Five Times 60 Minutes Shocked America

As it prepares to enter a television-record 51st season, 60 Minutes continues to deliver its famed investigative reporting and personality profilesThough the cast of correspondents has changed over time, the mission of the program remains the same. On the occasion of the show’s 50th anniversary today, we look at five of the biggest stories that 60 Minutes tackled.

1969 and 1999: Mike Wallace and the My Lai Massacre

Mike Wallace covered the My Lai Massacre in 1969, then returned to the story (and the village itself) in 1999.

As the Vietnam War raged on, a company of American soldiers perpetrated the My Lai Massacre in March 1968. It’s estimated that as many as 500 South Vietnamese civilians were murdered, including women and children. The company entered the area having been told that civilians would have cleared out, leaving only National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) collaborators. The horror of what was happening was discovered by helicopter pilot Warrant Officer (WO1) Hugh Thompson, Jr., and his crew. Thompson intervened, saving civilians on the ground and going so far as to order his crew to open fire on U.S. troops if they attacked any other civilians. Thompson reported the incident to his superiors; however, steps were taken to cover-up what had happened, including disseminating false versions of the story to armed forces periodical Stars and Stripes. Eventually, servicepersons in the know began writing letters to superiors and to members of Congress, prompting an investigation. When the story got out and 60 Minutes covered it, there was outrage. Some observers believed that the story added fuel to the opposition of the war in the United States.

While 26 people were tried in relation to the massacre, only Lieutenant William Calley was convicted. Years later, Thompson and his crew, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery (Andreotta’s award was posthumous, as he died before the end of the war). Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes reported on the incident in 1969; 30 years later, he, Thompson, and Colburn returned to the spot of the Massacre for another piece.

1973: John Ehrlichman Sweats Out Watergate

John Ehrlichman
John Ehrlichman in 1969. (Photo by Oliver F. Atkins; Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

John Ehrlichman served as White House counsel and then assistant to the president for domestic affairs for President Richard Nixon. During all of the furor surrounding the Watergate Hotel break-in and subsequent scandal, Mike Wallace interviewed Ehrlichman. The visibly uncomfortable advisor denied that the White House was involved in a cover-up even as Wallace ran through the laundry list of charges being levelled. Ehrlichman’s protestations mattered little, in the end; in 1975, Ehrlichman was convicted of conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice, and spend eighteen months in prison.

1992: Bill and Hillary Clinton Discuss Gennifer Flowers

The famous 60 Minutes interview with The Clintons.

In the midst of a contentious campaign that would later see Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton emerge as president, 60 Minutes sat down with him and his wife, Hillary, for what would become a famous interview. Bill Clinton had been dogged by allegations of infidelity, notably with Gennifer Flowers, who claimed that she’d had a 12-year-long affair with him. During the interview with Steve Kroft, Clinton minimized his association with Flowers. Hillary Clinton remarked that she was not “sittin’ here like some little woman, standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette,” in reference to the legendary country tune. That quote became an oft-repeated sound bite, and Wynette drafted an angry open letter in response; Hillary Clinton later issued an apology. The interview is still the fourth-most-watched interview in television history, with an estimated 40 to 50 million total viewers. Overall, the general consensus is that the piece may have saved Bill Clinton’s imperiled candidacy at the time by addressing the allegations directly.

1993: CIA Shipped a Literal Ton of Cocaine to America in 1990

The piece, “The CIA’s Cocaine,” earned a Peabody Award.

Pre-emptively embarrassing itself is not something that that Central Intelligence Agency chooses to do lightly, but they chose to do it by releasing one particular story. The CIA had to get ahead of 60 Minutes in 1993 when they discovered that the show was about to break some embarrassing news. An investigation revealed that during Reagan’s “war of drugs” in the ’80s, elements inside the CIA pitched a plan to the DEA and the Venezuelan military for an operation that would ship drugs out on the South American country into the United States in order to gain the confidence of Colombian drug traffickers. This was a plan that involved long-game thinking and complicated strategy, and the DEA wanted no part of it. The CIA did it anyway, with the unfortunate side effect that some of the cocaine made its way into the hands of American dealers to be sold. In the years since, rumors and conspiracy theories about the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade continue. Politicians like Representative Maxine Waters of California have called for further investigations, and books continue to be written that allege that the CIA was not only involved in South American cocaine, but in the crack epidemic as well.

2004: Ed Bradley Revisits the Emmett Till Murder

Correspondent Ed Bradley tried to speak to Carolyn Dunham (nee Bryant) about Emmett Till.

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted, beaten, shot in the head, and thrown into a river, weighted down by a fan blade. The reason? It was alleged that he whistled at, flirted with, and touched a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. The men accused of the crime not only got away with it, but admitted to their guilt post-trial during a Look magazine interview. In 2004, Ed Bradley took a further look and attempted to speak to Bryant. She and her son both declined, but she would later remarkably recant portions of her story, including the portions regarding Till touching her, in a 2008 interview with historian Timothy Tyson. Bradley’s report is credited with helping to bring the Till story back into the spotlight, paving the way for Tyson to obtain the subsequent interview. The investigation into Till’s murder was reopened in July of this year, based in part on the recantation.