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Ron Mwangaguhunga On "60 Minutes" And Sports Stories

Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week we turned to Ron Mwangaguhunga, a blogger and frequent Public Eye commenter who is the former editor-in-chief of MacDirectory. His work has appeared in Paper, New York Magazine, and the New York Press. As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, here's Ron:

"60 Minutes" went 3-0 on sports stories in the first three episodes of its 38th season. For the best investigative news show of all time, the athletic coverage oftentimes seems excessive. This season "60 Minutes" has done stories on Derek Jeter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, and tennis star James Blake. Perhaps the steady, rhythmic ticking of the signature "60 Minutes" clock ought to be replaced with a coach's piercing whistle?

Granted: Sunday is an enormous sports day. At CBS, Sunday sports starts in the afternoon, after excellent local and national political programming, and stretches into the early evening, stopping at the doorstep of "60 Minutes." Sean McManus, who heads both the Sports and News divisions, naturally wants to keep the attention of those eyeballs on CBS. However, after patiently waiting anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to be enlightened and informed about the fast-changing events in our complicated world, "60 Minutes" can come across like an extension of the previous sports programming.

How does one keep the sports demographic without compromising the organic integrity of "60 Minutes"? It would be both naïve and foolish to suggest here that CBS ought to avert its trademark "Eye" from the synergistic possibilities between the Sports and News divisions. I am not against athletes per se appearing on "60 Minutes," nor am I against the idea of promoting a strong sports story during The Game. A solid sports piece, when done right, can be entertaining as well as informative, lightening the overall mood of the program after, say, a grave segment on the global war on terror or the latest corporate corruption outrage.

The Canseco steroid story was one such solid story. The February 16, 2005 sports and steroids piece in which an unrepentant Jose Canseco admitted to Mike Wallace to being a "living steroid experiment" was a particularly effective story. The piece, entitled "Steroid User Canseco Names Names," highlighted the prevalence of drugs in America's favorite pastime. By way of contrast, the October 21 story on Bill "Romo" Romanowski covered little new ground on the athletes and steroids story. Only the playing field – this time football instead of the baseball diamond – changed. That story was not worthy of "60 Minutes."

Lesley Stahl's October 21, 2005 NASCAR story on corporate branding was excellent. Approaching the segment from a business angle made it appealing to even a Ugandan-born, non-driving New Yorker like myself. But Ed Bradley's October 23, 2005 interview with Michael Jordan on the subject of his competitiveness –- surprise: Jordan likes to win -- wasn't what anyone would call "A-game" material. Promoting "Driven From Within," a book, incidentally, festooned with photographs and sketches of his Air Jordan sneakers and brand logos, the former basketball star faced minimum scrutiny from "60 Minutes'" best reporter. This is, after all, the same Ed Bradley who investigated the deadly "November 17" Greek terrorist group. While Michael Jordan isn't a Greek terrorist, he also doesn't deserve a free commercial on the network for his lazy tome.

The ratings for the Michael Jordan interview, ironically, were impressive. Medialife reported in October, "Michael Jordan's rare interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" last night propelled the show to a 4.4 Nielsen overnight rating among viewers 18-49, its best showing of the season." Many of these viewers were probably new, drawn in from the promotions run during The Game. If that is indeed the case, then synergy between Sunday sports and news is achievable. I don't begrudge CBS going after that synergy, I only hope that it will be done with respect for "60 Minutes."

I have been a fan of "60 Minutes" for most of its 38 seasons, so this is personal. My parents turned me on to the show when I was a child. The show is – and always has been -- the paragon of what investigative journalism can do in a democracy. "60 Minutes" shines the spotlight on the criminals stealing 'neath the yonder rocks; "60 Minutes" commemorates the passing of the legends; "60 Minutes" puts microphones in front of despots and lets them incriminate themselves before the entire world. When "60 Minutes" lowers its impossibly high bar of reckoning, we all lose.