IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT. There on television was pure evil, a man who took money from the gullible and made only a pass at fulfilling his promises -- there he sat, taking it on the chin from the forces of good. There was just one moment when it all seemed to hang in the balance (not that it ever did) but then the bad man stopped smiling and the good man started to smile and it ended as it always ends. The evil man confessed. "Sixty Minutes" had won again.
This is the sort of confrontation you don't find anywhere on television anymore, not to mention news shows. In the real world, there is no such thing as evil men -- just circumstances. The shah was bad until you saw his opposition and China was bad until it suddenly became good and heroes, of course, are passe. Even on television there are few heroes. Twenty years ago, for instance, eight of the 10 top television shows were westerns, while today eight of the 10 are situation comedies. Of the other two, one is a drama series and one, of course, is "60 Minutes." It calls itself a news show but it's really a western.
Now the thing about "60 Minutes" is that it has long been considered an anomaly, a freak, a break in the unwritten law that says that no news show shall enjoy high ratings. It's a television version of the old line, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" only with "60 Minutes" it's what's a news show like that doing in the top 10? In other words, if it's so good, how come it's so popular -- more popular by far than the next highest ranked news show, NBC's "Weekend." It's 77th.
The answer is complex. Part of the reason is that the show boasts the best lineup since the 1927 Yankees -- Dan Rather, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace and, more recently, Harry Reasoner. Another reason is that from time to time it does some really good journalism, some first-class stuff that any journalist would recognize as superior. But more and more the reason for the show's success is that it has become something of a morality play, about the only place leftin television where good can confront evil and consistently win. It is a show where things happen, where there is a beginning and an end and the end always comes with a mano-a-mano right out of Hemingway. When Wallace gets that look on his face, when his dimples dimp, you know that the bad guy is about to get zapped. There is no warmer moment in all televisionland.
The other night the show had three segments -- one for each of the regular stars. The Rather segment, the middle one, was a rather straightforward account of a new federal law designed to get handicapped pupils into the mainstream of education. Wallace and Safer did variations on the same theme. Wallace reported on a Nashville hustler who, for a buck, would record you and then promise to promote the record, while Safer reported on publishers who, for a buck, would print your book and promise to promote it. Just who is left to sell the Brooklyn Bridge was not explained.
Wallace's segment opened with a 40-year-old Philadelphia-area construction worker who thought that just because he had sideburns and vocal cords, he was the next Elvis Presley. What he was, was nothing but a budding 40-year-old construction worker who can't sing, but a record producer told him different. The segment went from him to a young Missouri man who also paid money to cut a record but who could sing.
In each case, we saw a confrontation with two record producers, or whatever they're called. The first was pathetic since it concerned the Philadelphian with no known voice. What saved it from being tragic, though, was the fact that CBS, not the construction worker, had paid the required $2,800, a fact you were likely to forget. Wallace sure acted as if he had forgotten because all the time he acted as if the construction worker had been fleeced when it was CBS that was fleeced. For all we know, it can't sing either. Anyway, there was a wonderful confrontation with the producer who told the guy from Philadelphia that he had not given the recording session all he had. He had not, as they say, come to sing.
No matter. The important thing is the confrontation, and in the case of the younger would-be singer, a young man from Missouri, we got a doozy. Wallace this time went up against a producer who knew how to dress the part -- long, white hair, polyester turtleneck, the honest face of a failed bible salesman. A lawyer had earlier told Wallace that she had won money settlements from this fellow, but he denies it to Wallace. Wallace and he argue and then the producer calls the lawyer and they fight on the phone. All this is wonderful. Then the lawyer, all huffy and reeking authenticity, comes down to confront the producer. It is then, more or less, that he confesses.
Now this is wonderful television, but in real life 60-year-old reporters know that the proof of the money damages are in the courthouse. Wallace knew that. There was no need to argue with the producer. He could have gone to the courthouse and proved it for himself. This is what you do in journalism and this is why most news programs have to fight it out with sermonettes for low ratings.
But on "60 Minutes," it's not the reporting that counts -- not the information -- but the confrontation instead. It's dependable, like the wind-up on Perry Mason, and it would not be worth mentioning at all if CBS were not the network of Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly and Eric Severeid and Walter Cronkite and if it did not once set the standards for broadcast journalism. Now, as long as the ratings remain high, no one even questions the success of "60 Minutes" and it can end, as it did the other night, with Safer driving a woman into a corner until she threw her hands over her face and said, "Cut, cut."
On that the network had said the same.