NEW YORK — When it first aired in 1968, 60 Minutes revolutionized TV journalism by airing in-depth stories that traditionally received little coverage on regular broadcast news. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the news magazine, its creator and correspondents came to Fordham on Sept. 3 and reflected on all the interviews, stories and events that have played a prominent role in television history.
“There is no group of people who are more surprised by the success of 60 Minutes than we are,” said Don Hewitt, the show’s creator and executive producer. “We thought it would be a moderate success, but nobody ever imagined in their wildest dreams that we’d be in the top ten for 22 years, which really impresses us because [I Love Lucy] only had 12 [years].”
The event, 60 Minutes at Age 35: A Seminar, was sponsored by the National Television Academy and hosted by the Fordham Schools of Business. Hewitt was joined in the Law School’s McNally Amphitheater by 60 Minutes colleagues Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft, Bob Simon and Andy Rooney. Bill Small, vice chairman for news and documentaries at the National Television Academy and former dean of Fordham’s Graduate School of Business Administration, served as the event’s moderator.
“We had six years [when]nobody paid any attention to us,” said Wallace of the news magazine’s formative years. “[Then] there was a gas shortage and people would stay home on Sunday afternoons instead of going to see grandma. And they fiddled around with their dials and, little by little, they began to look at us. And by the time they began to look at us, we were ready.”
Since then, 60 Minutes has been at the forefront of every monumental news story from the Vietnam War to the war in Iraq, from President Nixon’s resignation to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the program has also provided inspirational glimpses of less high-profile people, such as teacher Marva Collins, whose dissatisfaction with Chicago’s educational system led her to found Westfield Preparatory School in 1975.
“The stories were what I wanted to cover,” said Stahl, who joined the 60 Minutes team in 1991 after a distinguished news career in Washington, D.C. “That’s the best thing about 60 Minutes. We do choose are own stories and that, to me, is the true gift.”
When asked where he gets his ideas for his end-of-broadcast editorials, Rooney answered with his trademark blend of gruff humor and sarcasm.
“Well I don’t come up with them, they come up to me,” said Rooney. “People do ask me that and it’s a dumb question. … The way ideas come to a writer is that he or she sits down at a typewriter or a computer and damn well decides to have an idea.”
In terms of wondering how the audience will eventually receive stories, Kroft pointed out that there are many surprises along the way.
“It’s amazing how sometimes you have a tremendous impact by doing stories,” said Kroft. “It’s also amazing sometimes that you have a great piece that points out a great injustice, but nothing will change at all. Many times, the greatest reward and the biggest feedback you get is when you actually do something that changes something.”
This summer, reruns of 60 Minutes are in the top five in the ratings race, proving that the news magazine still has appeal. Some longtime members of the team are occasionally criticized for being too old for their jobs, but Wallace noted that the team is what makes 60 Minutes a lasting success.
“I’m struck by … the wisdom, the experience, the understanding, the sophistication, the humanity of this group of people with whom I’ve been working for 35 years,” said Wallace. “It’s extraordinary that we’ve been permitted over 35 years by the company, by the American people, to do what we do week to week.”
Founded in 1841, Fordham is New York City’s Jesuit University. It has residential campuses in the Bronx, Manhattan and Tarrytown, and the Louis J. Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y.