On Sunday, “60 Minutes” aired an interview that looked a lot like handing someone a megaphone.
Correspondent Scott Pelley aired a profile of the conservative author Andrew Sullivan, one that ran with no clearer time peg than that, as Pelley put it in his introduction, Sullivan is “anxious about the future of the republic.” At some length, Sullivan, who currently publishes his newsletter “The Weekly Dish” via Substack, was allowed to expand upon his thoughts at some length. He is anxious because of a divided political climate in this country, one in which what Sullivan described as tribalism led, for instance, to the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
“This country came to the point where we had violence in the usual peaceful transfer of power,” Sullivan said. “That is a huge warning to how unstable our system can be if we remain tribalists in a system that’s supposed to be designed for reasonable citizens.”
One can agree with this or disagree: This viewer thinks there is one political side more obviously responsible for the events of that day than the other, no matter what the dangers of tribalism are. What fell short here, though, was not “60 Minutes” broadcasting Sullivan’s point-of-view but Pelley’s seeming to have an utter lack of interest in questioning him in a serious way. Much of the segment was consumed by Sullivan speaking to camera extemporaneously, as though he were the new opinion columnist for the broadcast; Pelley generally seemed interested in helping him along, as when he said in a voice-over, “The ideas of tolerance, reason, and debate came to Sullivan early in life, when he realized he was conservative, Catholic and gay.”
Leaving entirely aside certain assumptions here — for instance, that being gay necessarily makes someone more tolerant, or that sexuality and political ideology are both inherent and immutable traits — longtime followers of Sullivan’s work would be surprised to see tolerance ascribed to this particular writer. His writing, vitally important for a mass audience as recently as the Obama years, has in its Substack era developed a familiar sort of tunnel vision, motivated more by getting vengeance on the perceived misdeeds of the mainstream media than on shedding light on issues that deserve our attention. To be clear: Conservative voices, driving much of the American populace’s agenda as they are, deserve a place in mainstream media — to be held to account, just like any other interview subject. Sullivan’s musings, by contrast, lack a clear reason to be broadcast at this particular moment and deserve to be placed within context — something Pelley seems fundamentally uninterested in doing.
To wit: Pelley comes close to asking a tough question about Sullivan’s tin ear (at best) on race, noting the incident when, as then-editor of The New Republic, Sullivan published an excerpt of a book asserting genetic deficits in IQ among Black people. Pelley notes, though, that Sullivan published rebuttals, “but he’s criticized for airing the debate at all.”
Well, yes: Lending the institutional voice of a prestigious publication to a racist crackpot theory and then letting others write in to contest it is worthy of criticism. With an interviewer like Pelley, though, Sullivan barely needs defenders: Sullivan’s eventual admission that the “harm outweighs the good” of the “Bell Curve” publication “doesn’t mean he’s giving up on debate,” Pelley tells us. He then recites Sullivan’s claims that newsrooms “pander to the left and right and are intimidated by political correctness.”
This seems to lie at the heart of a flaccid, unmotivated interview that expresses its unclear reason for existing in just letting Sullivan talk: CBS News, like many newsrooms, seems afraid or allowing the Sullivans of the world to claim that they are being silenced. Sullivan, who writes for a devoted but insular newsletter audience, is necessarily intimidating to the politically correct if they don’t amplify his voice and the debates he finds worth having. There are many, many classes of people in this country without the access to the massive audience of “60 Minutes,” but it seems like one class — conservative ideologues in the Substack era — have grown especially adept at claiming they are the victims of prejudice when they don’t get their particular concerns addressed in the most flattering manner possible.
CBS News, and Pelley, obliged. And this segment ended up looking like one of the “freeSpeech” segments for which Katie Couric had been pilloried when she anchored the “CBS Evening News,” in which the authority, and the airtime, of the broadcast is handed over to someone to speak whatever’s on their mind without interruption. There is, maybe, something for a broadcast with a limitless remit and ample resources to find within the story of a writer and thinker who’s devoted his late career to diving down deeper and deeper rabbit holes. But that would require a journalist to ask hard questions, not merely to be satisfied with having given an ideologue equal time.