Book review: Five decades of “60 Minutes”
Almost anyone who has watched TV over the past 50 years knows the distinctive tick-ticking of the “60 Minutes” stopwatch.
Since 1968, the program has investigated major wrongdoing and told delightful feature stories. If you were a scammer or a crooked politician, the last thing you wanted to hear was that “60 Minutes” was in the lobby.
Reporters became household names: Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Leslie Stahl, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon, Steve Kroft and Andy Rooney turned the screws and explored the world in a cadence all their own.
Executive producer Jeff Fager’s book, “Fifty Years of 60 Minutes,” recounts the history of this extraordinary program decade by decade, with generous photo accompaniment.
As traditional reporting is increasingly being challenged by high-decibel, opinion-drenched media, Fager highlights storytelling that conveys a deep understanding of issues and demonstrates the power of television to inform.
Fager was not there at the revolution — he took over from the program’s legendary creator and executive producer, Don Hewitt, in 2004 — but he has spent years as a producer on the show and knows reporting from the ground up.
We relive the show’s highlights: the infamous exploding gas tank of the Ford Pinto of the 1970s, the hit men and con artists, Richard Nixon, Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga, Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan. We hear about Morely Safer playing pool with Jackie Gleason.
The show’s most memorable reporting has been from the front lines. Simon went missing in the Saudi desert as he covered the Persian Gulf War. Bradley took a sauna with Russian Maj. Gen. Alexander Gribov to do a story on missiles aimed at American cities. Kroft got Bill Clinton to admit he’d caused pain in his marriage. Investigative stories uncovered the Saudi connection to the 9/11 hijackers, the travesty of the Abu Ghraib prison and the secrets of CIA rendition, a program that spirited terrorism suspects to foreign prisons for interrogation and torture.
In all cases, Fager tells us, it’s about the storytelling — and the writing.
“It’s the writing that keeps people watching, much more than the pictures,” Fager says.
His elements of style: Write for the ear, avoid cliche, don’t hype or overstate. Go for detail and description. Avoid unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
“Keep our copy spare,” he explains, and “make sure we are fair to everyone in our story, including those who declined to help us or participate in our reporting.”
The stories are almost always built around the show’s signature interviews. Deliberate, direct questioning demands direct and specific answers. Close-up shots catch every grimace or grin, every hesitation or emotion.
As the toughest interviewer, Wallace, puts it: “With good research you could embarrass anybody, make anybody squirm. You could do it to me. But if you are really after illumination of an interviewee’s character — qualities, substance, texture — if you’re really after that, you can ask very pointed questions. Questions — sensible questions to get them to talk. You can establish ... a chemistry of confidentiality.”
Many of Fager’s examples are worthy of historians’ study. In a 1985 exchange, Wallace asked Donald Trump about reports that he was raising rents to evict tenants. “And when they call you arrogant and cruel, those tenants over there, does that get under your skin?” “No,” Trump said, “because, you see, I think I’m right; and when I think I’m right, nothing bothers me.”
The book contains other revealing examples, including interview excerpts with Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Fager, however, does not take us backstairs at “60 Minutes.” He provides little critical judgment on the program. He doesn’t go deep inside editorial meetings where decisions on how to report and frame a story are hashed out. He doesn’t talk about the impact of mobile devices and digital competition on the way he produces segments or the way people consume news. He doesn’t explain why there are still so few full-time female correspondents on “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t probe the program’s influence on policy or public opinion.
Still, we do get a few personal insights: We are reminded that Wallace stole stories and fought depression; we hear about the drama surrounding Rooney’s quasi-apology after he offended gay people; and we share the grief that struck the staff after the deaths of Bradley, Simon, producer George Crile and others.
Fager acknowledges that “60 Minutes” itself has been subject to scandals and controversy over the years: the time CBS executives spiked Wallace’s story about big tobacco; Dan Rather’s disastrous story, based on fake documents, that George W. Bush tried to duck serving in Vietnam; Lara Logan’s report on Benghazi that revolved around a source who lied about being there.
Each of these scandals sullied the show’s credibility, tarnished reputations and in some cases cost people their jobs.
Fager does not address how these failures may have fed public distrust of the news media or what they taught him about the credibility crisis confronting journalism.
Despite its setbacks, however, “60 Minutes” can rightfully claim an impressive track record.
It is hard to overstate how much the media and our culture have changed since “60 Minutes” went on the air 50 years ago — long before cable news, the Internet, social media, BuzzFeed and Breitbart.
For anyone who has opinions about the media and cares about journalism, this book will illuminate the broad contribution of “60 Minutes” and underscore the power of smart, compelling storytelling.
Hewitt famously said, “Tell me a story.” It was the title of his memoir.
Fager reaffirms Hewitt’s mission. “The goal,” he writes, “is to get to the truth.”
Amid the endless talk and angry tweets that assault us every day, Fager just may be onto something.