On "60 Minutes Looks at 60 Minutes" last night on CBS, a newspaper editor said of a previous "60 Minutes" report, "It's a good story, it's great television, it's terrible journalism." Perhaps the same could be said for "60 Minutes Looks at 60 Minutes," except it wasn't as great television as "60 Minutes Looks at Everybody Else" usually is.
Still, self-flagellation on this level can be as fascinating as a Nixon soliloquy, and this little clambake -- actually titled "Looking at 60 Minutes" and produced by Marion Goldin -- featured the program's executive producer, fearless Don Hewitt, and agent 007, Mike Wallace, along with invited guests like columnist Ellen Goodman and Mobil Oil's slick superflack Herb Schmertz, who made most of the program's Really Dumb remarks.
By the end of the hour, during which several "60 Minutes" stories and techniques were raked over the hibachi, the program had courageously exonerated itself, merely by looking terribly fair and studiously self-analytical. Even Schmertz was schmitten. "To my mind, this is a landmark show," he declared.
By this time, the panelists' objections to some standard "60 Minutes" gambits -- ambush interviews, impersonation, miscellaneous subterfuge -- seemed far less annoying than the panelists themselves with their "this-troubles-me" brow-furrowing. The impression was given that you really have to be a crank to object to "60 Minutes," this boon to all humanity.
It must be autumn because Jeff Greenfield has filled his cheeks with nuts for the winter. Greenfield, who sometimes is a "media critic" for CBS and sometimes is sort of a reporter for CBS, was brought in to moderate the discussion, which he did as only a human piety could.
But he did bring off the hour's best moment when he got Hewitt all squirmy over a question. Had there been one "60 Minutes" story in 13 years in which the investigated culprit was vindicated, rather than convicted, on the air? Hewitt looked flustered."You have me at a disadvantage," he stammered, "because I -- I can't bring to mind immediately . . . but I am sure . . ."
It was a little like seeing Allen Funt humiliated by his own candid camera.
Some good points were made, though it is debatable whether most American TV viewers would care about them; such journalistic soul barings are probably best kept internal affairs. Hewitt seemed to pledge that there will be no more ambush interviews in pursuit of The Truth; it would be more civilized to promise that Mike Wallace won't beat up on receptionists and secretaries anymore just because the boss is behind a locked door when Mike comes to call.
Since "60 Minutes" really is an entertainment program, it might as well have been analyzed by a quintet of drama critics as a pack of journalistic deep thinkers. Ziegfeld would probably look on "60 Minutes" more approvingly than Liebling.
For "60 Minutes" success in television has meant a kind of license to kill. So what if "60 Minutes" is occasionally mean or unfair? Nobody does it better. As for those celebrated scams set up by the staff, perhaps we are just beginning to learn the full extent of them. Some of us have long suspected that the Carter presidency was a "60 Minutes" setup designed to test the tolerance, or at least the sense of humor, of the American people.
Much of the new fall TV season looks as if it were contrived by someone who will later tell us it was all a joke. Obviously, ABC's "20/20" is a phony baloney cleverly rigged by the "60 Minutes" staff to see if TV viewers would fall for a really tacky imitation of "60 Minutes." Oh Mike, oh Morley, oh Dan and oh Harry -- you're clever rascals, you are.