05.19.11

Lance Armstrong Denounces 60 Minutes

As the CBS program accuses him of illegal doping, the cycling champion tells Howard Kurtz the show is treating him unfairly. A look at the allegations and the behind-the-scenes war over Armstrong’s reputation.

Lance Armstrong and 60 Minutes are on a collision course, with the cycling champion accusing the CBS program of unfair tactics in an upcoming broadcast about allegations of illegal doping by Armstrong.

The show has “basically reneged” on promises made to him, Armstrong told me Thursday night, and “everyone would be frustrated” by such treatment. He said of the producer on the story, “I would not call him a straight shooter… My version of events has never changed on this, and won’t.”

CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, who is also executive producer of 60 Minutes, dismissed the complaints. “We have been so thorough and fair to Lance Armstrong,” Fager said, adding: “We have shared with them every single allegation in our story… This is a PR game. Our reporters have done a first-class job.”

Negotiations over whether Armstrong would grant an interview for Sunday’s program broke down this week amid accusations of bad faith.

Federal authorities are looking into allegations that Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France champion, improperly used performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong, who has never failed a drug test, has consistently denied taking banned substances.

The forthcoming story amounts to a high-stakes clash between two brand names, one being one of the most famous and successful athletes in history, the other the most celebrated news magazine in television.

A clip from the report by Scott Pelley, who will take over as the network’s anchor next month, aired on Thursday’s CBS Evening News. In the excerpt, a former cycling teammate, Tyler Hamilton, said Armstrong had used a banned substance called EPO as long ago as 1999, the first year he won the French race, and to prepare for subsequent contests.

Video screenshot

“I saw it in his refrigerator. I saw him inject it, more than one time,” Hamilton told Pelley.

Hamilton was accused of doping in the 2004 Olympic Games and later suspended for two years by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Another former cyclist who has made accusations against Armstrong, Floyd Landis, was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after failing a drug test.

In a letter to Fager, two of Armstrong’s lawyers, Robert Luskin and Ted Herman, said that 60 Minutes was engaged in “disgraceful journalism” and “a serious breach of the most fundamental journalistic principles.”

CBS' Fager said that after every conversation with Armstrong’s lawyers, “they would guess who it was in our story and try to assassinate their character. They would say, ‘If so-and-so’s in it, we’re not going to participate.’… They just want to tear that person apart in public.”

Luskin said in an interview that he had repeatedly informed CBS that “if you want us to respond meaningfully beyond a simple denial, you need to tell us who the witnesses are.” He said some of the allegations were nearly 15 years old and that some of the accusers could be “people in the Lance-hater category who have made sworn statements at odds with what they’re telling 60 Minutes now.”

Without the names of the witnesses, said Luskin, “we’re not going to set him up for an ambush.”

Armstrong, who spoke to me after returning from a five-hour bike ride, said: “I’ve been a fan of the program for a long time. I was certainly willing to participate, especially early on when they said we have some guys saying X, Y, and Z and they would share that with us.” Those assurances soon evaporated, he said.

But CBS’ Fager said the discussions with producer Michael Radutzky were more complicated. After every conversation with Armstrong’s lawyers, “they would guess who it was in our story and try to assassinate their character. They would say, ‘If so-and-so’s in it, we’re not going to participate.’… They just want to tear that person apart in public.”

The Armstrong team provided the program’s staff with “all kinds of negative things” about the suspected witnesses, including their “dark motivation,” Fager said. “They ratcheted it up. We’ve bent over backward to share this information with them.”

But Armstrong’s side sees itself as rebutting witnesses of questionable credibility—and concluded that putting him on camera would only boost the program’s ratings.

Armstrong strategist Mark Fabiani, who represented Bill Clinton during Whitewater and was a top aide in Al Gore’s presidential campaign, said in a statement: “We have every right to know which cyclists are going to be on camera, making allegations, and to tell the public how these new allegations completely contradict what these cyclists have said for years, how these cyclists are motivated now by the desire to get famous on 60 Minutes and maybe find publishers and make money, and how these cyclists have a long history of dissembling.” Fabiani's team has launched a website, www.facts4lance.com, to help make its case.

Armstrong echoed this point in our conversation, saying, “When people have sworn under oath several times and their story keeps changing, which one’s the truth and which one’s a lie?” As for Hamilton, Armstrong said: “His version has changed so much.”

Millions of viewers will decide for themselves Sunday when the broadcast airs—without an appearance by Armstrong.

“It’s unfortunate they won’t do an interview with us,” Fager said. “If he never did anything, fine, come on 60 Minutes and tell us.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.