“Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes,” by Ira Rosen (St. Martin’s Press)
Long-time multi-award winning producer Ira Rosen has written a sometimes sad, often funny, always revealing portrait of American television’s most famous and successful news show, “60 Minutes.”
Rosen certainly had reporting time for this book – he was a producer at the CBS show for nearly 25 years.
In anecdotes and conversations, Rosen offers an engaging tutorial on how “60 Minutes'” signature high-quality mini-documentaries are produced but perhaps the book’s most important contribution comes in ratifying the essential role of skilled, tenacious journalism in maintaining a democracy.
In 2007, for example Rosen produced a piece on how members of Congress sold stock based in information learned in closed meetings – insider trading.
“The more you know about politicians, the worse they appear,” Rosen writes.
Misdeeds of our elected representatives provided a steady stream of story topics for “60 Minutes” in the Rosen years, less so now as more show segments appear to be linked to the news and fewer pieces are investigative.
“60 Minutes” emerges as a less-than great place to work, at least in the era of founder Don Hewitt. He shunned staff meetings and essentially let producers and correspondents fight it out for stories and airtime. Correspondent Mike Wallace thrived in that untamed workplace, poaching stories from his fellow correspondents, berating producers and abusing women staffers.
Rosen produced for Wallace for nine years but never truly learned to manage the star correspondent’s outbursts and general bad behavior.
Rosen related how Wallace once barged into Rosen’s office, demanding to know who was on the phone. Rosen said nothing, handed the phone to Wallace and left the room. Rosen had been talking to his mother.
Wallace never again interrupted Rosen’s phone calls.
And for critics who consider the news media as collectively left-leaning, consider this: In a post-presidency interview with Jimmy Carter, Wallace avoided asking Carter a question the answer to which likely would reflect badly on the Reagans. Wallace was a “friend and defender” of the Reagans, the book notes.
A fundamental journalism tenet is that a principled reporter cannot be friends or have relationships with people or institutions in their reporting orbit.
By contrast, Lesley Stahl, Bill Whitaker and Anderson Cooper emerge as stand-out reporters and polite, considerate, caring people. Ed Bradley was a producer favorite.
Rosen produced “60 Minutes” pieces into the Trump presidency, a traumatic time for journalists everywhere. He retired in 2019 and misses the powerful investigative pieces of the program’s glory days.
“We were not dismissed as fake news,” he said. “We solved problems… our reporting uncovered crooked congressmen… we got the wrongfully convicted out of prison” (and we) persuaded “whistleblowers, con men and mob bosses to tell their stories.”
This story corrects the spelling of Lesley Stahl.