Bill Whitaker, a ’60 Minutes’ man in NYC, still loves L.A.

The role of a correspondent on the venerable CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes is still considered the brass ring for television journalists. Bill Whitaker worked at CBS News for years before finally getting his chance in 2014 after working in Asia and spending two decades at the network’s Los Angeles office, where he was a regular on CBS Evening News.

With about 20 “60 Minutes” segments per year, ranging from explaining the supply chain crisis to driving along Wyoming’s Green River Drift, the elegant 70-year-old Philadelphia native is now a familiar, authoritative presence in prime time.

The Los Angeles Press Club will recognize Whitaker’s successful journey on Saturday when he receives the Joseph M. Quinn Award for Lifetime Achievement. Whitaker, a former Hollywood Hills resident who now lives in New York, shared some thoughts on his career in an interview last week.

You were in the Los Angeles office of CBS News for 22 years. How did that prepare you for “60 Minutes”?

It has politics, immigration and the economy, the military is out there, you have environmental stories, the wildfires. You name it, everything is out there. But here at 60 Minutes you have the luxury of time and resources. They come up with a story that the front office thinks is worthwhile, they give you the money and the time and the crews and cameras and say just go for it. And you’d better come back with the goods, but you can travel the world.

Bill Whitaker with him "60 minutes" Office in New York.

“I’m so fortunate to have a job that allows me to see the world and I hope to educate people and make a difference,” Whitaker said.

(Evelyn Freja/For the Times)

What is the most important skill you have developed working in LA?

The TV news is all about deadlines, but deadlines in LA are brutal. I worked for an employer on the east coast. The CBS Evening News airs at 6:30 am Eastern Time, which is 3:30 am in LA. My working day was shortened by a third. I’ve learned to focus, be organized, and use every minute wisely. I learned why my laptop is called a laptop. Often I would sit 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 have learned to rely on my colleagues. Broadcast news is a collaborative endeavor. The producer, photographer, sound engineer – we are all journalists. With LA’s unrelenting time pressures, we all have to rely on meeting our goals every day or we’ll miss that deadline. I’m happy to report that we never did.

You covered the OJ Simpson trial for the network. What is your lasting impression from this time?

In my early years in LA I covered the federal trial of Rodney King and the trial of Reginald Denny, both big trials, but nothing quite compares or prepared me for OJ. the media village with the network’s tall towers across the street; a skywriter who proposes marriage over the head of Marcia Clark; the USC Marching Band; the dancing Itos. It was a murder trial as a circus. I’ve never experienced a trial with so many breath-taking moments: the bloody glove, the N-word, the verdict. Yet the process was about so much more. It was about race in America, about wealth and fame and police work wrapped up in two brutal murders. The verdict shone a spotlight on our deep-rooted racial segregation, a division that still plagues us.

60 Minutes remains the biggest news program on television. But like everything else on TV, it’s not as big as it used to be. Does the brand name have the same kind of clout?

Oh yeah. The opioid series we did had an impact. Congress paid attention to this piece. We just recently did a story about drug shortages and the crowd of people in Congress, people in the medical field, researchers, everybody, you know, we were inundated with people saying, ‘What? I had no idea this was going on. We have to do something about it.’ It still has tremendous reach in this fragmented world. We still reach more people than any other news program.

So you didn’t have to explain to anyone what the program was, even at a time when fewer people were watching classic television?

Never. Not even abroad. Everyone knows “60 minutes”.

Do you consider yourself a New Yorker now?

Yes I think so. I have to tell you if I hadn’t sold my house I probably would have moved back to Los Angeles when the pandemic hit and we were all able to work remotely. That wasn’t an option. So I had to weather the pandemic here in New York, and that kind of makes you a New Yorker. We all went through hell together. And we come out the other side. In fact, I cursed traffic the other day. Because during the pandemic you could get anywhere in a minute, there was no traffic anywhere. And now the traffic is back.

What do you miss most about LA?

It was at home. My children grew up there. My oldest was barely 5 when we moved there and they were all going through elementary and high school and coming back to Los Angeles from college. [Both of Whitaker’s children graduated from Harvard-Westlake.] Had a lot of great friends. And I knew the city inside and out. I could get anywhere without getting on the 405. It’s a great city. New Yorkers today still tend to look down on LA that everyone is into looks and whatever. And I said, “Oh, OK, if that’s what you’re thinking, don’t go. It’s already too crowded.”

You were one of the hosts on Jeopardy!, which emerged last year after the death of Alex Trebek. 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 is TV news and I’m familiar with it. But Hollywood television with the studios and the cameras and the angles — that’s a different beast. You have to hit your target. The camera shoots in from the sides, so you have to look when you announce something. And one more thing about the candidate, you have to make sure you’re looking at that when you’re introducing the other thing. There are many moving parts. On TV news, I have one camera, maybe two, and they’re static and I look at them all. So I got 10 “Jeopardy!” shows and probably around the seventh show I was like, OK, I kinda got that. I’m glad I did and lucky to have a job that I love.

Whitaker at his "60 minutes" Office at CBS News (Evelyn Freja / For The Times)

Whitaker in his 60 Minutes office at CBS News (Evelyn Freja / For The Times)

(Evelyn Freja/For the Times)

Because of that extra exposure on the street, did you get noticed even more by women of a certain age?

Being recognized after arriving at 60 Minutes was a shock to me. When I used to work in Los Angeles, the evening news came at 5:30 am. Many people still commute. I had a very public job, but I wasn’t a public figure. And I loved that. I could go to dinner, I could walk down the street, it just wasn’t a problem. So I wasn’t prepared to come down to New York and be on 60 Minutes and have people stop you on the subway, stop you on the street, come up to you in the restaurants. I’m still not used to it. But “Danger!” somehow pushed it up a notch. That was just after two weeks.

There has been much discussion in recent years about improving diversity in editorial offices. Do you see it in the numbers, do you see it in the approach to issues?

I’ll definitely see it on the CBS Evening News. There are many more different faces in the air. And what the people behind the scenes don’t see, there are many, many more people of color behind the scenes at CBS News. The issues, I think so, but only how we deal with our ever more diverse democracy is in the foreground. It’s 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 to the frontier and all these stories, you can’t slice up American society, American history, and American news and say there’s that story over here, but that’s the story of the black people or the story of the Latinos. That is why it is inevitable today. And also because of the diversity behind and in front of the camera, these stories come to the fore.

You’ve been to 61 countries for CBS News. What do you take away with you after seeing so much of the world?

I have always found that there is a human connection. We all want the same thing: to be able to provide for our families, to have peace and to lead an interesting and fulfilling life. This is universal. And it’s kind of hard sitting here in the United States where we’re so lucky and often we see the rest of the world as dangerous and depending on what continent we’re talking about it might be backward. And I have found that this is not the case at all. I was recently in Uganda for a story that was due out in the fall and it was – in the southwest corner of Uganda and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. And people were generous and beautiful and warm and generous. Bill Whitaker, a ’60 Minutes’ man in NYC, still loves L.A.

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