Andy Warhol Said We'd Have 15 Minutes, but 60 Minutes Gave Us Only 12

bob fells's picture

Andy Warhol famously remarked that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. In many respects, the late Mr. Warhol was quite correct with the passing parade of flash-in-the-pan "celebrities."  I think it was early film actor Francis X. Bushman who was usually introduced as "the famous Francis X. Bushman."  Long after his days of stardom ended, somebody finally asked, "What's he so famous for?" Nonplussed, the answer was, "Why he's famous for being famous." I had a similar feeling as I watched the 60 Minutes segment on cemeteries last Sunday night. As Todd Van Beck has accurately pointed out, one of the networks seems to drop the coin on us every five years or so, and the approach is so startlingly similar each time as to be called "by the numbers." I don't recall the Howard K. Smith report that Todd mentioned, although I do recall Howard K. Smith. He even looked like an older Anderson Cooper.

I can confirm that just about every TV network news magazine you can think of - 20/20, Dateline, Nightline - has taken the hatchet to us. In particular, I can recall Ted Koppell dedicating an entire hour of Nightline, circa 1991, to the then-current cremation scandals in California. Cremated remains were co-mingled, dumped and otherwise discarded in shameful ways. Everyone on this particular program, no matter their viewpoint, deplored this misconduct.

That is, until Koppell came to Jessica Mitford, yes, she of THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH. The Mitford family has been the subject of several biographies over the years with Jessica and her sisters making for good reading. Anyway, when Mitford got her turn she apparently felt the need to take a different tack from the other panelists. As best as memory serves, she said, "So what? These people are dead so what difference does it make what happens to their ashes?" or words to that effect. Mr. Koppell was clearly caught off guard and could only assume that Mitford had misunderstood the question, which was along the lines of, "What do you think of these cremation scandals?"  So Koppell repeated the question and Mitford affirmed, "Yes, Ted, I understand. So what difference does it make?" It seemed to me that Mr. Koppell stayed away from asking Mrs. Mitford many more questions for the remainder of the broadcast. And that show really put a dent in the cremation rate, right?

This brings me to the point often overlooked - as a profession we have been extremely fortunate in our critics. They all have been articulate, energetic and forceful but somehow, I don't know, you get the feeling you'd never want to buy a used car from them. Back in 2000, you may recall that the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging held a day and a half of public hearings on funeral profession sales practices that was broadcast live over C-Span (no pressure here). For the first entire day, we collectively could have been represented by a punching bag.

One consumer advocate, among several, started off very well. Even I was impressed with the level of his criticisms. Had he ended his testimony after the first five minutes, it would have been quite devastating. But he couldn't stop talking and just repeated the same claims over and over again. The committee chair politely asked him to please wrap up after about 15 minutes (are you listening, Andy Warhol?). The witness agreed but kept talking. After a couple of more requests to wrap up that likewise went unheeded, the chairman finally lowered the boom and unceremoniously cut off the witness. All that was missing were the men in the white jackets to carry this fellow away. I remember thinking, "Thank you, God." If this tirade hadn't stopped, I wanted to jump to my feet and say, "Mr. Chairman, we gladly cede five minutes of our time so this witness can keep talking." Yes, he was that awful.

Which brings me to last Sunday's 60 Minutes. I know Josh Slocum and he's an articulate guy. I don't know what FCA is paying him but they should double it, maybe triple it. But as I wrote to one of the 60 Minutes producers after the segment aired, Josh didn't produce any documentation for his stunning claims. We did. In fact, in the year and a half that Paul Elvig and I worked with the 60 Minutes producers, we documented everything we told them. I just wish there was some quid pro quo for the opposing viewpoint.

For years I have been hearing claims of "mounting abuses" and "growing ripoffs" but as Clara Peller used to ask, "Where's the beef?" I have yet to see even a hamburger. By the way, I was seated near Paul Elvig and Anderson Cooper during the taping of the interview - all 90 minutes of it. We knew only a fraction of that footage would ever see the light of day but I was shocked at how truncated Paul's comments were in the segment that aired. Were they afraid of letting this man talk? Somebody asked why Paul didn't mention this point or that point. Well, he did but it all was left on the cutting room floor. And that, as they say, is show biz. To paraphrase a well-known legal disclaimer, any similarity to real investigative reporting is purely coincidental.

Sgt. Joe Friday had it right after all, "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." Of course, when you start reporting the facts and place problems into perspective, I guess there's not a very exciting story there after all.