There was a time when the sight of a 60 Minutes news crew gathered outside in the parking lot was every business owner's worst nightmare.
The prospect of Mike Wallace and his gang barging into the office with cameras rolling was the ultimate in sheer terror. Many lives, careers and businesses have been torpedoed by a relatively brief 17-minute broadcast that just so happens to appear on national television every Sunday night on CBS.
60 Minutes is no longer the power it once was. But it remains the most watched news show on American television. Its influence on our society and culture is indisputable. Popes, presidents, prime ministers and even Roger Clemens have supposedly "come clean" on the one-hour news show.
Now, word is that 60 Minutes' next subject of investigation will be online poker. That's right - in between the current presidential election, $4-per-gallon gas prices, baseball's steroid scandal and a war in Iraq costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, CBS' big boys will be looking into our favorite pastime.
I don't know whether to crow from the rooftops that online poker has now officially arrived on the mainstream media scene (is there any global business that has exploded so quickly, yet gets less attention from the major mainstream news moguls?) or if I should shudder to think this could be a real hatchet job?
Sources tell me longtime correspondent Steve Croft will be the lead investigative reporter on the story. Plans are already under way for Croft to interview several people at CBS' 57th Street studio headquarters in New York in late March. A 60 Minutes film crew is also expected to be dispatched to Costa Rica - command central for many of the world's largest online gambling and poker sites.
At best, 60 Minutes has a spotty record when it comes to focusing on poker. In 1994, the late Ed Bradley roasted The Bicycle Club Casino in a brutal segment that focused on the government's takeover of the Bell Garden's mega-cardroom. Bradley called The Bike "a sleazy second-rate casino on the outskirts of Los Angeles."
In 2005, Dan Rather did a considerably more positive story on the poker boom. A colleague of mine was responsible for initially pitching this story to a CBS producer and I was able to watch the taping of this segment in person at CBS in New York.
I spoke to Dan Rather in depth during the story. Chris Moneymaker and others who were interviewed came across as terrific ambassadors for the game.
This time, there is serious concern the story will be overly negative. My sources inform me 60 Minutes will focus on the recent Absolute Poker scandal.
For those who may not have heard the news, last year an AP insider violated the most sacred unwritten and unspoken law in all of gaming, which is to make damn sure the game is always run on the square. The thief allegedly stole nearly a million dollars from his unsuspecting victims, who were regular online poker players.
In some ways, mass exposure of this creep on 60 Minutes would be absolute justice. A few months spent suffering in Guantanamo would be even more ideal. Trouble is, the casual uninformed viewer of such a segment is not going to differentiate between creeps like him and the millions of honest and decent online poker players worldwide who enjoy playing poker in their own homes.
Indeed, I fear the target is not going to be the creep, or Absolute Poker (which deserves scrutiny) - but rather the entire online poker industry.
If this is indeed the spin 60 Minutes uses, such a story could not come at a worse time. While there is admittedly no chance the federal government will revoke the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act of 2006, nor pass any of the pro-online legislation offered by our good friends in Congress within the current legislative session, public perceptions will be shaped for a long time by what is shown and seen by 20 million viewers on 60 Minutes.
I fear the portrait will be ugly - a slimy, unregulated, corrupt band of outlaws operating way outside the boundaries of the law or justice. Never mind that many online sites are publicly traded companies with top-flight managers and personnel, and are strictly regulated within their host countries. Perception and reality are two completely different things.
I talked to my good friend Mark Seif about this bit of breaking news and it came as a total surprise to him. Seif is perhaps the most visible public "unofficial" spokesman and representative of Absolute Poker.
As a well-known tournament player in the public eye, people often associate him with the poker site, although (to my knowledge) he has no official title there. I remain utterly convinced Seif had nothing to do with the scandal and was personally embarrassed by the course of events.
The fact that Seif was not associated with the scandal was corroborated by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission investigation which concluded a few months ago. Nevertheless, Seif, a former trial attorney always with strong personal views, is the perfect spokesman for Absolute Poker and much of the industry, should he decide to go face-to-face with Steve Croft in front of the cameras.
If he's interviewed, Seif says he plans to use the scandal to justify precisely why online poker should be legalized and regulated within the United States. He says a 60 Minutes feature is a "terrific opportunity" to generate massive support for legislation that will eventually make online poker legal.
"This is what happens when there is little or no oversight," Seif told me when asked about the former problems at Absolute Poker. "I think if millions of people see a segment on online poker and come to understand more about the industry, there will be greater support for (legalization). After all, online poker is not going to go away."
Seif's response is admittedly optimistic and perhaps just what the industry needs at a time of crisis. The question is, if 60 Minutes pulls into Mark Seif's driveway and he agrees to an interview, will his words of wisdom make the final cut? And if so, will anyone listen?
-- Nolan Dalla