In a softball interview with “60 Minutes,” the Saudi crown prince was not asked hard questions about Yemen, beheadings, or arrests.
That’s how “60 Minutes” began its interview with, and profile of, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, Sunday evening, ahead of his visit to the White House on Tuesday.
Launched on CBS in 1968, “60 Minutes” has been described as “one of the most esteemed news magazines on American television” and has won more Emmy awards than any other primetime U.S. TV show. It claims to offer “hard-hitting investigative reports, interviews, feature segments and profiles of people in the news.”
Got that? Award-winning. “Esteemed.” “Hard-hitting.”
So why did the segment on MBS resemble more of an infomercial for the Saudi regime than a serious or hard-hitting interview? “His reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary,” intoned correspondent Norah O’Donnell prior to the start of her exclusive sit-down with the crown prince in Riyadh. “He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema, and cracking down on corruption.”
Move over Tom Friedman and David Ignatius — in O’Donnell, the Saudis seem to have found a new cheerleader within the U.S. press corps. Forget the Saudi bombardment and siege of Yemen, described by United Nations agencies as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” which received a mere two minutes of coverage over the course of a 30-minute segment. Forget the horrific Saudi record of beheadings and stonings, which received zero coverage from the “60 Minutes” team in Riyadh. Instead, we were treated to O’Donnell oohing and aahing over the crown prince’s youthfulness, workaholism, and — lest we forget — support for women drivers.
The interview itself consisted of one softball question after another. (Example: “What’s been the big challenge?” Another example: “What did you learn from your father?”)
So, in a spirit of constructive criticism, and in an attempt to try and push back against the U.S. media’s bizarre love affair with MBS ahead of his D.C. visit …
1) You helped launch the war in Yemen in 2015 and continue to accuse Houthi rebels of causing all the violence and suffering there, yet the United Nations has blamed airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition for the majority of Yemeni civilian deaths while Amnesty International has documented “34 air strikes … by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that appear to have violated international humanitarian law” including “attacks that appear to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques.” How do you square “reform” at home with war crimes abroad?
2) You have said in this interview that the Houthi rebels in Yemen “block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis,” but what about your own role in causing that crisis? A U.N. panel of experts “found that Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen.” Is it not a moral outrage for one of the richest countries in the Middle East to be starving the poorest country in the Middle East?
3) Congratulations on lifting the Saudi ban on women drivers, but when will you be abolishing the death penalty for blasphemy, sorcery, adultery, and homosexuality? Isn’t it true that more people have been beheaded by your government than by the Islamic State?
4) You have compared Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s unelected and self-styled “supreme leader,” to Adolf Hitler, but what about your own autocratic style of rule? You have cracked down on dissent by rounding up clerics, intellectuals, and activists and have detained and allegedly tortured your fellow princes — is it any wonder that the prominent Saudi journalist and former adviser to the royal family, Jamal Khashoggi, has compared you to Vladimir Putin and called you Saudi Arabia’s very own “supreme leader”?
5) You say these princes had to be arrested as part of an anti-corruption drive, but how are Saudi citizens supposed to know whether or not you’re corrupt, too? After all, you’re the prince who spotted a Russian-owned luxury yacht while on holiday in the south of France and then bought it on the spot for $550 million — where did that money come from?
6) Shouldn’t you also be wary of invoking Hitler given Saudi Arabia’s history of brazen anti-Semitism? In fact, as part of your “reform” efforts, would you be willing to apologize for the Saudi-based Arab Radio and Television Network’s production of a TV series based on the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; or for the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling Jews “rats of the world” and “the scum of the earth”; or for your own father, King Salman, attributing the 9/11 attacks to a Mossad “plot”?
7) You have suggested in this interview that Iran is working with Al Qaeda. Yet Bob Graham, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said that 28 declassified pages of the 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry suggest “a strong linkage between [the 9/11] terrorists and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi charities, and other Saudi stakeholders.” Isn’t it time the government of Saudi Arabia admitted to its extensive and long-standing role in funding, arming, and inciting “jihadi” terrorism?
8) Isn’t it the case that the Saudi education system fans the flames of intolerance and extremism? How else do you explain the fact that when ISIS “needed textbooks to distribute to schoolchildren in Raqqa, it printed out copies of Saudi state textbooks found online”?
9) You have said in this interview that the Iranians “want to expand” in the region. But was it the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under your leadership, that detained not one, but two, elected heads of Arab governments — the president of Yemen and the prime minister of Lebanon — against their will?
10) You and your ministers have dubbed your changes and reforms a “revolution.” So why not stand for election yourself and allow the citizens of Saudi Arabia to choose their own leader? After all, how can it be called a “revolution” if the absolute monarch is still in absolute control of the country at the end of it?
It was Mohammed bin Salman’s “first interview with an American television network,” bragged O’Donnell at the beginning of the show. Yet she and her award-winning “60 Minutes” team of producers and researchers threw away a unique, on-camera opportunity to hold an unelected dictator to account. Shamefully, O’Donnell did not mention the words “democracy” or “elections” even once. Rather, in the final moments of the interview, the CBS correspondent seemed to be positively giddy at the prospect of MBS ruling over Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life.
“You’re 32 years old. You could rule this country for the next 50 years,” she exclaimed, adding: “Can anything stop you?”
CBS might like to call this “hard-hitting” reporting. I prefer to call it a crime against journalism.