A correspondent’s role on the venerable CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” is still considered the brass ring for TV journalists. Bill Whitaker toiled for years at CBS News before he finally got his shot in 2014, after a stint covering Asia and two decades in the network’s Los Angeles bureau where he was a fixture on “CBS Evening News.”
Logging around 20 “60 Minutes” segments a year, ranging from explaining the supply chain crisis to riding along Wyoming’s Green River Drift, the dapper 70-year-old Philadelphia native is now a familiar, authoritative prime-time presence.
The Los Angeles Press Club will recognize Whitaker’s successful journey on Saturday when he receives the Joseph M. Quinn Award for Lifetime Achievement. A former resident of Hollywood Hills now based in New York, Whitaker shared some thoughts on his career in a conversation last week.
You were in the Los Angeles bureau of CBS News for 22 years. How did that prepare you for “60 Minutes”?
It’s got politics, immigration, and the economy, the military is out there, you’ve got environmental stories, the wildfires. You just name it, everything’s out there. But here at “60 Minutes” you have the luxury of time and resources. You come up with a story the front office thinks is worthwhile, they’ll give you the money, and the time, and the crews, and cameras, and say just go do it. And you’d better come back with the goods, but you get to travel the world.
What’s the most vital skill you developed working in L.A.?
Television news is all about deadlines, but the deadlines in L.A. are brutal. I worked for an East Coast employer. The “CBS Evening News” airs at 6:30 Eastern time, that’s 3:30 in L.A. My business day was truncated by a third. I learned the need to focus, to be organized, to use every minute wisely. I learned why my laptop is called a laptop. Many times I sat on a curb or in a car or a folding chair in the back of a political rally to write on my lap. I think I could write anywhere. And I learned to rely on my colleagues. Broadcast news is a collaborative endeavor. The producer, photographer, sound tech — we’re all journalists. With the relentless L.A. time pressures we all have to count on each other to hit our marks every day, or we’ll miss that deadline. I’m happy to report we never did.
You covered the O.J. Simpson trial for the network. What is your lasting impression of that era?
My first years in L.A. I covered the federal Rodney King trial and the Reginald Denny beating trial, both big trials, but nothing compares, or prepared me for O.J. The sheer spectacle of the proceedings was mind-blowing: the throngs outside the courthouse; the media village with the network’s tall towers across the street; a skywriter proposing to Marcia Clark overhead; the USC Marching Band; the Dancing Itos. It was murder trial as circus. I’ve never witnessed a trial with so many “gasp” moments: the bloody glove, the N-word, the verdict. Still, the trial was about so much more. It was about race in America, about wealth and celebrity and policing, wrapped around two brutal murders. The verdict put a spotlight on our deep-rooted racial divide, a schism that plagues us still.
“60 Minutes” is still the biggest news program on TV. But like everything else in TV, it’s not as big as it used to be. Does the brand name carry the same type of clout?
Oh, yeah. The opioid series that we did had an impact. Congress paid attention to that piece. We just recently did a story about drug shortages and the outpouring of people in Congress, people in the medical field, researchers, everybody, you know, we were flooded with people saying, ‘What? I had no idea this was going on. We have to do something about this.’ It still has tremendous reach in this fragmented world. We are still reaching more people than any of the other news broadcasts.
So even at a time when fewer people are watching traditional TV, you’ve never had to explain to anybody what the program is?
Never. Not even overseas. Everybody knows about “60 Minutes.”
Do you consider yourself a New Yorker now?
Yeah, I guess so. I have to tell you, if I had not sold my house, I probably would have gone back to Los Angeles when the pandemic hit and we were all able to work remotely. That was not an option. So I had to weather the pandemic here in New York, and that just sort of makes you a New Yorker. We all went through hell together. And we’re coming out on the other side. As a matter of fact, the other day I was cursing the traffic. Because during the pandemic you’d get anywhere in a minute, no traffic anywhere. And now the traffic is back.
The “CBS This Morning Saturday” host is bringing a lifetime of experience to the network’s George Floyd coverage.
What do you miss most about L.A. ?
It was home. My kids grew up there. My oldest was barely 5 when we moved there, and they went all to elementary school and high school, and came home from college to Los Angeles. [Both of Whitaker’s children graduated from Harvard-Westlake.] Had a lot of great friends. And I knew the city backwards and forwards. I could get everywhere without getting on the 405. It’s a great city. New Yorkers, still today, have a tendency to kind of look down their noses at L.A., that everybody’s into appearances and whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, OK, if that’s what you think don’t go. It’s too crowded already.”
You were one among guests hosts on “Jeopardy!” who appeared last year after Alex Trebek’s death. How was your experience on the show?
All the craziness happened after I was on the show. How was my experience? Well, I realized that there’s television news, and that I’m familiar with. But Hollywood television with the studios, and the cameras, and the angles — that’s a different animal. Got to hit your mark. The camera’s swooping in from the sides, you’ve got to look at this one when you’re announcing something. And another one over the contestants, you have to make sure you look at that one when you’re introducing the other thing. There’s a lot of moving parts there. With TV news I have one, maybe two cameras, and they’re static, and I’m looking at them all. So I did 10 “Jeopardy!” shows and probably around show seven, I was like, OK, I’ve kind of got this. I’m happy I did it, and happy I have a day job that I love.
Did you find yourself recognized even more on the street by women of a certain age because of that additional exposure?
Being recognized after I got to “60 Minutes” — that was a shock to me. When I used to work in Los Angeles, the evening news comes on at 5:30. Lots of people are still commuting. I had a very public job but I was not a public figure. And I loved that. I could go to dinner, I could walk down the street, it just wasn’t an issue. So I was not prepared for coming to New York and being on “60 Minutes,” and having people stop you on the subway, stop you on the street, come over to you in the restaurants. I’m still not used to it. But “Jeopardy!” sort of pushed it up a notch. That was just after being on for two weeks.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about improving diversity in newsrooms. Are you seeing it in the numbers, and are you seeing it in the approach to topics?
I’m certainly seeing it with “CBS Evening News.” There are many more diverse faces on air. And what people don’t see behind the scenes, there are many, many more people of color behind the scenes at CBS News. The topics, I think so, but only in that how we are dealing with our increasing diverse democracy is front and center. It is the news. It can’t be avoided. So when I tell the story of George Floyd, I’m not telling a Black story, I’m telling the story of America. Similar with the border and all of these stories, you can’t slice and dice American society, and American history, and American news and say there’s this history over here but this is, Black history or Latino history. So it’s unavoidable today. And also because of the diversity behind the cameras and in front of the cameras these stories are coming to the forefront.
You’ve been to 61 countries for CBS News. What’s your takeaway after seeing so much of the world?
I’ve always found that there is a human connection. We all want the same things: to be able to care for our families, and to have peace, and to live an interesting and fulfilling life. That’s universal. And it’s kind of hard to sit here in the United States where we are so fortunate and often we look at the rest of the world as being dangerous, and depending on which continent we’re talking about it could be backwards. And I have not found that to be the case at all. I was recently in Uganda for a story coming up in the fall, and it was - in the southwest corner of Uganda and it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen in my life. And people were generous, and beautiful, and warm, and giving.
Stephen Battaglio writes about television and the media business for the Los Angeles Times out of New York. His coverage of the television industry has appeared in TV Guide, the New York Daily News, the New York Times, Fortune, the Hollywood Reporter, Inside.com and Adweek. He is also the author of three books about television, including a biography of pioneer talk show host and producer David Susskind.