How Mark Zuckerberg Fooled ’60 Minutes’

Leave it to 60 Minutes to pass off Facebook’s utterly meaningless redesign of the site’s profile pages as some kind of “exclusive” worth leading a segment on the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not just that correspondent Lesley Stahl didn’t understand what’s meaningful about his story; it’s that Zuckerberg essentially reduced the venerable newsmagazine to an unwitting shill.

When 60 Minutes revisits the same subject twice in less than three years, there should be a pretty clear sense of what merits the return. There was none to be found. Here’s what did register though:

60 Minutes overplayed a purely cosmetic change. The photos are bigger, the placement of different pieces of information shifted around…big whoop. For Stahl to get all breathless and devote several minutes to the changes toward the beginning of the segment conveyed a significance those changes didn’t have. Facebook basically used CBS (NYSE: CBS) as an infomercial for placating the older demographics most likely to have the kind of reflexive resistance that always accompanies any alterations to Facebook visual design.

Zuckerberg has mastered the non-answer. The few times Stahl tried to draw blood, she was easily deflected. Whenever the questions got tough, whether on Facebook’s approach to privacy issues or its supposed ambition to “own” the internet, Zuckerberg always gave a pat answer that didn’t seem evasive but didn’t quite tackle the matter at hand, either. “Privacy is one of the most fundamental issues facing the internet,” he responded to Stahl at one point, signifying…what?

Enough with The Social Network already. The movie came out a few months ago, every other news outlet on the planet has already covered this including Diane Sawyer in her own interview with Zuckerberg…but 60 Minutes went at it like this was a brand new issue. Stahl did manage to trot out the Winklevoss twins to rehash their allegations toward Zuckerberg, who dispatched them pretty handily.

Zuckerberg’s transformation over the years from awkward dweeb to telegenic smoothie is really extraordinary. Whoever is coaching him should be handsomely rewarded. It’s almost too dramatic a change, as if he’s had a chip implanted in his brain or replaced himself with a more TV-friendly clone.

The contrast was also heightened by 60 Minutes playing the footage from his previous encounter with Stahl, where he sat stone-faced in response to a nervy question comparing him to Google’s founders, and footage of his sweat-bathed implosion at an AllThingsD conference in June. The interrogator in that fiasco was journalist Kara Swisher, who also got off some zingers depicting Zuckerberg as a “toddler CEO” in the first 60 Minutes interview. She returns for the second one with compliments that only serve to cement the rehabilitation of Zuckerberg. “The toddler is a prodigy, as it turns out,” she tells Stahl this time around.

Facebook should take a moment to understand just how lucky they are to have floated over the public-relations minefield that The Social Network lay before them. Handled wrongly, this could have been bad. Thanks largely to Zuckerberg himself, they’ve pulled through with nary a hitch.

P.S. Whoever interviews Zuckerberg next… …would it be too much to ask that he be interviewed outside the office? Facebook is smartly insisting on giving Zuckerberg home-court advantage by letting him hit the same points in every single interview: Yes, we get that Facebook is like an overgrown dormitory because its young-ish staff don’t have to bother with the stuffy trappings of conventional corporate America. Yes, we get that Zuckerberg is humble as all-get-out because he works at a desk without a private office dressed like a college freshman. It’s high time to see how he’ll do outside his comfort zone. Like how about a Zuckerberg-led tour of the Newark public school system he just gave $100 million to–Stahl didn’t even mention it!