A puff piece on drones: 60 minutes compromises its journalistic ‘integrity’

15 May

CBS’s 60 Minutes, which the New York Times once called “one of the most esteemed newsmagazines on American television” (1/9/13) broadcast a thirteen-minute segment a few nights ago titled ‘Drones Over America’ (3/16/14) The piece itself touted to explore “the new, hardly regulated world of commercial drones” or unmanned aerial systems. Morley Safer, the correspondent for the segment, had made a piece favoring South Africa’s apartheid government (Extra!, 3/01/88) and applauded John Kerry before the 2004 election as a vet who had an “articulate call to reason rather than anarchy” (CounterPunch, 2/11/04).

The piece began with the presumption that Americans were uninformed: “it may surprise you to learn that drones are flying across America.” This view discounts the large majority who oppose drone strikes against “suspected terrorists” who are “U.S. citizens living abroad” (Gallup, 3/25/13) and the 57% of Americans who are concerned about their privacy rights being violated by NSA surveillance (Gallup, 5/12/13). Safer continued, saying that the drones he was talking about were not the “impersonal killing machines that patrol the badlands overseas.” What Safer said about drones abroad was inaccurate since a minimum of 2,715 people in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that have been killed by drone strikes (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 3/4/14), which are not ‘badlands’: they have a collective total of approximately 232 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Additionally, the segment did not mention that the first American was arrested by drone in May 2012 (US News, 8/2/12) and later sent to jail, which is seemingly a precedent for other arrests in a similar manner (Forbes, 1/27/14).

Once this limits of the debate were established, Safer continued his introduction, and said that drones were not only “revolutionizing” numerous parts of the economy but that it is “poised to become a multibillion dollar industry” even though he admitted drones were “barely regulated.” He promised a “quick” overview of the subject of drones, which he called “gizmos.”

First off was an interview of Colin Guinn, a drone entrepreneur selling drones to the consumer market and “of Quadracopter fame” (AccuWeather, 11/14/13). The camera moved to a Austin, Texas park, where Guinn was testing one of his drones which later Safer tried as well. Safer then described some of the specifics of how the drones operate, and how an operator can easily control them. In almost a universal manner, he claimed that “any idiot can fly one” since they were “young gadgets for a young crowd” used across the country, but that only skilled operators can bring ‘wonders’ like “breathtaking” pictures. As the segment continued, Safer said that drones were used for “environmental research” and “forest service battle wildfires,” were used “after the 2011 tsunami in Japan” and after the “typhoon in the Philippines,” some of which was echoed by Guinn. Still, there was no criticism.

After this, Safer interviewed Michael Toscano, who heads the trade association for drones (Aviation Pros, 3/7/14), and was presiding “over the world’s biggest trade show for drones.” Toscano boasted that drones engaged in “dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull missions,” said that calling ‘unmanned systems’ drones creates a ‘negative’ perception, and that drone manufacturing is creating a “whole new industry” which will bring on “new jobs.” Safer continued, describing the conference in terms that might be exciting to the viewer, as “part sci-fi, part video extravaganza, and part old-fashioned sales pitch” which reflected the “steady movement of the technology from military to civilian use.” He later said that “big defense contractors…gadget guys and the software developers who write the code” for the drones were present at this conference. While the camera panned showing an overview of the conference and flashed the logos of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and some other companies by the screen, the topic and location of the conference was never revealed, but it was presumably in Austin, Texas (KeyeTV, 3/16/14).

By this point, another ‘drone advocate,’ Mary (Missy) Cummings who is “a professor in charge of drone research at both MIT and Duke University” was interviewed. Cummings articulated her wild dreams about the industry, saying there would be “dramatic leaps in technology” that will be “happening in the commercial sphere.” Then, Safer touted the wonders of a pilotless Medivac chopper while Cummings boasted that the chopper would be the “future will be how first response missions are done all over the world.” Following this, Safer, held a lightweight drone used by US soldiers in Afghanistan, and touted its use as well.

Afterwards, in Safer declared that most drones have cameras, while saying that small drones have more “sophisticated” camera that are able “to track vehicles and people from great distances” and showing while showing viewers what it looked like from the perspective of a drone. About eight minutes in, he brought up his first concern so far in the segment: that with the domestic use of drones there was an “issue of privacy” because the drones were “Peeping Toms.” Cummings acknowledged that Safer was right, then absurdly claimed that one’s cell phone or even their Facebook account is the “greatest privacy invasion” and many cities have cameras everywhere. After accepting this without question or challenge, Safer summarized the views the views of Cummings and others like her, and declared that there were some who were “not sure” about drone use in the US.

60 Minutes must of known that there were a number of people who were “not sure” about using drones domestically. However no activists or advocates with this position like Jillian C. York of the EFF or Alli McCracken of CodePink were interviewed. Instead, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein who supported John Brennan for CIA chief (FAIR Blog, 3/18/13) and supported faulty intelligence on Syrian chemical weapons (FAIR Action Alert, 5/15/13) was chosen by 60 Minutes, and presented as a presumed ‘expert’ in drones and a person of authority who should be trusted. While Safer said she was a “defender of the NSA’s controversial telephone tracking” and was “troubled by the proliferation of drones over America,” he never said why NSA surveillance was “controversial” or called out her hypocrisy.

Politico, which called Feinstein a “pro-regulation voice” in the segment noted what happened next (3/16/14). They wrote that for Feinstein, the regulation of drones got “personal” after what she claimed a drone spied into the window of her house during a protest outside by CodePink against mass surveillance. The article also said that for Feinstein, “privacy concerns” involving drones were “major,” that she came up with questions relating to “complex regulation process” she’d like answered and that it is important to control drones “through government regulation.” What Politico described was mostly accurate, except it missed that Feinstein’s approach was moderate: she just called for called for “some specific regulation” involving drones and just like with CIA spying on her committee’s investigation of CIA torture, her position was deeply hypocritical.

Between the last parts of the interview with Feinstein, Safer described government use of drones, but very briefly, saying that a “recent government report” describes that the FBI has been using drones only in limited ways over the past “seven years, to track suspects and photograph crime scenes.” He continued, saying that “customs and border protection” has flown “unarmed predator drones along the border…on behalf of other law enforcement agencies hundreds of times in recent years.” While both of the things he said was correct, he failed to go into detail about the ‘recent government report’ which was specifically a report by the DOJ’s inspector general (Courthouse News, 9/26/13) and he didn’t mention that the FBI had acknowledged their use of drones back in June 2013 (NBC, 6/19/13). Additionally, he didn’t say that information regarding the use of Customs and Borders Protection drones 700 times by “local, state and federal law enforcement agencies” in the past three years was obtained by the EFF, or any of the actual specifics (1/14/14).

The interview ended on an interesting note, with Safer saying the debate will continue divided as some are “going slow on drone development” while ‘drone advocates’ are angry with the slow pace since drones are already “in the marketplace.” He then said that while drones make for “great fun on YouTube videos,” that there are “too many issues of privacy, safety, and liability to work out” but paradoxically that “time and technology wait for no one.” There seemed to be an underlying idea he was pushing: drones are coming whether you like it or not. This was also reflected by Missy Cummings and Colin Guinn. Cummings responded to Safer’s second weak criticism that it is “scary, quite honestly” that everyone would have drones, saying that she is willing to “accept the possible negative consequences of the technology” while Guinn predicted that 20% of Americans own small drones “to take aerial photos and videos.” After Safer said that “new uses tend to pop up that nobody could foresee,” he ended with a comment that seemed to be designed to appeal ‘to the heart’: that with drones, “man never needs to exercise the dog again. Just stick the drones on him.”

By the end of watching this, I didn’t even have to watch the extended comments by Feinstein (CBS, 3/16/14) to know what side 60 Minutes was on. The only person who was interviewed ‘opposing’ the use of drones domestically was Feinstein, who was an obvious hypocrite. The criticism of drones by Safer was weak and almost non-existent. There were no questions asked like: What are the consequences for drones going into already busy US airspace? How will Americans have a constitutional guarantee of privacy if 20% of America would own small drones, creating a possible ‘virtual paparazzi’? What is the possibility of drones being used to silence or monitor dissent?

This piece seems to eerily echo PBS’s Lockheed Martin-backed special on drones (FAIR Action Alert, 1/28/13). Importantly, one board member of the CBS Corporation sits on Northrop Grumman’s board, a company whose President says it is a “industry leader” in drones (8/20/13) and another sits on AECOM’s board, which is using small drones for a “variety of projects” (sUAS News, 1/8/13). Also, 60 Minutes has covered drones favorably on three previous occasions: Amazon’s claims about delivery drones (Huffington Post, 12/2/13), Predator drones right before the Iraq War (CBS, 1/03), and drone warfare in Iraq (CNET, 10/13/08).

In the end, the least you can do is provide your feedback to this puff piece by CBS’s 60 Minutes, which is on the side of the drone ‘industry.’*

Editor’s Note: I originally sent this piece to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy and Reporting) but they never got back to me. I originally wrote this back in March but it is still valid.

*Its a bit late for that, oh well. That was my original idea though.

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