September 1968 – CBS begins running 60 Minutes. The news magazine show will be an aggressive reporter of corporate wrongdoing.
60 Minutes , which went on the air for the first time in September 1968, covered every imaginable story and issue, including many that delved deeply into the operations of businesses. In short time, companies and executives began to fear receiving a call from 60 Minutes. Many began denying requests to be interviewed by the show. Hewitt reacted by stating, “Business wants reported only what fits the carefully tailored profile that Madison Avenue and public relations people have put together.”
Not all of the stories about business and businessmen were critical. In the first year, the show profiled billionaire oilman H. L. Hunt in a laudatory, rags-to-riches profile. More recently, Leslie Stahl reported a laudatory piece on GE CEO Jack Welch for the program. But many of the shows broke new ground in business journalism. In 1978, 60 Minutes cooperated with the Chicago Sun-Times to set up a bar to catch government officials taking bribes from this business. The same year, the show ran a story on the Pinto that questioned the safety of the Ford Motor Co. vehicle. The Pinto story ran despite Ford’s being a sponsor of the show, and it continued the tradition of the business press aggressively covering the auto industry. Later that year, the show also ran an expose on service stations making unneeded repairs. In 1979, the show ran a segment on a California chemical plant that was contaminating water in the area.
One of the show’s most notorious pieces of business journalism occurred in 1979, when it ran a 16-minute segment on the construction of a nuclear power plant by Illinois Power. The Sunday night show accused the company of millions of dollars in excessive costs that would likely be passed on to consumers. Harry Reasoner began the show by explaining the situation like this:
Take Illinois Power, for example, which wants its customers to help pay for a nuclear power plant whose costs have gone up three times since the original estimates. If the customers don’t pony up, the company’s financial rating, their ability to sell bonds and meet their customers’ energy needs, is in trouble.
The next day, the company’s stock fell in the busiest trading day of its history. Illinois Power replied quickly to the story, however, producing a 44-minute videotape that served as a rebuttal to the show. The company sent it to customers, shareholders and investors, corporate executives and other journalists. It was a point-by-point reply to all of the assertions made on the show. In January 1980, CBS admitted to inaccuracies in the story. One was that the rate increase to consumers was attributed to the nuclear plant when the increase was only partly due to the plant’s cost. And the other was that the Illinois Commerce Commission had denied the rate increase when it had actually been approved before the show aired. But 60 Minutes stood by the rest of the story.