Written by Robert Niles
Published: September 17, 2004 at 1:14 PM
So let me respond to a piece that David Koenig published on MousePlanet this morning: Black Eye: How 60 Minutes almost went after Disneyland. He relates his experience being interviewed by a producer for the network's "60 Minutes" newsmagazine who reporting on safety at Disney theme parks.
Time to fess up: I spoke with that producer as well, via e-mail, on the phone, and at my home, where she visited not long after speaking with David last fall. A man had just died on Disneyland's Thunder Mountain roller coaster, and an author had approached 60 Minutes with a story about Disney management cutting maintenance. The producer was looking for a connection.
David criticizes the producer: "This reporter didn't seem to be investigating anything," he writes. "It was as if she'd already written the program in her head and was casting actors to play The Informants."
Personally, I don't accept the idea that a reporter can approach a potential story as a blank slate, with no ideas or suspicions about the subject. Reporters get tips, and check them out. A couple years in chemistry class taught me basic principle of the scientific method - the null hypothesis. You suspect something might be true, so you test it. Some reporters, with fat network budgets, get to fly around the country to do that. The rest of us pick up the phone.
The producer in question had a hypothesis, presented by an author, that budget cuts and management decisions made by Paul Pressler's team at Disneyland had endangered guest safety. So she tested it. She interviewed me, David Koenig and slew of other folks with experience working at or covering Disneyland.
I saw the same frustration in her face and voice when I spoke with her at my home that David described from their conversation. But I believe that her frustration came not from the fact that I, or any other source, failed to bash Disney hard enough. Her frustration resulted in the contradictory evidence she kept getting from her sources. An anecdote here and potentially spurious correlation there. But no "smoking gun," no financial document detailing a cut or management change that led directly to the fatal accident on Thunder.
Since she was finding so many disgruntled individuals who believed that Pressler's moves had hurt the park, she could not dismiss the hypothesis. But since no one could produce the smoking gun, she could not accept it, either. I've been there as a reporter in the past. Believe me, it's frustrating.
David suggests that "60 Minutes" should have played the story the same way the L.A. Times did – by putting out both sides of the story and letting the audience decide who was telling the truth. But the L.A. Times had already done *that* story. CBS wanted to advance the story, and find something new.
They didn't get it. A story never aired. Apparently, the "60 Minutes" crew could find no new information, beyond that already published by the L.A. Times or other news sources, that directly tied Disney's management decisions to the fatal accident at Thunder and other accidents elsewhere at the company's theme parks.
CBS did the right thing. The "60 Minutes" crew did not find enough evidence to support their hypothesis, so they did not run the story. That's not a blank eye. That's good, tough journalism.
Off-topic post-script: David draws an analogy between this incident and CBS's handling of the Bush National Guard memos. I'll defend CBS on that one, too. Let's not forget that no informed source disputes that the content of the memos in question are generally accurate. Not even the White House has disputed their content when given the chance. How Bush got a cushy National Guard gig to avoid service in Vietnam (while supporting the war, to boot) is fair game for a story. If anything, if CBS had been as tough about its sourcing on this one as it was on the Disneyland story, there'd have been no controversy. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that if CBS's documents are not proven authentic, then the charge that Bush's family pulled strings to get their kid into the Guard to avoid serving in a way they supported is not true. No one with even half a mind can dispute that.