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Fifty Years of 60 Minutes by Jeff Fager


Fifty Years of 60 Minutes – At 10 p.m., on the evening of Tuesday, September 24, 1968, a new chapter in television news programming began. Veteran CBS News correspondents Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner sat in armchairs in a New York TV studio with a giant magazine superimposed between them.

Reasoner welcomed the viewers to a new show called “60 Minutes”; he proclaimed it as “a kind of magazine for television”. As the cover of the “magazine” opened for its inaugural season, one of its early major stories featured an interview Wallace conducted with Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who told Wallace – rather ironically – that he hoped to “restore respect to the presidency at all levels by my conduct.”

This new venture in TV news was the brainchild of Don Hewitt, the ambitious, colorful executive producer who cut his teeth with such legendary news shows as “See It Now” with Edward R. Murrow and “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite”. Actually, it was more like a project to keep Hewitt busy, after he was kicked upstairs in 1965 from his position as executive producer of the evening news by then-CBS News president Fred Friendly, who found Hewitt to be too flashy of an individual, and in his eyes, did not fit the image of someone who should be running CBS News’ flagship TV newscast.

This year marks the 50th anniversary season of this magazine for television, and its cover has never closed. Thanks to the reporting and story telling expertise of its stable of seasoned correspondents like Wallace, Reasoner, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, Diane Sawyer, Anderson Cooper and Scott Pelley, “60 Minutes” has set the standards to the golden level of how a TV newsmagazine should be run. Whether it was a revealing celebrity profile, an exclusive interview with a headlining-making newsmaker, an expose of wrongdoing (complete with hidden camera footage and an ambush-style interview with Wallace), a breaking story, a news story with plenty of hidden angles, or a slice-of-life story that not many viewers were aware of, many people thought it was an honour – or a burden – to be the subject of a “60 Minutes” piece … and millions of people have practically made it their Sunday nights at 7 viewing habit for just as long as the show’s been on the air.

To mark 60 Minutes’ golden anniversary, Jeff Fager, the show’s current executive producer, has compiled a lavishly-illustrated book filled with plenty of highlights, behind-the-scenes stories and controversies that are just as intriguing and fascinating as what is presented on the broadcast every week: Fifty Years of 60 Minutes.

This is a season-by-season, decade-by-decade look back at how “60 Minutes” became one of the most influential broadcasts in TV news that somehow managed to get high ratings for more than 40 of its 50 years. Fager does that by recounting some of the show’s greatest – and not so greatest – journalistic moments, many of which the reader who is a regular 60 Minutes viewer will fondly recall watching when these mentioned pieces first aired. There’s Morley Safer’s nostalgic look at the Orient Express railway as he embarked on its final voyage; Mike Wallace’s expose of the fraudulent Murietta health spa; Dan Rather donning Afghan garb as he went “undercover” with Afghan rebels during the early years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the landmark 1983 piece about Lenell Geter, who was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit but thanks to 60 Minutes’ example of thorough investigative journalism, proved that Geter was innocent and was later released from prison; the story about President George W. Bush’s questionable military record during the Vietnam War that practically destroyed Dan Rather’s journalism career; Mike Wallace’s exclusive interview with Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini at the offset of the 1979-80 hostage crisis, in which he delicately asked him the question about what he thought about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat calling him a lunatic; and Lesley Stahl’s interview with Donald Trump and his family shortly after his stunning upset victory over Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential election, in which he promised he will be “very restrained” in regards to his use of Twitter when he became president. And the list just goes on…

And to add a sense of balance, Fager offers plenty of behind the camera stories of what goes on as these stories are being put together, whether it be on the field or in the hectic atmosphere of 60 Minutes’ New York offices. You will get to witness the fiery weekly shouting matches that went on between Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt as they go through the post production vetting of the former’s pieces that were set to air; Wallace’s trolling the hallways as he looked out to steal stories ideas from his fellow correspondents; the CBS management and 60 Minutes personnel who always looked forward to hearing from Hewitt – no matter what time of day it was – about future story or broadcast ideas, which was always punctuated with him saying “Kid, I’ve got a great idea for you”; to how Hewitt gave future contributor Andy Rooney a second chance after his first “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” segment (which dealt with the Fourth of July) practically bombed when it aired in 1978.

Fifty Years of 60 Minutes is a wonderful appreciation of a show that had no hope of surviving its first season in 1968, has now become one of the longest-running shows on television that has set high standards in the annals of broadcast journalism, where the emphasis is not only on the facts, but also telling a good story with a great deal of quality and integrity. After reading this book, you can certainly admit that “60 Minutes” has earned its golden stopwatch; and I hope it never stops ticking!

Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
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