×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

In Era of Change, ‘60 Minutes’ Focuses on Hard News

You might think Lesley Stahl would be rested. Her show, “60 Minutes,” broadcasts on Sundays. And she snared the big interview for her story last Thursday.

“If I sound tired, I am,” the veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent told Variety in an interview, just hours before getting on a plane to Africa to pursue another report. Stahl unveiled last night on the show one of the biggest stories of the week — a Thursday sit-down with President Donald Trump during which she asked him about his views on climate change, pushed back on his use of undocumented sources, and elicited vows of potential retaliation if the Saudis have in fact assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The segment sparked tons of reaction.

Viewers expect big stories from “60 Minutes” each week. They don’t always get segments that are so tightly entwined with the current news cycle. “The first three shows of this season, the opening pieces have been right on the news — hard-news pieces,” says Stahl.

“60 Minutes” is no stranger to generating headlines. An aficionado of the venerable CBS newsmagazine typically expects deep-dive reporting into any number of newsy subjects, such as Bill Whitaker’s recent look at the opioid crisis, or a whimsical profile of an artist or celebrity about whom everyone wants to know more. Since the show launched its 51st season three weeks ago, producers have made certain that one segment has been about the week’s most-discussed issues – a bid, perhaps, to give viewers something extremely relevant to consider even as “60” applies its own brand of reporting to the matter at hand.

“60 Minutes” opened the season with Scott Pelley getting reaction from both Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Chris Coons to the emotional testimony from Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week, Pelley presented interviews with Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, in which they explained why they voted how they did on the Kavanaugh confirmation. The stories gave viewers added perspective into a topic that was arguably one of the most consequential decisions about American government in recent memory.

The emphasis has surfaced as the CBS show is in a period of transition. Jeff Fager, the longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes” left the company in September after responding to a CBS News reporter with a threatening text message — a violation, CBS said, of company policy. Fager had been under after The New Yorker printed allegations by CBS News staffers that he had tolerated a tough workplace culture and possibly touched some employees inappropriately. Fager has denied the allegations, and both he and CBS agree that his dismissal came after a threatening tweet he made to a CBS News reporter who was investigating the claims.

Two people familiar with the show say a significant portion of the staff would like to see Bill Owens, the show’s executive editor, take the reins. Owens is managing the program as CBS News considers candidates for the executive producer role. These people also note that “60” has an insular culture that would be difficult for anyone who has not worked there to navigate.

Other names have surfaced as potential replacements for Fager, including that of Susan Zirinsky, the veteran CBS News producer who currently oversees “48 Hours.” If named chief, she would be the first female producer to run the show.

Owens has been busy. He helped produce an opening-week story on Paul McCartney, and was instrumental, Stahl says, in securing the interview with President Trump. He was also involved, she says, in Pelley’s recent work.

Stahl interviewed Trump and his family for a “60 Minutes” segment in November of 2016 – just days after he was elected to the Oval Office. Trump promised another sit down, Stahl recounts. “From time to time, Jeff Fager would check into the White House and sort of urge them to consider whatever the month way. Bill Owens picked that up and pursued it.”

Getting behind breaking headlines means more work for the staff, Owens told Variety. Producers were working on Saturdays to get Pelley’s interviews ready for air. “I haven’t, and most of the staff hasn’t, had a day off in three weeks, literally,” he says. “There’s a real feeling of everybody pitching in on the floor,” he adds. For the Trump interview, he adds, “I have to give credit where it is due, to Lesley and a host of producers, assistant producers and editors who were really grinding it out.”

And there can be risk for “60 Minutes” in chasing breaking news. What if the reporting can’t hold until the Sunday broadcast? “We have been worried all week that the news was going to get ahead of the interview,” says Stahl. Indeed, “60 Minutes” released news of President Trump’s remarks about the Saudis and Khashoggi well ahead of the broadcast.

The show is not backing away from the types of stories for which it’s famous, says Owens, but “we want to be on the news” when the show can “cover it in a way that we are going to bring something new to the story, something value added.” Viewers want to see longer conversations from newsmakers, he says, even examine their body language as they respond to the most important questions of the day.

Viewers who watched Stahl’s segment on Sunday saw a President much more confident in his position. “He was almost the opposite of what he was” when she interviewed him in 2016 for “60 Minutes” after he had been elected to office. “He was just a different person then,’” she recalls. “He was sitting back in his chair. Zero feistiness. As any president was, he was just beginning to absorb the challenges that he was facing.” On Thursday, she says, she encountered “a man who is feeling extremely confident. He had a lot to crow about. At the same time, she pressed him on the facts throughout the encounter.

Owens says the hard-news segments help bolster the program. “This isn’t about me auditioning” for the executive-producer role, he says. “This is about what’s best for ’60 Minutes’ and our audience, really, who expect us to relentlessly be covering the news in a smart way that’s in keeping with our standards. That’s what we are going to do.”

While the show charts its path, Stahl says she tries to focus on her assignments. There’s plenty to do. “You put your mind to your story. You have to find your pieces. You have to make them sing, and make sense, and have a beginning, middle and end. That takes a lot of work.”

More TV

  • BBC Orders Spoof Talk Show Fronted

    Spoof Talk Show Fronted by an Animated Vladimir Putin Coming to the BBC

    The BBC will air a spoof talk-show fronted by an animated Vladimir Putin. The U.K. pubcaster has ordered two pilot episodes of “Tonight With Vladimir Putin,” a semi-scripted talk show hosted by a CGI representation of the Russian leader. The first guest will be Alistair Campbell, a former high-ranking political spin doctor in the U.K. [...]

  • Upcoming Fantasy Shows Like 'Game of

    10 Upcoming Shows to Watch if You're Mourning 'Game of Thrones'

    Millions of people’s Sunday night routines are ruined now that “Game of Thrones” is over, and there are holes in their hearts as big as the hole in The Wall that are aching for a new fantasy series to fill them. Several prequel series are on their way, but as there’s no word on just [...]

  • Game of Thrones Composer Ramin Djawadi

    'Game of Thrones' Composer Ramin Djawadi: 'I'm Still in Denial'

    Since the first season, Ramin Djawadi has composed the music for “Game of Thrones” and created the epic tunes, including the iconic theme song, heard over the series’ most memorable moments. With the series finished, he talked with Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1 about his experience on the show and an upcoming 20-city [...]

  • TUPAC SHAKUR black panther collection

    ‘Defiant Ones’ Director to Helm Docuseries on Tupac, Who Assaulted Him in 1993

    Director Allen Hughes, who helmed the award-winning HBO documentary “The Defiant Ones,” has closed a deal with Tupac Shakur’s estate for a five-part docuseries for which he will have full access to all of the late rapper’s released and unreleased recordings, writings and poetry, according to an announcement from his rep. The announcement says the [...]

  • Ellen DeGeneres -- The Ellen Show

    Ellen DeGeneres Extends Daytime Talk Show Run Through 2022

    Ellen DeGeneres is sticking with her daytime talk show. DeGeneres announced Tuesday that she has signed a new deal to continue hosting “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” through 2022. There had been rumors for some time that DeGeneres was planning to leave the show when her current contract was up in 2020, something she leaned into [...]

  • How YouTube Is Trying to Get

    How YouTube Is Trying to Get Will Smith His First-Ever Emmy Nomination (EXCLUSIVE)

    YouTube could be the key to Will Smith finally earning a Primetime Emmy nomination — or win. The superstar Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince has been nominated for two Academy Awards, five Golden Globes and one Screen Actors Guild Award, and has won four Grammys (out of eight nominations). Yet a Primetime Emmy nomination [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content