CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ Turns Government Mouthpiece

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By Roger Armbrust
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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On Sun., Nov. 21, CBS’ 60 Minutes dumped on viewers a one-sided, federal-government cheerleader report about alleged international arms dealer Viktor Bout’s arrest, and his extradition to the U.S. for trial.

This isn’t a column about whether Bout is innocent or guilty. He will soon stand trial in federal court to determine whether he broke American terrorist laws. This is a column of concern about a major American television network once known for objective reporting — and seeking to get both sides of a story — morphing into a mouthpiece for the federal government.

In an airing lasting more than 10 minutes, CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian interviewed only three people: federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents Michael Braun and Louis Milione, who led the effort to capture Bout, and Juan Zarate. Keteyian refers to Zarate as “deputy national security advisor in the second Bush White House, and a CBS News consultant.”

A couple of times during the airing, Keteyian uses the word “alleged” to apply to Bout’s case. But the tone and approach of the CBS presentation basically went against the grain of objective journalism that considers a suspect innocent until proven guilty.

The piece opens with Keteyian sitting in front of a large graphic of Bout’s face surrounded by rifles, and beneath it the story’s title, “The Merchant of Death.” And Keteyian’s insistence on emphasizing Bout as “The Lord of War, the Merchant of Death” at the program’s end seemed to indicate he enjoyed the drama and despicable image it placed on Bout (and which Bout may deserve — the courts will determine that, even though CBS seemed to believe that Keteyian and the DEA should determine it).

By contrast, The New York Times, in its Nov. 18 biographical profile of Bout, calls him

a Russian businessman who was by most accounts the world’s largest arms trafficker before his arrest in Thailand in 2008. After extradition to the United States in November 2010, he is facing federal charges of agreeing to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to agents posing as Colombian rebels intending to kill American pilots patrolling in the drug war.

There’s only one mention halfway down in the Times’ 552-word profile of Bout as being referred to as “The Merchant of Death,” evidently the paper’s effort to avoid sensationalism and promote fairness.

The 60 Minutes piece offers “news film” of Bout in custody, apparently in Thailand and the U.S., all with bars or cage wire between him and the photographer, along with a couple of still photos of him allegedly involved in arms deals.

But the concentration of the program’s footage involves Keteyian with his three interviewees in their offices, soaking up their views on Bout’s alleged crimes and government’s “bold undercover operation” (Keteyian’s term) to apprehend him.

Through these interviews, the government officials, as one would expect, state their one-sided case against Bout. They cite the vast array of arms Bout has supposedly supplied civil wars in Africa, and allegedly offered DEA undercover operatives. Braun at one point refers to the people receiving the arms as “scum.” Zarate pushes a villainous portrait by referring to “Bout’s tentacles.”

That would be a common approach of prosecution in a court of law, if a defense attorney were present to object and offer counter evidence. But that’s not the case in the 60 Minutes airing.

Bout’s defense attorney, according to the Times’ profile of Bout, is Sabrina Shroff, a court-appointed lawyer who pleaded not guilty on his behalf in a Manhattan federal court. Keteyian didn’t mention her, didn’t indicate any effort to contact her, nor to try to interview Bout, which could have added professional objectivity to the story.

And “story” seems to be the accurate description, rather than news report, of the 60 Minutes airing — a concentrated effort to mark the federal government as creative investigators and heroes and an accused man — notorious, yes, but still only accused — before he’s tried and possibly convicted.

Meanwhile, Keteyian attempts to paint the DEA officers as good guys. He gets personable, refers to Braun as “Mike” and Milione as “Louie.” He seeks emotional effect to make them human to the audience:

Keteyian has traced the DEA sting to a meeting with Bout’s contact. “The meeting’s about to take place,” Keteyian says in his interview with Milione. Keteyian shakes his head as if he’s caught up in the drama, not sure what to ask next, then tosses the leading question: “What’s your temperature like?”

Milione: Your heart rate’s up a little bit. Your adrenalin’s going. You have butterflies.”

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Keteyian follows dramatically, “Emotions that only escalated” when the meeting occurred with Bout’s contact.

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Bout’s arrest finally occurs in Bangkok, where DEA agents assist Thai police. A struggle then begins between Russia (Bout is reportedly a former Russian agent with high contacts) and the U.S. over extraditing Bout. But Keteyian doesn’t mention any attempt to contact any Russian officials; no effort to interview them about their reasons for wanting Bout.

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As the CBS story winds down, it shows Bout’s arrival at a New York airport after his recent extradition. Keteyian, giving more profile to the DEA agents, states that, as Bout is escorted from the airport, “riding right along with him was Louie Milione.”

The segment closes with Keteyian in Milione’s office:

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“This is the Lord of War, the Merchant of Death,” Keteyian says to Milione.
“Right,” says Milione.
“And you’ve got him in your hands.”
“Right, he’s in custody. It’s a great feeling. It’s an absolutely great feeling.”

That’s how the piece ends, like interviewing an NFL coach after a Super Bowl victory, far from an objective news report before a man faces trial in a U.S. court.

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This is dangerous territory. A major network should responsibly give its nearly 18 million viewers a two-sided view of a criminal court case, presenting both the prosecution’s and defense’s arguments. Not a one-sided puff piece of good guy-bad guy.

Viewers deserve better. In fact, so do federal agencies who try to work within the law. Bout is to be tried on four terror-related charges. Let’s credit the DEA for efforts to bring him to open trial in federal court, rather than tossing him in Guantanamo or a secret prison and not revealing charges.

Roger Armbrust is editor-in-chief of Parkhurst Brothers, Inc., Publishers, and its Our National Conversation book series. Armbrust’s views do not necessarily represent those of The Clyde Fitch Report.