This Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes was a brilliant case study in the media’s ability to manipulate the public mind. The entire hour is worth studying, if only as one of the most illuminating and sophisticated examples of media manipulation in recent memory.
Who, What, When, Where …
The most important editorial decision may not be how to cover a story, but which stories will be covered at all. But once a story is assigned, however that happens, the journalist’s responsibility is to inform readers – or the audience – of its meaning and context.
60 Minutes failed both tests.
The old journalistic maximum said a good journalist had to answer five questions in every story: Who, what, when, where, and why? Of those, “why” is the most important questions of all. Without it, stories are more likely to misinform than inform.
In this case, the misinformation seems deliberate. The intended message seems to be government can’t help us. We must militarize or cities and depend on the generosity of billionaires, or we don’t stand a chance.
… and Why
Three stories were aired Sunday night: Counterinsurgency Cops, Robin Hood, and Invisible Wounds. The first two pieces advanced the anti-government billionaires’ agenda with almost Orwellian efficiency. The third was less driven by that agenda, although it also reflected the biases which big-money interests have built into the institutions of journalism and politics.
Counterinsurgency Cops covered, as the name suggests, the adoption of military counterinsurgency techniques by urban police forces. It’s a controversial topic: Do we really want our cities subjected to the same occupation-style military tactics as neighborhoods in Kandahar and Mazal-i-Sharif? One might expect both sides of the argument to be covered in a story like this.
One would be wrong.
The War Comes Home
The Cops episode featured footage of urban police in full military gear, carrying rifles with night scopes and kicking down the door of an American home. Those scenes might have disturbed Americans across the political spectrum, from anti-government right-wingers to civil-liberties-loving liberals, except for the fact thag the footage appeared late in the story.
By then Lesley Stahl had led the audience through a manipulative exercise which began with her telling the audience that foreign counterinsurgency casts soldiers as “warriors and community builders, going village to village driving out insurgents while winning the hearts and minds of the population” with ‘mixed results at best.” But, Stahl continues, “we met a Green Beret who is finding out — in his job as a police officer — that the strategy might actually have a better chance of working, right here at home, in the USA.”
The next paragraph in the official CBS script reads as follows:
“Call him and his fellow officers counterinsurgency cops! They’re not fighting al Qaeda or the Taliban, but street gangs and drug dealers in one of the most crime ridden cities in New England.”
The chirpy exclamation point is CBS’s, not ours. And as much as intuition might tell you otherwise, CBS finds nothing controversial about fighting suspected gang members or drug dealers (legally they’re only suspects, although the word is never used by Stahl) with the same techniques used to fight those who are presumably enemy combatants in a foreign field of battle.
The Green Beret in question – actually he’s a former Green Beret, although this goes curiously unsaid – is a charming and affable state trooper named Mike Cutone. We’re told that, in Stahl’s words,
“… after returning from Iraq (Cutone) had an “aha moment” when he was talking to a gas station manager in Springfield … The similarities to the Iraqi town he had lived in and defended were so striking, that he sat down and wrote out an action plan for Springfield … He proposed his plan, a counterinsurgency program, to Springfield’s deputy police chief, John Barbieri.”
After being reassured that the plan wouldn’t involve “helicopters” and “checkpoints,” we’re told that Barbieri gave the young former Green Beret the green light to proceed with his ‘counterinsurgency” program. Except that Mike Cutone didn’t think of it all by himself. The American Civil Liberties Union has been studying the militarization of American police forces for years. So has author Radley Balko, whose book Rise of the Warrior Cop tracks this militarization process from Reagan’s war on drugs, through Clinton’s COPS programs, and into the present. Among other things, this process has given defense contractors billions in domestic sales they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
To hear 60 Minutes tell the story, the use of countinsurgency tactics by US police forces began with an “aha moment” in Cutone’s head. His program was initiated in 2009. But military scholars were writing about the topic as far back as January 2007, in papers with titles like “Using Counter Insurgency Tactics, Techniques and Procedures to Defeat Gangs in U.S. Cities,” when Cutone appears to still have been overseas. And the flow hasn’t just gone one way; the military’s been studying police anti-gang techniques, too.
60 Minutes viewers heard nothing about that. Nor did they learn that the seemingly self-effacing Cutone has a second career as a religiously-based motivational speaker (video here) who has authored a book called The Leadership of Jesus: Ten Fundamentals of Leadership. He describes his program as “spiritual ammunition.”
That doesn’t necessarily invalidate his counterinsurgency work, but it provides some context for what may well be self-promotion on Cutone’s part. It’s also an insight into Cutone’s personality that the audience deserved to know so that it could form its own judgments.
The Untold Story
Here’s a critical exchange between Stahl and her subject, from the CBS transcript. It takes place after Cutone appears to be helping neighborhood kids find jobs:
Lesley Stahl: But let me ask you something. Those functions that you are performing, that sounds to me like a social service job instead of a police job.
Mike Cutone: If the government is not going to do it, or individuals aren’t going to do it, why can’t the police provide leadership or partner up with the community and say, “Hey, here’s a plan. This is what we want to do to help.” Because the status quo of traditional policing, it ain’t just gonna work. It’s not gonna work.
The “why” in this part of the story is, “Why isn’t the government going to do it?” One reason is because it’s not collecting enough in tax revenue to create those jobs. Another reason is that billions of dollars have been spent convincing the media that our most urgent need is to cut government spending, rather than use it to create those much-needed jobs.
Behind the Curtain
One organization has outspent all others in an attempt to lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations, while also pushing an anti-government agenda that emphasizes cuts to Medicare and Social Security along with downsizing of most other government functions. That organization is the Peterson Foundation, which has funded some worthy ventures but spent a half-billion dollars in one five-year period alone on this government-cutting agenda.
The Foundation is financed by conservative anti-government billionaire Pete Peterson, whose views dominate the Republican Party and are the primary influence for the Democrats’ Clinton/Obama wing. Peterson has financed a number of such ventures, and is deeply involved with Fix the Debt. That’s an organization of corporate CEOs which is heavily dominated by the defense industry … the same industry that is benefiting so richly by the militarization of US police forces.
Remember, Counterinsurgency Cops argues that these tactics – tactics which are so beneficial to the CEOs of Fix the Debt – are useful in part because “government is not going to do it.”
And who is a Board member of the Peterson Foundation, a relationship which was not disclosed during the broadcast of Counterinsurgency Cops (or on any other 60 Minutes broadcast)?
None other than Lesley Stahl.
In Part Two we address the remaining stories: “Robin Hood” and “Invisible Wounds.”