a fluff piece, the sort of feature you'd do on Lady Gaga, under the same PR conditions. FAIR points out that "a team of minders followed the CBS team throughout, and that Alexander asked to take 'time outs' if he wasn't sure how to answer a given question." Those are conditions you agree to if you're not particularly interested in journalism.**

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

But even under those conditions, a reporter can frame questions in a way that elicits, you know, answers. Conor Friedersdorf has a lot of fun pointing out how gormless John Miller's questions actually were, in his History-Making Exclusive with Keith Alexander.

Miller should have said something like, "One of the Snowden leaks reported that the NSA intercepted data flowing between the foreign data centers of major Internet firms. Is that right?" The truthful answer would be, "Yes, that's right."
Instead, Miller said, "One of the Snowden leaks involved the concept that NSA had tunneled into the foreign data centers of major U.S. Internet providers. Did the leak describe it the right way?" That's a terrible way to phrase the question if you're dealing with an NSA employee intent on exploiting any loophole.
And Alexander's answer still wasn't totally responsive. 
"No, that's not correct," he began. What's not correct? The NSA documents that Snowden leaked? The Washington Post story? Miller's summary of it? It's left unclear.

But is that just a case of bad question composition? When you watch the whole interview, you notice that Miller tends to ask about the NSA's practices in the most scared-layman way. He frames the question the way some scared American who merely scanned the headlines on AOL might frame them. It's easy for Alexander to knock these questions over the net, because they're stupid. Miller was going for the dumbest question possible, just like the producers of Springtime for Hitler were trying to make the worst musical possible.

Hours after the Internet finished beating up 60 Minutes, Dylan Byers reported that Lara Logan would return to work, the shame from her botched Benghazi story washing right off after a couple weeks of leave. As bad as Logan's mistake was, falling for a story from a lying military contractor only happens because you're looking for an angle that upsets the people in power. Miller's story was just corporate portraiture. If law enforcement doesn't hire him to run PR (as has been reported since before this report aired), it's missing an easy coup.

*The Web ad before the segment we're discussing is flogging Viagra. Case rested.

**Compare that, for example, with the way John Sweeney used the access given to him by the Church of Scientology.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.