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’60 Minutes’ Veterans Talk 50 Years of Storytelling, Big Gets, and Interviews That Got Away

“A kind of a magazine for television.” That’s how Harry Reasoner introduced the first episode of CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sept. 24, 1968.

The venerable program that invented the TV newsmagazine celebrated its 50th anniversary season on Monday night with a panel session at New York’s 92nd Street Y featuring “60 Minutes” exec producer Jeff Fager and correspondents Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, and Bill Whitaker in conversation with Charlie Rose, “CBS This Morning” co-anchor and a “60 Minutes” contributor. (At a panel highlighting a TV program’s rare longevity, it was duly noted that the evening marked Rose’s 125th appearance on the 92Y stage since 1988.)

The entire enterprise of “60 Minutes” was born out of misfortune, said Fager, who is also the author of the retrospective book “50 Years of 60 Minutes: The Inside Story of Television’s Most Influential Broadcast.”

“60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt was fired from his job as producer of Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News” in the mid-1960s because then-CBS News president Fred Friendly didn’t think he had the hard-news chops to produce the network’s signature news program.

Mike Wallace, who would become synonymous with “60 Minutes,” had also bounced around the TV biz from game shows to light news programs but never found his niche. That would change as “60 Minutes” found its footing in its first 10 years.

“Don Hewitt meeting Mike Wallace was Lennon meeting McCartney,” Fager said. Later in the panel he described Morley Safer as the George Harrison of the “60 Minutes” band.

Among other insights from the conversation:

  • Loud. Crazy. Fun. Rascal. Vaudevillians. Those were some of the words Fager, Stahl, and Kroft used to describe Hewitt, who died in 2009, and Wallace, who died in 2012. “Don never talked, he yelled,” Stahl said. “He never walked, he ran.”
  • Safer, who died in 2016, found out the hard way that Wallace was ruthless when it came to claiming stories. Wallace stole Safer’s interview with Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier amid the unrest in 1986 when Wallace showed up in the country before Safer. Safer “came from a place where correspondents were gentlemen, and Mike Wallace wasn’t,” Fager said. That led Safer to develop his signature “60 Minutes” segment, “a whimsical well-told tale that nobody could steal,” Fager said.
  • Wallace gave Stahl a crucial piece of advice early on in her tenure at “60 Minutes,” which began in 1991. “You have to learn how to ask a horrible, embarrassing question without being embarrassed,” she said.
  • Kroft helped “60 Minutes” develop an unusually strong rapport with Barack Obama, starting on the campaign trail in 2007. He has to date interviewed Obama a dozen times for the program, more than all the other presidential interviews in the history of the show combined. Kroft made it clear he has never once shared questions or topic themes with the President’s team in advance.
  • The conversation touched on other correspondents that have passed through the stopwatch. Ed Bradley was “the coolest man on earth,” Fager recalled. Dan Rather was a “superstar journalist” when he joined the show in 1975. Bob Simon was the quintessential globe-trotting reporter whose work ethos was: “Get me on a plane and get me out in the world,” Fager said.
  • The show thrives on stories — not issues, and not audience research. “We try to keep it from being about issues. We try to keep it about stories,” Fager said. “We don’t do audience research to determine what the audience wants us to cover.”
  • “60 Minutes” is known for its big-get interviews, but even “60 Minutes” doesn’t get everyone. Stahl cited Nancy Reagan as a person she tried to hard to land. “She had more power than we ever understood,” she said. Kroft and his team chased legendary author Harper Lee. And he’d still like to get Jack Nicholson. Rose and Kroft both said they have in the past pursued a sit-down with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, now accused of sexual assault and harassment by more than 60 women.
  • Whitaker, the newbie of the show who joined in 2014, said the job is “broadcast news nirvana. You do good stories and you tell ’em well. Can’t ask for more than that,” he said.
  • Kroft, however, does have one request. At 72, he is in his 29th season on the show. As much as he loves his work, “I don’t want to die at my desk,” Kroft said. “I’d like to have a least a month or so off.”

(Pictured: Bill Whitaker, Charlie Rose, Jeff Fager, Lesley Stahl, and Steve Kroft)

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