Ira Rosen has seen and told his fair share of stories in his nearly 25 years as a CBS “60 Minutes” producer. In total, Rosen has spent 53 years following stories as a writer and journalist, which has earned him two Peabody Awards, four Depont Awards, 24 Emmys and the Hillman Prize for his reporting. Rosen’s new book, “Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes,” (St. Martin’s Press), highlights the moving, amusing and insightful accounts of what it was like to work at the award winning news show. Rosen recently spoke about his book for the Cornell Club in a special Webinar program, and in a recent phone interview talked with the Ithaca Times about his life and new book.
Ithaca Times: You have a long history of reporting the news [on TV] and in writing. Talk about your first story at Cornell University when you were a student, and how it came about? And is that what drew you to become a journalist and writer?
Ira Rosen: Absolutely, the best training ground was working at the Cornell Daily Sun. I was friends with some of the guys on the Cornell basketball team, and they told me they were all eating their pre-game meals at McDonald’s. And I said ‘what? I said I thought you guys ate really well.’ So I went to the school athletic director and I asked for the receipt, because I didn’t believe they were eating at McDonald’s. So he sent me to the bursar’s office. The bursar’s office gave me the file that they had, and one of the sheets they gave me was each player received $55 in cash. And you have to remember in 1974, 1975, $55 was a lot of money. So I showed it to the players, and they said wait a second, when we signed this piece of paper, it said only 15 dollars — they had to sign a blank piece of paper. So the coach gave them a blank piece of paper, had them write it, and then typed in at the top that each player received $55 in cash — when they were only receiving 15. So anyway I went to this senior editor and he didn’t think this was much of a story.
And then I was doing laundry in Collegetown, and I ran into Joel Rudin, who was managing editor of the Sun and told him what I had and he said if we co-write it together, I’ll make it the biggest banner headline in the history of the Cornell Daily Sun. And I said great. And Joel was really a very, very good writer and became a well-known lawyer. So Joel and I worked with Bill Howard, the legendary sports editor, and it caused the coach to get fired. It caused the Cornell athletic department to be put on probation with the NCAA. The coach was using the money to pay incoming application fees for recruiters, which was a violation of the NCAA rules.
Anyway it was an enormous case for me — I think I was 19-years-old when I broke that story. I ended up going to Washington and working with Jack Anderson at the Washington Post — all as a result of that story.
IT: You had a little experience in broadcast media, and then landed a job as producer at “60 Minutes.” There was a great deal of pressure to succeed, but what helped you to become better as you worked and helped veteran reporter Mike Wallace?
IR: Well what happened was he hired me when I was 26 years old, and I became the youngest producer in the show’s history. I was really lucky to learn a trade from working with Wallace and Don Hewitt, the creator of “60 Minutes.” I was a little pisher — I didn’t know very much, and they really took me under their wing and taught me the business. And I said in my book the “Ticking Clock,” which I will talk about on Monday [in the Webinar through the Cornell Club], Mike was a real, real, real hard guy to work with — he was screaming, he was yelling, he didn’t tolerate fools gladly and it was a very, very tough situation. A lot of the producers that worked with him developed medical illness. But if I was going to learn the business from the master, I just needed to just basically, you know, put up with it. And I kind of preserved and learned the business from these guys.
IT: After 25 years as a producer at “60 Minutes,” you decided to leave and write “Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes.” Talk about what the blue sheet was, and why it could cause such competition, and even bitter feelings between the reporters and producers?
IR: The blue sheet was a quick claim deed on a story. So if there is a big court case that breaks overnight and you get the blue sheet in first that story belongs to you. But what often happened was Morley Safer would read the New York Times, because a lot of the stories would come from the New York Times, and so Morley would get up early at four in the morning, and read the Times, and he would call in a blue sheet before anybody. But Mike Wallace was friends with Abe Rosenthal, who was editor of the New York Times, and he had a special delivery of the New York Times at 11 o’clock at his house every night, and got to see what was in the paper before anybody. But even that sometimes didn’t work so I sometimes did what was called an airport run, and what I do, remember this was a period of time before, there was no internet, no computer, newspapers came three days late. And so, in order to get the jump on another producer to get the story, you have to still find it first. So I would normally go to the airport, throw my credit card down and say “next flight out.” And if the flight is going to Tennessee, [to find those pages,] you know sorry Charlie, you’re gonna go to Tennessee that’s part of the karma of the chase. And then when you land in Nashville, you get all the newspapers and you see if there is a worthy 60 Minutes story, and if there is, we research it, we shoot it, and all that, it’s our film.
We go back to the airport counter and say ‘next flight out.’ And you go until, basically spend two, three days on the road, and you go and find a story or two, and you get the jump on everybody else. And it’s kind of exciting back then to do it. Now it’s more [complicated], terrorists changed the way we kind of board airplanes.
IT: There are many stories in the book you share, from presidents to other well-known figures such as mob boss John Gotti Jr. Apart from overcoming the charm, finesse or smarts of the person you were covering — what did you discover the hardest lesson was during your time at “60 Minutes?”
IR: Well, that’s a great question. I think the hardest thing was really twofold. One is gaining the trust of the people who are telling you their life story, and are giving you information, whether it’s sources or people you are profiling with. And in the book I talk about some of those relationships that I develop with people like with Steve Bannon and John Gotti. And what you do is 90% of life is showing up, and if people kind of accept you as part of the furniture, you would be amazed at what they tell you. The hardest part is gaining the trust of the people, if you are going to do a “60 Minutes” story on them. And that would be the hardest part.
IT: Was there a story that was hard to write in your book but was enjoyable once it was done?
IR: Probably the story that I am most proud that I did was a story we did with the Washington Post on the opioid epidemic. That story ended up winning more awards than any story in the history of 60 Minutes. It won a Peabody, a Dupont, an Emmy and a Hellman. You know, it won awards that I didn’t know existed.
And we told a story about an epidemic that was killing hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, and it was done by corporate America, and they basically did it to make their profit. The Sackler family, the McKesson Corporation. It was very difficult to make and to produce. And plus we had to maintain a relationship with the people we were working with at the Washington Post. And everything clicked, you don’t always get that in everything in what we do.
IT: It seems not all mainstream media can craft a story. What do you think the direction of good news reporting is heading in America right now? What are your hopes for it?
IR: Well my hope for it is that we get back to delivery of fair TV shows and reporters not having an express bias in their story telling — whether it’s pro-Trump, anti-Trump, or pro-Biden or anti-Biden, tt’s quite a strain — the viewers and readers are pretty smart, and if you lay out the facts they will come to their own opinion about right and wrong. You don’t need to confuse viewers and readers about what the person believes in.