How I Kept 60 Minutes Honest and Killed My Shot at TV Stardom

How I Kept 60 Minutes Honest and Killed My Shot at TV Stardom

It had been a rough 24-hours for Steve Kroft, the 60 Minutes correspondent. His boss had just been fired for sending an eye-popping text to a female reporter at CBS News investigating sexual harassment at the company. In the New York Times the next day, Kroft called the text “threatening and inappropriate. It’s unfortunate, and everything about this situation saddens me.”

So, the 73-year-old Kroft looked a bit shell-shocked when I ran into him at a Syracuse University alumni event soon afterwards. Kroft had come to SU’s Manhattan townhouse to accept an award at a ceremony arranged months before. In a brief speech he said that he must be careful about his remarks. With everyone connected, “one bad joke and you’re dead,” he exclaimed.

But I had another agenda for attending this $75-a-head fundraiser. I was looking for some closure.

At the cocktail reception that preceded Kroft’s remarks, I walked up to him and declared, “I’m the only one in the room you’ve interviewed for 60 Minutes, and I bet you don’t know who I am.”

I caught Kroft off guard. Though I had once sat inches from him under hot lights for 25 minutes in a leased-by-the-hour private library on Manhattan’s west side, Kroft looked at me quizzically. I could hear the tick tock of a stop watch as I paused without offering him a clue.

Finally I confessed, “I wouldn’t expect you to remember since the interview ended up on the cutting room floor. The segment aired but not with me.”

His expression remained blank.

“Also,” I said, “it was 15 years ago.” Who could blame him for not remembering? It wasn’t exactly like the time he shot hoops with Obama. Or when just before the 1992 Presidential Election he sat down with the Clintons and a stage light nearly crashed on top of them as he was doing an interview about Bill’s infidelity with Paula Jones. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” screamed Hillary.

Nothing I could have uttered to Kroft during my interview would have been as memorable.
As the technology editor of Sound & Vision, I was contacted by a 60 Minutes producer to speak to viewers because, allegedly, I was an “expert” on how pornography advances new technology. I would be asked about whether X-rated content was indeed the force that drove home electronics products to success.

In reality, my main exposure to the euphemistically-named “adult entertainment” industry was an hour I’d spent roaming the aisles at that industry’s annual trade show — conveniently situated alongside the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Prior to my sit down with Kroft, the producer sent a crew to film me promenading through the Sound & Vision office in a skyscraper north of Times Square. They needed something to show while Kroft provided voice over promoting my credentials. I got a haircut, put on a suit and cleaned off my desk, leaving on top a CBS-logo stapler I’d inherited. (The magazine group had once been owned by CBS Magazines.)

When I arrived at the studio-fitted library the next day for the interview, I looked around and realized that nothing classes up a joint better than in-wall, mahogany bookcases stuffed to the ceiling with hard covers. Before we got started, Kroft asked me if I had ever done anything like this before. “Yes,” I said. “I was interviewed by Up To The Minute about direct satellite broadcasting.” It was a middle-of-the-night news show also from CBS News with audience numbers on par with my other TV appearances on a Manhattan cable access channel.

Kroft began the interview with a question about the video cassette recorder, a category that even in 2003 was considered old tech. “Is it true that the reason the Beta format failed and the VHS format succeeded is that Beta did not offer X-rated titles and VHS did?”

The question was straightforward. He asked it several times. If I had answered yes, I would have supported the premise that pornography was the kingmaker in picking tech’s winners and losers. Without the XXX embrace, technology withered. The VCR format wars would be Exhibit A.

If I’d been able to fast forward myself into the next decade when Last Week Tonight with John Oliver deconstructed, hysterically, 60 Minutes interviews with a recurring bit that began: “And now this: 60 MINUTES ANCHORS ARE STILL PROMPTING PEOPLE TO GIVE THEM THE EXACT SOUNDBITES THEY NEED,” then I would have responded to Kroft’s question with, “Yes. Steve. The reason the Beta format failed and the VHS format succeeded is that Beta did not offer X-rated titles and VHS did.”

It would have been a wrap. My authoritative talking head would probably have even led the program’s opening teasers.

But the question was too simplistic, and I knew better. (Hey. Not only was I a journalist, I’d been a history major. In the Honors Program.)

So, instead of playing nice, I (patiently) made clear to Kroft that the availability of X-rated titles was way, way down the list of reasons Beta failed and VHS succeeded.

The main reason, I explained, was that JVC, the company behind VHS, chose to license its technology to other companies while Sony, Beta’s champion, kept the technology to itself until it was too late. (The analogy was not unlike why Microsoft Windows-based computers commanded a 95 percent market share to Apple’s 5 percent.) Also, the recording duration for VHS was initially friendlier than that for Beta. Beta may have provided more lines of resolution (discernible mainly to videophiles), but everyone could see when the movie or game was cut short because the tape ran out. Ugh!

So, it wasn’t the paucity of porno that killed Beta, it was short-sighted marketing and inferior usability.
Now, if Kroft had asked me about DVD players, still a fast-growing category in 2003 — which, by the way, benefited from a deluge of new pornographic releases sent to my home (strictly) for review purposes — I would have pointed out that porn was about the only movie genre that occasionally exploited the DVD player’s special ability to let the user switch the perspective from the actor to the actress to the peephole on the wall with a press of a button.

But he didn’t.

When the interview was over, I was told the story had an expected airdate in November. Soon afterwards, I turned down an invitation to go on a press junket sponsored by LG Electronics to South Korea. Despite the opportunity, I certainly didn’t want to be out of the country during my 15 minutes, even 15 seconds, of fame.

When the program aired, neither my walk around the office nor my answers to Steve’s questions made it to the screen. In fact, the segment’s whole premise had changed. Instead of being about how porno drives techno, it had morphed into a general report entitled Porn in the U.S.A. The on-camera “expert” was now an investment analyst who speculated on how many millions of dollars the industry made and how “legit” corporations like cable companies were cashing in.

Of course, I was disappointed. I buried the experience for years. Then, a few months ago I received an invitation to the alumni event honoring Kroft along with the NBC sportscaster Len Berman. As students, both had worked at the university radio station, WAER. The station’s current management had chosen to recognize them for making good. I was undecided about going until the day before when I input my credit card to admit one.

Catharsis is a strange thing. Whatever emotions that may build up over the years about missing one’s shot at national primetime exposure can be expunged in an instant. That’s what finally happened as I talked with Kroft in September. Sure, I had been wholly erased from 60 Minutes, but I realized only now that I helped maintain Kroft’s reputation for accuracy. By refusing to sign onto a bogus line of questioning, I had ended up changing the direction of the story. You could say that I kept 60 Minutes honest. At least I’d like to think so.

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