Last week since I wrote to the Executive Vice President of CBS News asking for a comment on Lesley Stahl's unpublicized withdrawal from the Advisory Board of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The inquiry was acknowledged and forwarded on to the press officer for 60 Minutes . There's been no response since then.
That's a disservice to the millions of viewers who depend on 60 Minutes for honest, brave, and unbiased reporting. They deserve an answer to the question: Did Ms. Stahl's association with the Peterson Foundation contribute to the powerful bias in the program's May 5 broadcast, and does her apparent withdrawal from the Board constitute her acknowledgement of that fact?
There was a time when the fearless reporters on that program refused to accept the idea that important people can be allowed to duck pressing questions. Mike Wallace was more likely to show up at a publicity-shy subject's door with a camera crew than take "no comment" for an answer.
All of which raises the question: Does the new 60 Minutes need a knock on the door from its former self? The old 60 Minutes told truth to power. As we discussed in a two-part series last week, the new 60 Minutes appears to tell tales for the powerful. (Ms. Stahl's piece was entitled "Counterinsurgency Cops," covered here; the rest of the program is addressed here.)
Ms. Stahl's Board relationship with a foundation run by Peterson, a hedge-fund billionaire turned noted anti-Social Security and anti-government activist, seem to bespeak the cozy relationship with wealth that the May 5 program reflected. It was not until I appeared on the Thom Hartmann program last week (video here) that I learned of the disappearance of Ms. Stahl's name from the list of Peterson Board members.
That's when I wrote CBS News and the Peterson Foundation asking for comment. I did not expect a response from the Peterson Foundation, which only reveals what it chooses to reveal. But the silence from 60 Minutes was unexpected.
Stahl may have believed that it would be less controversial to be associated with the Peterson organization than it would, for example, to join the board of a left-wing group. With the help of self-serving former Democratic pols, Peterson has been able to present his hard-right views as some sort of "bipartisan" consensus -- when the genuinely bipartisan consensus among voters is parenthetically opposed to his own.
That stratagem has been very successful with other members of the news media, including ABC's Martha Raddatz (whose notorious statement to presidential debaters Romney and Obama that Social Security and Medicare are "going broke" repeated a well-worn Peterson falsehood.)
It has also apparently been successful with the producers and on-air talent at 60 Minutes. Why else would Ms. Stahl have publicly associated herself with a group whose views on Social Security stand further to the right (according to the polls) that those of the vast majority of voters -- including 75 percent of registered Republicans and 76 percent of self-described Tea Party members?
After being publicly confronted over this issue, Ms. Stahl and her employer had two honorable choices: They could have defended her role on the Peterson Advisory Board, or they could have acknowledged that it was inappropriate and announced her resignation. They did neither. Apparently they simply removed her name from the list without comment. It would have been more high-minded to ignore the controversy altogether than to take this step, which has all the appearance of stealing away in the dark of night.
On the other hand, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's time that people who associate with the Peterson agenda -- which combines an anti-government, anti-elderly stance with perpetual tax breaks for coddled corporations and the undertaxed rich -- either defend that agenda or distance themselves from it.
Peterson's vast network, hydra-headed activist organization goes by many names, whether it's teaming up with defense contractors and bank CEOs as "Fix the Debt" or distorting public opinion with dystopic PR gimmicks like "Budgetball"). It operates in secrecy by choice -- by choice and by design.
But CBS News, 60 Minutes, and Lesley Stahl do not. Individually and together, they have done some fine reporting over the years. There's no reason to believe their fine work won't continue for the foreseeable future. They do themselves a disservice, however, when they choose to act in secret -- even if it's to do something that, in this case, might be considered a good move.
If Lesley Stahl chose to leave the Peterson Board and disassociate herself with that group's agenda, she made the right decision. But opting for secrecy was the wrong choice. It's not too late for Ms. Stahl, 60 Minutes, and CBS News to speak truth to power once again.