Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes, with Ira Rosen

On Thursday, December 8 at 6:45 p.m., “Jewish Literary Voices: A Federation Series in collaboration with The Jewish Book Council” welcomes renowned television news producer Ira Rosen. His book Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes chronicles a career that began in a media landscape dominated by major newspapers and three network news outlets in the late 1970s and that continues in today’s 24-hour news cycle driven by cable news and the Internet. To register for this online program, please click here.

Purchase the book here and a portion of the proceeds will be donated back to the local Bookstore in Lenox.

In late November, the Berkshire Jewish Voice caught up with Rosen, who had just returned from a trip to Israel. He talked about his book and shared thoughts about the current state of the media. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

Although Ticking Clock is a short and manageable book, you cover so much ground from when you started in the 1970s, a time when the mainstream media were the gatekeepers of the news, all the way up to the Internet age, where there are news sources coming at you from many different directions. What was better then about the way news was delivered to the public and what's better now?

I think back then – and I don't want to sound like an old f**t – but the storytelling was a lot better. One of the things that 60 Minutes did in its heyday was to present both sides of the story. One of the stories that I loved was something called ‘Driving While Old.’ Harry Reasoner did this story a long time ago about old people in Florida, some of whom really shouldn't have kept having a [driver’s] license, and about the judge who needed to decide whether to take their license away or not. If they kept their license, they might be a danger to people on the road; but if the license is taken away, the judge ruins these people's lives – they can't see their friends, go to the supermarket, golf, whatever it is they do.

[60 Minutes’ executive producer] Don Hewitt used to call this a “Hey, Mildred Story” – as in, “Hey Mildred, come over here. What do you think?” “God, get the guy off the road.” “No, no, you're going to kill the guy if you do that.” That was the cacophony that existed on a person's couch on a Sunday night. People would argue about that sort of thing. We gave you both sides of a story that allowed you, as the viewer, to decide. Today, people are watching TV and the news, for the most part, to have their ideas reinforced. So if you're pro-Democrat, you know what network to go to. Pro-Republican, you know where to go. People are having that sort of critical thinking on stories and ideas, and that is something that I think is horrible about what's happening today. 60 Minutes is falling into that trap, as well. I can't remember the last story that I saw on the show which gave you both sides of the coin and allowed you, the viewer, to decide what you believe in. I think I’ve missed that.

I think what you do is present both sides of the story. [Journalists now] do this “We-called-him-up- and-he-refused-to-comment” kind of thing, that sort of gives the appearance of fairness. But even when I was doing stories about the opioid industry, I always spent some time with the opioid people, who were obviously involved in distributing drugs that killed a lot of people. I said to them, “I want to know what your ideas are. Tell me what your thinking is.” I would always try to reflect their positions in a story because I think you, as a viewer, want to hear what their side of it is. That actually makes your story stronger against the people you're exposing.

So that kind of segues into my next question. We’re speaking just a couple of days after CBS News reported that indeed the Hunter Biden laptop is real. It's a true story. That’s about two years after the news about the authenticity of the laptop broke, and the CBS reporter seemed, to me anyway, to be following the same breadcrumbs that the New York Post reporter did to confirm her story back then. In a 60 Minutes interview Leslie Stahl did with Donald Trump before the election two years ago, she repeatedly said that this information cannot be verified. And it didn’t seem like she had much interest in verifying the story. So do you think this adherence to particular political narratives is causing today's mainstream media to suppress stories? Given your historical perspective as an investigative reporter trying to get to the bottom of malfeasance and corruption, how does that make you feel?

Well, I think Leslie's one of the fairest correspondents I know – she is really right down the middle. I think when she did that Donald Trump interview, I think nobody had any certainty about the validity of the computer. The New York Times didn’t, the Washington Post didn’t. You're right. The New York Post did, but the New York Post is the New York Post. So I think that, just to be fair to Leslie, when she did that interview, there were a lot of questions evolving, and it really wasn't her job at the time or her story at the time to go looking at that particular computer. She was there to do an interview with Trump. But anyway, I think your question really is, is there a bit of a slant in terms of some of these stories? From what I know, there is absolutely a bias in certain news organizations. And that's really unfortunate. I mean, before the election in 2020, I think there was some discouragement about going after Biden, who was running against Trump, in certain quarters of the media. So I think there were certain slants that were going on and it makes me sad that that sort of thing exists.

But how do you feel it affects public trust in the mainstream media, particularly now? You also have the very powerful entities of social media. Just to go back to the Hunter Biden laptop, Facebook would not allow you people to post stories about it, nor would Twitter, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, it seemed like the news was being suppressed. Why should we trust a news source now?

Well, I think the facts they're printing are generally accurate – but what you don't know is what they're excluding. It's the exclusion that sort of worries me right now. Journalism schools are doing something called news literacy, basically teaching students to be critical readers of the newspapers and TV to be able to, in terms of what they read, analyze it on their own. I think in many ways that doesn't exist [among consumers of the news]. People, like I said, go to have their ideas reinforced, not to have their challenged.

One of the great things also about your book is it does give us an incredible behind-the-scenes look into the personalities of TV news presenters. It seemed like there was definitely some bridge burning that might have been going on your part. And you were that frank about the people you worked with because...?

Who are you talking about specifically? I mean, Mike Wallace is the main character of the book, and I felt I needed to write an honest portrayal, both good and bad. I'm pretty open about his genius in terms of what he did. On the other hand, I'm also pretty open about how he treated me. It's not something that I'm the first one to report. Chris Wallace, at his father's funeral, talked a little bit about it. Morley Safer, in the final interview with Mike, talked about it. He actually used the word “prick” to Mike's face, saying that “you are one.” I could have written a book where everybody is great, and everyone works together; but I would not have been an honest book. And I felt I needed to write an honest book.

What fallout has there been for you professionally and personally?

People who actually read the book love the book. And the people who didn't read the book didn't like the book. So I think in terms of the fallout, some people aren't talking to me now, but they weren't talking to me before I wrote the book. So it's not much of a loss in that regard. When you write these things, half the people are going to really love it. And the producers I work with would talk to me for hours about the book on the phone, loving it and kvelling over it. Others who hadn't had a chance to read it would say, well, why did you write this or that? But they haven't read it within the context of the larger story. So when I approached the book, I wanted to let the chips fall where they may.

You were a pioneer in the use of the hidden camera to expose people involved in your stories. How do you feel about the way that it's being used now by, let's say, Project Veritas?

I think Project Veritas is despicable, but the use of hidden cameras in mainstream media has really gone away. After Food Lion, which I wrote a bit about in the book, it kind of disappeared. [Editor’s Note: !n 1997, a federal jury ordered ABC to pay Food Lion more than $5.5 million in punitive damages for a hidden-camera expose on the grocery store chain’s sanitation practices. ABC ultimately won the case on appeal, but the legal wrangling was prolonged and the cost of litigation was high.] Project Veritas is doing [hidden cameras] in an entrapment kind of way. When we did our hidden camera stories, the key was to be a fly on the wall, to go into a place and let the wrongdoing expose itself. So if you're in a nursing home, for example, you expose the abuses that are going on. You go to the packing plant, you see how they're treating the animals, and you didn't try to influence what you're seeing. What you did was you were capturing what the abuses were and the wrongdoing. What Veritas is doing is trying to entrap you, trying to get you to say something or do something that you normally would not do. They train their people to do that. So it's a totally different world.

We had a society of professional journalist standards checklist that we had to go through – almost the equivalent of a search warrant for the police. You couldn't do it unless you got all these various levels of approval.

Towards the end, you write about [hedge fund heiress and conservative activist] Rebekah Mercer. [Editor’s Note: Rosen writes, “It seemed with the election of Trump the characters I began to hang out with were outliers who were ruling the world. None fit that definition more than Rebekah Mercer.”] You describe her penthouse and the vast amount of wealth that she has. [At the meeting of the conservative Gatestone Institute,] she all of a sudden finds herself being a little bit unsettled [by Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone’s concern about the issue of income disparity, which Mercer calls out as “socialism”]. You write write “those at the lunch were a little surprised at her…calling attention to what those present understood – they like their rich and privileged life and don't want anything to disrupt it.” The portrait that you paint towards the end of your book makes it seems like everyone is in bed together, that all these forces like the news and business and the legal system and Congress are all working together, looking out after similar interests, their rich and privileged lives?

Yeah, it's very perceptive on your part that that stuck out. I mean, the fact is that congressmen need to raise money in order to stay in Congress. Where is the best place to get money? A Fortune 500 company. But they want something for the money. So there's this symbiotic relationship. I kind of really liked Rebekah Mercer. I'm not saying I liked her politics, but I liked her energy, her smarts, and she was open enough to have spirited conversations. She's a believer that global warming is a hoax. I think it's quite real. And so we would have interesting conversations about this. And that's what I was saying to you at the beginning of this conversation, about 60 Minutes in its heyday, which is to be open to having a different point of view.

But what if the press is part of that symbiosis? 

I think the tension really manifested itself during the Trump years. I felt this and I know this anecdotally from friends of mine in the mainstream media – not CBS, but other places where some people were very fearful of Trump winning again. And I think they either held back stories or didn't encourage stories that would be a diminishment of Biden. I think that's where the laptop thing that you asked about earlier came into play. They're not saying it's not real, but it could be real on November 11 and instead of being real on November 8. Personally, I think there's no doubt it was real. However, I also felt – again this is just me personally – that it was a bit of a sideshow. Jimmy Carter had Billy Carter, if you remember, who had this relationship with Libya. Each president has a member of their family they may not be proud of.

But the press covered Billy Carter. It's not like they said Billy Carter wasn't real.

No, but the difference is they covered Billy Carter, but they didn't blame Jimmy Carter for Billy Carter's problems. Remember when Billy Carter peed in front of a house? They didn't say Jimmy Carter's brother urinated in front of the house. It was a separate story, and nobody thought differently about Jimmy. My thinking is that [while Hunter Biden’s] computer is real, I think it's a sideshow. Unless you could show that Joe Biden benefited financially or did something out of his way to cause [Hunter] not to get prosecuted, I don't think it has any relevance.