60 Minutes’ History of Peabody Awards
Wes Unruh - 8/15/2014
60 Minutes has been on the air for longer than some of us have been alive. Created by Don Hewitt as a “magazine for television,” and visualized as a format that could cover all aspects of culture and include moments of humor and informed opinions of critics and academics. It has become a touchstone in American life, bringing the world to the television screen for an hour, championing the “little guy” in struggles against corrupt politicians, profit-driven corporate scams, and uncaring, inaccessible institutions. The reporters employed by 60 Minutes have pursued investigations to the point of triggering legal action, catalyzing social change, and illuminating government secrets.
For nearly half a century, 60 Minutes has accomplished these tasks without sacrificing journalistic integrity or alienating its core audience. It remains the longest continuously running program in American network prime time. The original format has scarcely changed since the first shows broadcast in 1968, beyond the innovation of “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney,” a closing commentary that began in 1978, aired 1,097 times, and only came to an end with Rooney’s retirement in October 2011. Originally, 60 Minutes ended with a segment called “Point Counterpoint,” wherein two commentators banter about the issues of the day. (Saturday Night Live famously satirized this segment at the time with their own “Point Counterpoint.”)
Today’s 60 Minutes still reflects the same range of human interest, investigative research, and, perhaps the most vital element in 60 Minutes’ potpourri of weekly stories, the common sense cynicism of a veteran reporter. A look at the wide range of Peabodys that 60 Minutes has been awarded over the years highlights this spectrum of storytelling.
It was only a few years after the first 60 Minutes broadcast that CBS News won a Peabody Award for the show, accepting the award at the 30th Annual Peabody Awards ceremony for broadcasts aired during 1970. At the time, 60 Minutes was described by the Peabody Board as “an example of television’s potential fully realized.”
By the time 60 Minutes received its second Peabody Award, it had achieved national attention, an engaging format, and a massive audience. In this second citation the Peabody board highlighted the viewership thusly: “What 60 Minutes proves is that there exists a substantial and important audience for quality television journalism in this country.”
As the years passed, the awards continued to come in to 60 Minutes and its various spin-offs. An early notable spin-off was 30 Minutes, a Saturday morning version for younger audiences, which won an award for broadcasts aired in 1978 for “significant contributions to keeping the young people of this nation informed.” Don Hewitt won a personal Peabody in 1988 for his long career as a journalist, a substantial part of which being the creation and development of 60 Minutes for CBS News.
Other members of the 60 Minutes family won their own awards for contributions to CBS News in general and 60 Minutes in particular, including Paul and Holly Fine in 1990, Christiane Amanpour in 1998, and Bob Simon in 1999. But it was the individual segments which perhaps most illustrate the wide-ranging interests of the 60 Minutes producers and their faithful audience.
In 1991, 60 Minutes aired a chilling look at the Persian Gulf War and a fatal accident that claimed the lives of U.S. soldiers in the story “Friendly Fire.” The award citation states: “As technological warfare becomes ever more precise human error is not eliminated, but instead can be magnified with terrible and tragic results.” It was in examining these “terrible and tragic results” that the 60 Minutes segment was able to bridge the gap between what the public had been promised by military leaders and politicians and what truly transpires on the field of battle.
The year 1993 saw another individual story win a Peabody Award for 60 Minutes, with the shocking revelation that the CIA had been smuggling cocaine into the United States. “The CIA’s Cocaine” broadcast on November 21, 1993, saw Robert Bonner, ex-head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, explain to Mike Wallace how this came to pass.
More individual stories brought 60 Minutes and CBS News Peabodys, among them extensive coverage of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination in 1995, and “Death by Denial,”“ which aired on 60 Minutes II in 2000. 60 Minutes II also won Peabody Awards for the stories “Memories of a Massacre” in 2001 and “Abuse at Abu Ghirab” in 2004, both stark reminders of what can happen in wartime when discipline breaks down. 60 Minutes II was the first news organization to report on the Taguba Report and to bring the full details about the interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghirab. The Peabody Board’s citation for this story reads, in part, “the visual component consisted primarily of a set of still photographs that shocked viewers throughout the world and raised questions that are in many instances still open.” Even now, questions raised by this report remain in some sense unanswered.
But not all of 60 Minutes Peabodys were awarded for uncovering government or military malfeasance. In 2006 and again in 2012, 60 Minutes aired stories that looked at Duke University, first “The Duke Rape Case” which examined the accusations against the Duke University lacrosse team, and second “Deception at Duke” which examined medical-research fraud in a cancer study. The 2008 story “Lifeline” on Remote Area Medical brought the staggering need for healthcare for the uninsured into focus. The story centered on a weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee where a free, temporary clinic, staffed by volunteers, treated nearly a thousand patients, some of whom traveled hundreds of miles to stand in line for care. A 2009 story, “The Co$t of Dying,” put end-of-life care into perspective, against a larger public debate about healthcare. Another story, also broadcast that same year, titled “Sabotaging the System” explored the real and enduring threat posed by cyber-terrorists.
But perhaps it is “Joy in the Congo” which most exemplifies the profound scope of 60 Minutes’ countless stories. Broadcast in 2012, this “ode to ingenuity, perseverance and the power of music” was a celebration of the importance of the human spirit. As the winners citation explains, musicians rescued instruments from the trash, journey long distances to rehearse, and perform compositions by Beethoven against a social backdrop that transforms our expectations of the Congo. This Peabody was awarded for “celebrating the human spirit and a dialect of the universal language of music” in the words of the Peabody judges.