Whitaker Gets Turn In '60 Minutes' Spotlight

After 30 years as a correspondent for CBS News, Bill Whitaker was summoned to New York from Los Angeles to meet with chairman Jeff Fager. “I am thinking this is either really good or really bad,” Whitaker recalls. “Jeff Fager said he’d like me to join the staff of 60 Minutes. At which point your mouth drops open and you look kind of goofy.”

Whitaker had done some stories for 60 Minutes Sports when “it dawned on me, he should be working with us all the time,” says Fager, who is also executive producer of 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes is a pinnacle of TV news, and correspondents often come from the ranks of CBS reporters who understand how to focus stories on deadline. “Bill’s a real journalist. He’s done it all,” Fager says, recalling Whitaker’s reports from the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan. “To come out of unpredictable situations with thoughtful reports that stand out for the care that was put into them, for the quality of the storytelling and writing, those things add up to the kind of correspondent that will succeed at 60 Minutes,” he says. His first piece, on Mexican drug trafficking, could run in the next week or two.

Whitaker also brings to 60 Minutes diversity missing since Ed Bradley’s passing. “That’s important, too. It happens to be a side benefit because it’s not the reason he’s got the job,” Fager says.

Whitaker may have crossed paths with Bradley years ago, though they didn’t know it at the time. When they met at CBS, Whitaker told Bradley he came from a small town named (of all things) Media, Pa. Bradley said he dated a girl from Media, who turned out to be Whitaker’s best friend’s older sister. Bradley would visit Media and see kids playing kickball. One was Whitaker.

Whitaker says his cousins recall that growing up in Media, he would play TV news, saying into a stick, “‘This is Bill Whitaker reporting.’” But in college, Whitaker aimed to be a history professor. After grad school, that didn’t sound exciting, so he got a job producing videos for historic sites.

Whitaker liked interviewing people and the process of filmmaking. “It hit me that that’s what I’d been interested in all along, broadcast journalism,” he recalls. He enrolled in the masters in journalism program at University of California at Berkley. Before getting his degree he landed a job at public broadcasting station KQED in San Francisco. He started running tapes but was soon producing the station’s evening newscast. He wanted to be an onair reporter, so he sent tapes to stations and won a slot in a CBS program that helped local affiliates to groom (and pay for) potential talent.

Working at WBTV in Charlotte, N.C., Whitaker covered a nasty U.S. Senate race between Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Hunt, capturing the attention of CBS News.

Early on, Whitaker contributed to the weekend Evening News, where Jon Klein—who later supervised 60 Minutes as a CBS News executive—recalls Whitaker as unflappable. “Even back then, he was very serious of purpose but very relaxed and easy to work with,” says Klein, now CEO at Tapp TV.

If you needed a story two minutes before deadline, you asked if Whitaker was around, recalls Dan Rather, longtime managing editor and anchor of The CBS Evening News and now host of The Big Interview on AXS-TV. As a person, and as a pro, “he is literally so honest you could shoot dice with him over the telephone,” says Rather, and on camera, “authenticity radiates from him, and with good reason. He has the heart and soul and guts and backbone of a reporter.”

Whitaker says he’s loved being a broadcast journalist and everyone who works in TV news would want to work at 60 Minutes. “It’s certainly a cliché but it’s true: I get a front-row seat on history,” he says. “For me it’s been the perfect job. If there’s a way to top perfection, this is it.”

Whitaker says it’s hard to explain why he’s been able to remain cool in difficult circumstances.

“I think when you are covering a story, your focus is on that and you’re not really thinking about the danger. I know that sounds crazy but you’re focused on the people there. I’m witnessing this, they’re living it,” he says. “I do remember after [the uprising in Beijing’s] Tiananmen Square there were days on end when we worked without getting any rest and I do remember at one point coming back to my hotel and taking a shower and what I was witnessing just sort of flooded in and I have to admit I was overwhelmed. Once you pull back and have a chance to reflect, it hits you.”

The hot spotlight of 60 Minutes means Whitaker will be dealing with a different kind of pressure.

“You come here and the intensity is of a different sort. You have all the resources you need, all the support you need and pretty much all the time you need to make the best story,” he says. “And it had better be; you cannot say ‘I’ve almost got it.’ No. You work with 60 Minutes so you’ve got to have it. I’m not beating that daily deadline but you’ve got to up your game and keep it up.”

Whitaker will be working alongside some of the top people in TV news, both on camera and behind the scenes. “I’m like the new kid on the block and I look down the hallway and it’s Steve Kroft and Lesley Stahl and Bob Simon. These are people I have looked up to the whole time I’ve been at CBS. And now their offices are right down the hall from mine.” (Fager says 60 Minutes staffers are breaking down Whitaker’s door to work with him.)

As for filling Ed Bradley’s role on the broadcast, Whitaker replies: “Who could do that? Ed was unique, a giant in this business. He was someone whose work and style I admired,” adding that he hopes he can add to the broadcast Bradley helped build.

And while diversity is a laudable goal, Whitaker says he’s bringing a rich set of experiences to the job as well his skin color.

“If race were a factor in why someone hired me, I bet that’s not the reason they renewed my contracts. I’m at 60 Minutes because I worked my tail off,” he says. “With the help of some excellent producers, photographers and sound techs, I managed to turn out some good stories—consistently. It’s not black or white; it’s journalism.”

Becoming part of 60 Minutes has also meant change on the home front for Whitaker, who had to move from Los Angeles to New York.

After they’d finished putting two children through college, Whitaker’s wife, Terry, had begun feathering their empty nest by remodeling the kitchen. “It was the kitchen of her dreams. We had it for about a year. And I had to come to her and say ‘honey, guess what?’”

He credits Terry for the kids he likes to brag about. Son William went to Yale and daughter Lesley is getting her master’s in physics from Case Western Reserve. And when Whitaker announced he’d be moving to New York, they decided to go too—at least temporarily.

The startup his son had been working for in Los Angeles folded and his lease was up, so he figured he’d move east, Whitaker says, adding, “He just got a job here, so he should be moving out soon.”

His daughter figured she could write her thesis as easily in New York as in Cleveland, so she’s also in New York—so the empty nest is now a full one.

“It’s great that your kids want to be with you and we want to be with them,” he says. “We know it’s not for a very long stretch of time so we’re just enjoying it right now.”

Some of the best 60 Minutes correspondents have been, in a word, venerable, and Whitaker is taking his place alongside the famous ticking stopwatch at a time when most people are thinking retirement. How long can he keep on reporting?

“I’m a very healthy older correspondent. At this point I have no aches and pains. My doctor tells me my heart is good, so I have no idea,” he says. “I know that I picked up my family and moved everybody cross-country so this had better last for more than a couple of years.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.