60 Minutes Football Piece Is Quite Rather-esque

nytvdan rather getty 60 Minutes Football Piece Is Quite Rather esqueLast week, on Friday, Oct. 9, Wayne Nelson, the executive producer for Dan Rather Reports, was sitting in his office at HDNet’s headquarters in New York when an incredulous staff member ran in. Have you seen the promos for this weekend’s 60 Minutes, producer Meredith Ramsey asked? The clips touted an upcoming piece by Bob Simon on the long-term danger of repeated head injuries in sports. Mr. Nelson and Ms. Ramsey felt like they had seen the story before—specifically on HDNet, six months earlier.

Sure enough, over the weekend, 60 Minutes featured a story called “A Blow to the Brain” that covered much of the same ground as a piece Dan Rather had reported six months earlier for HDNet, called “Knocking Heads.”

“Were they copying us?” Mr. Nelson said to The Observer on Tuesday morning. “I hope not.”

In “Knocking Heads,” Dan Rather reported that, according to the CDC, sports concussions were “an epidemic.” Over the weekend, Mr. Simon reported on CBS that, according to the CDC, sports concussions were “an epidemic.” To flesh out the story, Mr. Rather had interviewed former New England Patriot Ted Johnson, who talked about playing through concussions, and not always being able to see straight in the huddle. Six months later, Mr. Johnson could be found on 60 Minutes telling the same stories.

Elsewhere in the 60 Minutes piece, Mr. Simon interviewed (a) a neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Cantu; (b) Dr. Anne McKee of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy; and (c) the father of a young man named Zachary Lystedt, who suffered traumatic head injuries when he was reinserted in a junior-high-school football game after getting a concussion in the first half. All three subjects had previously been featured in Mr. Rather’s piece.

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, CBS News appeared to be doing something it hadn’t done in years: paying a compliment to Dan Rather, the network’s long-estranged anchor.

“There are lots of great stories out there,” said Mr. Nelson, who for years worked as a producer at 60 Minutes. “We don’t have the market cornered. And they certainly don’t have the market cornered. But I’d like us to be recognized for what we do. 60 Minutes is not the be-all, end-all of serious television journalism anymore. I think it just points to the fact that Dan is busting his ass over here, doing some of the best work he’s ever done.” 

“We haven’t seen the segment they are talking about,” said a 60 Minutes spokesperson. “We wish their program the best of luck.”

Feature stories get recycled fairly often in broadcast news. But what makes 60 Minutes’ repeat of Mr. Rather’s story somewhat ironic is that CBS News lawyers and executives have spent the past several years publicly knocking Mr. Rather’s reporting chops.

In his $70 million lawsuit against CBS News (which was recently dismissed in an appellate ruling), Mr. Rather had repeatedly alleged that after stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News, on March 9, 2005, the network essentially buried him at 60 Minutes. “CBS provided him with few assignments, little staff, very little air time, and did not permit him to cover important stories,” read Mr. Rather’s court complaint.

Lawyers for CBS, in turn, responded that they were not contractually obligated to put Mr. Rather on the air, as long as they kept paying him. And if he failed to get the airtime, they later argued in court, it was because he didn’t earn it. (Translation: His stories weren’t up to snuff.) And recently, Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, took some particularly hard shots at Mr. Rather in the L.A. Times. “I can’t for the life of me understand why he’s doing this,” said Mr. Fager, “how he could turn such a storied career into this train wreck.” On Tuesday morning, Mr. Nelson refused to gloat on Mr. Rather’s behalf. The sight of Mr. Rather beating his detractors to a story, he felt, spoke for itself.

“I have a lot of friends over there,” Mr. Nelson said of 60 Minutes. “I don’t want to dump on them. It’s not like they stole an exclusive from us. It’s just that it’s a really rich irony that they said the stories he was producing over there weren’t good enough, and then one pops up on their lineup.”

“It’s an important story to get out there, especially for CBS, which carries NFL football,” he added. “I’m glad they did it. I’m just glad we did it first.”

fgillette@observer.com