In Their Own Words: 60 Minutes Correspondents Speak
60 Minutes is about risk, rewards and standards
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/21/2008 8:00:00 PM
In many ways, 60 Minutes is truly the last bastion of TV journalism at its best. On the show, in-depth reporting, interviewing skills and good writing are all essential ingredients. Much of the news today – certainly on cable news -- is people talking to the audience. They stand before the audience and broadcast and they tell people what is going on at that time. It has a certain impact, but there is a difference between that and spending six weeks reporting, interviewing and writing, and putting together a carefully considered piece of journalism. That kind of journalism it is not available except on 60 Minutes and maybe on PBS and Frontline. Very few people are still doing it.
As a journalist, working for 60 Minutes affords you a number of luxuries. You are able to spend a considerable amount of time reporting in depth and there is a commitment to go anywhere in the world where there is a story worth telling.
Don Hewitt always said: “Tell me a story that will hold up for 12 minutes.” A 60 Minutes story needs to have narrative and good characters who are part of the story and can tell it. In some ways, what we do are documentaries. We take a subject you could do in an hour and shrink it to 12 or 13 minutes.
We are not afraid to take on complicated issues, like the sub-prime mortgage crisis or the subject of rendition, and try to present them in a way that people understand. We never talk down to the audience, but make a great point in explaining everything in a way for people who know great deal of subject come away with something knew and people who know nothing learn about the issue.
Each correspondent has a team of producers and everyone is always looking for stories. We try and agree on what we mutually want to do and find interesting. I won’t ask a producer to spend six weeks working on something he doesn’t care about and I reserve right not to work on something that doesn’t interest me. Our ideas come from regional newspapers, the Web, people we talk to.
One of things the show does best is to take an in-depth look at something that is in the news for a day or two. That is one of the frailties of our profession: We cover something and move on before the impact of it is felt or the resolution is complete. On 60 Minutes, we’ll go back and take look at something that disappeared from the front pages.
An example of this is the first story that I did on the Chernobyl disaster. In 1990, four years after it happened, we said “Can we go? What can we see?” The story was driven home with images of the abandoned cities and the scope of the disaster. We went back for a second time in 1994 and we went right into the damaged reactor. Our doctors and scientists said we had about 15 minutes we could be in there exposed to radiation levels, so we faced through as quickly as we could.
This is a very competitive place and that is one of the things that keeps the show vital. The toughest competition for stories is between the correspondents and our producers. About 25% of time here is involved in conflict resolution. The fights over who should do a story and who has the most legitimate claim can be tough. In the end, it was up to Hewitt and now Jeff Fager.
People outside view us as being colleagues and we certainly are, but we also are like independent production companies competing for rights to the best movies and the best stories. We work by ourselves. On a professional level, I have no contact with Lesley or Bob or the others. There have been years that the only times we are in the same room is for pictures, because of our hectic travel schedules. But it provides a real spark for all of us.
All the other news magazine shows have had their stories and assignments come down from above. Here, you have to go out and find them. That is the toughest part of the job and it largely falls to the correspondents and producers to find those great stories.
I’ve admired 60 Minutes ever since I was a little girl. Sunday nights were always important to me. I felt that I was getting an education even before the school week began and I always appreciated the variety of stories featured on the broadcast. I vividly recall sitting on my parent’s bedroom rug, eating leftover fried chicken from Sunday supper and being completely mesmerized by the stories and reporting.
Through the years, the correspondents on the show have made it distinctive because they bring their personas to whatever subjects they may be tackling, be it a hard-hitting investigative piece or a revealing profile. Their interaction with the subjects is often critical to the tone and content of the story. The producers are the best in the business and, in an era of immediate gratification, they’re given the time to really flesh out a story and make sure all of the bases are covered. That’s a real anomaly in the world of television news.
Trends come and go, even in television, but 60 Minutes is a constant. It has incredibly solid journalism that often only comes with diligent reporting and persistent digging over an extended period of time. Stylistically, 60 Minutes has adhered to a certain formula that has kept the journalism and the story paramount.
I think a pre-broadcast screening of 60 Minutes piece is an extraordinary experience that I wish every journalist should have. It can be gratifying or painful depending on how the story is received. But it is an extremely thorough process that always makes the piece much stronger.
I’m really proud of the piece I did about the increase in diagnoses of bipolar disorder in children. It’s a very complicated and confusing subject for caring parents and I think we handled it in a balanced and comprehensive way.
I’ve also had the privilege of interviewing important figures like John and Elizabeth Edwards, Valerie Plame and Condoleezza Rice. Interviewing and interacting with people is particularly rewarding for me and I’m honored 60 Minutes has given me the opportunity to do that on a regular basis.
Long before I came to CBS, my ultimate dream was to work for 60 Minutes. I grew up in South Africa knowing about the show and, later on, it was one big reason I went to CBS.
Working for 60 Minutes is like going to college: you can get all the advice and help you want, but you are expected to deliver to a certain standard. No one is looking over your shoulder, making sure you are doing it this way or that way. It is very similar on 60 Minutes. You are expected to deliver. Here, you work on big projects that take an incredible length of time and you have the opportunity to do investigative pieces or stories that take you completely out of the way. You can also own breaking news and get the ultimate interview. The combination of that makes it very interesting for people to watch. On Sundays, you’ll see something on 60 Minutes you haven’t been able to see all week.
On 60 Minutes, the longer stories give you a chance to take you somewhere or teach you something you didn’t know. There is a standard of journalism and a quality of what you see. You expect everything on 60 Minutes will be perfect, that the footage will be spectacular, the writing will be amazing and the storytelling will be phenomenal. It is what journalism, at its best, is supposed to be and it courts the legends, from Ed Bradley to Mike Wallace. That is what I aspire to be.
A lot of shows have tried to do something similar and succeeded for a while and disappeared. The fact that 60 Minutes has survived and does so well is amazing. The only other show that even came close was 60 Minutes II. This show is an institution. And because success breeds success, 60 Minutes has the power to hold onto its editorial independence and its budgets.
[Executive Producer] Jeff Fager is taking the program forward in a different environment. Stepping into Don Hewitt’s shoes was an unbelievably difficult thing to do. Fager’s first two seasons have been phenomenal success and I don’t think there is anyone else that could have done that. The cable networks own daily breaking news, the technology of the business has changed and how people get the shows has changed.
But I feel safe in Fager’s hands. He has taken a chance on people like Anderson Cooper and me. He is able to retain what 60 Minutes is supposed to be but also modernize it and take it forward. I love that you can download 60 Minutes on the iTunes now and that we have a web section where we get asked questions about a piece and you can chat with viewers. That all goes back to Fager. He has embraced a changing environment without compromising the standards of CBS and 60 Minutes.
Another example of change is that we have shot whole stories on small handheld cameras. That might not sound big deal, but for a show that has done something the same way forever, to go from a big camera to a small camera, some people were horrified. They said, that is not 60 Minutes, that is what they do at NYU Film School or on a reality show. But Fager has found ways to incorporate new methods into the show because the journalistic integrity was in tact. You can’t always get stories doing things the same old way. In fact, we’ve lead the show with pieces shot entirely on hand-held cameras.
But no matter how you modernize the environment, the thing that never changes at 60 Minutes is the journalism. The standards are extradoinary. Every word is recorded and pass through filters. There is perception about you being careful about what you say to 60 Minutes, but there is no place I have ever worked that has stricter rules to make sure everything is in context. That has always been that way. Everything is recorded on audio and transcribed and we have standards person that analyzes that and the script and it has always been that way. The integrity of the show, with both the journalism and the standards, is exceptional.
We all work so hard and invest so much in the program. It is satisfying because you know people are watching and people care. This is an incredible tradition that is respected all over the world. People in the Middle East and in Africa know the show. The reputation proceeds 60 Minutes because it has done such incredible work.
It wasn’t my goal to work on 60 Minutes, but I’ve truly loved every step of the way. I started with CBS News in Washington D.C. and worked there for 20 years. I covered the White House for 10 years and really liked it a lot. Sure, every day wasn’t great and ended up covering budget every year, but mostly, I loved it. Then Don Hewitt called and it was as if the hand of God came down. It saved me. I didn’t think it was in the cards for me, but then it happened.
When I first got here, second or third piece I did was about a brain surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. He only did the so-called inoperable surgeries. You only went to him if your doctor said forget it. By the time we got to the story, he had bone cancer and was in excruciating pain. Yet he was still operating. He said when he operated, he was so intensely focused that, for a short period of time, he felt no pain. They built a special cage for him to operate in and he wore a whale bone corset so nothing would rub against his rib cage. Even the rustle of his scrubs would hurt him. He was bald and his patients were too and he would kid about it. He was the most delicious man and I was crazy about him.
I had never done any human interest pieces like that. I had done Washington stories, like budgets and arms controls. Then here I was with this wonderful man who was clearly dying and he was still operating and people were begging him to help them. I went to Don Hewitt and said I love it but you’re not going to run it. He said, “Why not?” I told him because I am crazy about this man and you’ll see in every frame. In Washington, you couldn’t show emotions in your pieces. But Don said we can do that here and I was freed. I loved it and I love those human interest stories. That was very special and it was early on.
I love my political stories and my business profiles. I like every story I do or I wouldn’t do it. That is the great fun of 60 Minutes. You learn something new every day and it keeps you young and fresh. We all say we can’t believe they pay us to do this.
What makes 60 Minutes different is we are still doing the same kind of in-depth journalism we always have. We’re given a lot of time to do our stories, which is quite unusual. Our correspondents go to the story; it is not phoned in. We work with producers who do a lot of leg work, but these stories are team work. The correspondents are very much involved. And the subject matter continues to surprise people. There have been so many times that someone tells me they watched – or when I watch myself – and they say, I never thought I’d be interested in that subject. You find out things you never knew.
Our editorial process is also different. We don’t get assigned our stories, but rather we come up with our own. We are all committed and passionate about every story. We have teams and each correspondent has a group of producers that just works for them. Everyone has to care about a piece. Not everyone does the story they want to do, but they never do a story they don’t want to do. Another secret is the mix of stories. We’re all expected to do a variety of pieces every year so we stay fresh. We do investigative, human interest, cultural or social issues and a piece with humor all in a year. We are expected to be part of a repertoire company. We have to be ready to play all the parts, from the clown to the star.
At 60 Minutes, we’ve always concentrated on covering serious news of great importance to the country and the world. The storytelling is always the foundation. We think of how best to tell a story and we think of issues in terms of stories people can relate to. Spielberg didn’t do a movie called the Holocaust, he did Schindler’s List; He didn’t do a project called D-Day, he did Saving Private Ryan. We go out to find a story that makes issues come alive for the audience. So when a producer rushes and says, “Let’s do a story on climate change,” I say: “That is an issue, tell me the story.”
Another important factor for 60 Minutes stories is the ‘I didn’t know that’ test. The perfect 60 Minutes piece will go off the air, the clock starts ticking and audience will say, ‘I didn’t know that or I have never seen that before.’ That is exactly what we’re looking for. We’re not writing the evening news longer.
Don Hewitt used to say, ‘We aren’t looking for the news of the day, but rather the stories of our times.’ We try to write in a very compelling way to introduce viewers to people they’ve never met and ideas they’ve never heard. We do it in a way that is very high-minded and high-toned, and with enormous respect for the audience’s intelligence. We make incredible investment in our pieces, like going to Darfur, the North Pole and Antarctica. These projects are expensive and we pull out all the stops. But we go where we need to go and the audience can see the value in that. That’s why they keep coming back every Sunday night.
One of my most memorable stories was called “Finding Jacob”. It was a piece about a boy named Jacob from Darfur whose family had been murdered and his village destroyed Sudanese military forces. We’d been to Darfur once before and one my producers suggested we go back, but we needed a story to tell. Then the producer found Jacob’s notebook at an exhibit on Darfur at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It was taken from his village and it was about his experience. We decided to go find him and see if he was indeed alive. Either way, we were going to tell story through this journey of what was happening there. As luck would have it, we found Jacob and he had a hell of a story to tell. We were able to illustrate how the government had redoubled its efforts in the genocide and its efforts to wipe out Jacob’s people and other tribes they were in conflict with.
A memorable interview I did was the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is a funny guy and I was determined to pin him down. We went round and round about nuclear weapons and then if he had American blood on his hand for his involvement in Iraq. At one point, he said, “Are you a CIA agent? Is this Abu Ghraib?” He said, “This is Iran and I am the president.” He wasn’t used to 60 Minutes way of doing interviews, especially with political leaders
The 60 Minutes way of interviewing means asking questions the audience would ask and doing our damndest not to let people slip out of the questions. We try to make them answer the question or at least be seen not answering the question. We do it transparently and to try and get the person we are interviewing to answer. On our best day, we’ll get them to say something they’ve never said before.
Since it came on the air, 60 Minutes has been a consistently excellent program and it has never wavered. That is mostly because of its excellence. It also helps to have a lovely timeslot on Sunday evenings when some people sit down with a Coke or a beer and turn on the TV and relax. The stories aren’t quite as long as they used to be and the emphasis is harder than it used to be. But the remarkable thing is how much it has not changed over the years.
I’ve spent 41 years at CBS and, for any years, couldn’t think of 60 minutes. I was the kid in the boondocks covering wars and doing my things, so it seemed way beyond me. But, as my career evolved, I began thinking about working for the program and became the ultimate goal. I knew it would be a profound job for me.
What makes 60 Minutes different from other news programs is the storytelling. Both Don Hewitt and Jeff Fager have always insisted on a clean storyline. Nothing can be convoluted or vague. It has to be clear with a beginning, middle or end and they insisted on it. The storytelling was the most important thing.
My most memorable piece was on the Moken people, who live on southern sea off Indonesia and Thailand. They were untouched by the tsunami. They are so close to the sea and nature and they saw it coming and retreated to highlands. They didn’t have a single casualty. It was a story that I loved. These people were so remarkable, so innocent and so smart in their own way. They were so unlike us. There is no word in their language for hello, goodbye, thank you or worry. Those things just don’t exist for them. They were wonderful people.
One of my most difficult pieces is another one that also ran rather well. We were in Indonesia about a part of world no one has ever been, in the high tropical mountains. It was a primal place, a paradise lost, reminiscent of Adam and Eve. It is a place where new species have been discovered. But the living conditions there were unspeakable. It was raining all the time, we were in tents and every night we were soaked. For breakfast there was rice, for lunch it was rice and dinner it was rice. We were there for 10 long days. The story turned out well but it was tough
That is one of the most distinctive things about 60 Minutes, that we can bring such remarkable stories to our viewers. These are stories that don’t exist anywhere else.
I’m not a person who wanders down memory lane very often, but if you went back and looked at the balance and kind of stories we were doing 30 or 40 years ago, it hasn’t changed that much. The most obvious change, though, is the length of the stories.
We used to do something approaching 20 minutes in 60 minutes. But our success has reduced our time on the air because of the number of commercial breaks. Now the average story is about 12 minutes. That is still exceptional in today’s day and age.
I’ve always maintained that the on probably 70% of stories we do, maybe even more, each could be an hour documentary on its own and without that much more shooting that we would do normally. Today, the same kind of energy and care goes into the pieces, but the finished product is shorter, but it is probably sharper too.
There is no magic secret potion to our success other than plain old-fashioned good journalism. There are other news programs that have tried gimmicks, like they tried to be more racy or more with it. They made all these of-the-moment attempts and they tried to appeal to young people. But they found that young people didn’t care much and old people didn’t either. Other shows have tried dizzying approaches to storytelling, and, in the end, found they weren’t telling good stories and or weren’t telling good stories very well.
At 60 Minutes, we’ve stuck to our guns. It is all about good storytelling. It is interesting that boring old traditional journalism has its own distinction and that appears to be what people want to see. I think that the fact that we never seriously fell into these traps is the main reason for our longevity. Don Hewitt set a standard for the kinds of stories we did and how we covered them and we have kind of maintained that almost instinctively. It is kind of in the gene pool now.
One of the most memorable stories that I have done was in 1983, about a young engineer named Lenell Geter who was sentenced to life in prison in Texas for a robbery he didn’t commit. We spent 6 months on the story and got new evidence and reported it and within three days, he was released from prison.
That is a very satisfying story. He went on and got married to his old flame and lived happily ever after. That is the kind of story that makes you feel awfully good about the work you do. To show beyond a shadow of doubt that he was railroaded, that is the most interesting, important and satisfying story I have ever done.
One story I’ve tried for years to do though was to talk to Kim Philby, who was a British MI6 spy who actually worked for the Russians and defected to Moscow. I can’t tell you how many times I tried and I even came close on a few occasions before he died. But that was the one that got away. I am still as curious as ever about what makes a man like that tick.
—Interviews by Allison Romano
I have a great human interest story for 60 minutes. A 91 year old WWII pilot named Ray Melikian from Visalia, California, who flew a Curtiss P-40 Warbird in the Pacific, shooting down at least Japanes planes, was reunited with his plane last week in Sonoma, California. Chris Prevost, of Vintage Aircraft in Sonoma, bought the P-40's fuselage from an airplane graveyard in Australia, traced the serial number to Ray Melikian, and after taking 8 years to restore it, invited Ray up to fly it. Over 100 of Ray's family and friends went to Sonoma to watch Ray fly his P-40 with Chris. You can check out this story in The Fresno Bee (Lewis Griswold 3/22/09),
VintageAircraft.com, or google Ray Melikian.
Nancy Lewis - 3/23/2009 12:55:03 AM EDT
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