By David Hiltbrand
Updated December 04, 1995 12:00 PM

S.O.S.! THE STATELY FLAGSHIP OF CBS News, 60 Minutes, is floundering. The show, a fixture in Nielsen’s Top 5, has had trouble of late cracking the Top 10, in part because in 1994 CBS lost NFL Football, the show’s brawny lead-in for 25 years, to Fox. Now 60 Minutes’ credibility is sinking as fast as its ratings.

The latest round of problems started when CBS yanked an interview with an ex-cigarette company executive from a report on tobacco industry practices that led off 60 Minutes on Nov. 12. The exec had signed a confidentiality agreement with former employer Brown & Williamson, and CBS lawyers were worried that the interview would provoke a lawsuit by B&W.

It’s always fun to blame the lawyers, but in this case they acted with reason. Last August, Philip Morris reached a multimillion-dollar, out-of-court settlement with ABC after Day One reported that tobacco companies “spiked” cigarettes with extra nicotine. Still, when the 60 Minutes tobacco piece ran minus the interview, correspondent Mike Wallace said on-air that he felt “dismayed” at the network’s decision. His view was echoed by others, including 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer, who joined Wallace on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show to lament that CBS had listened to its lawyers.

Subsequent reports, however, have shown that the network was bound by agreements that Wallace and other 60 Minutes staffers chose not to reveal—agreements that compromised the show’s standards of journalism. Legitimate news outlets don’t usually reach for their checkbooks, no matter how much they would like to increase circulation or ratings. But apparently the exec who added the sizzle to 60 Minutes’Nov. 12 piece, former B&W research vice president Jeffrey Wigand, had received a $12,000 fee from the show for consulting on a previous story. The show also promised Wigand that he could approve whether the interview would run and indemnified him against libel. When this information was leaked, Wallace and other 60 Minutes hard-liners made a swift dismount from their high horses. A furious Safer, meanwhile, sent a letter to Charlie Rose, accusing “the principals involved in the story” of allowing Safer to defend the interview without informing him of the concessions.

What a mess. It makes you wonder: Has 60 Minutes’ hour passed?