If you like 60 Minutes, you’ll love Ira Rosen

by | Jun 22, 2023 | What’s Happening

 Tuesday, August 1, 12 pm, Sandler Family Campus

A lot of familiar names are in Ira Rosen’s engrossing book, Ticking Clock, Behind the Scenes at 60 Minutes. Names such as Harry Reasoner and Ed Bradley, Leslie Stahl and Morley Safer are found throughout, but local TV viewers of a certain age will also remember Byron Pitts, who worked alongside me as a reporter at WAVY TV for two years in the mid 80’s.

I obviously didn’t know Baltimore-born Pitts well enough because Rosen writes that he overcame a tough childhood (Pitts was “functionally illiterate” until age 12) to pursue not just a post in Portsmouth, but a correspondent’s job at 60 Minutes. He went from WAVY to Orlando, Tampa, D.C., and N.Y. where he won an Emmy for his coverage of 9/11.  And he fulfilled his dream, landing on the air at 60 Minutes where Ira Rosen was an occasional segment producer for the young and hungry reporter  – the only African American on the show at that time.

I’ll ask Rosen, who joined 60 Minutes in 1980 at the age of 26, about Mr. Pitts (who is now at ABC) when he comes to the Simon Family JCC for a book festival gathering, but most of the interview will focus on more famous people with whom he interacted, including Mike Wallace, the curmudgeonly face of 60 Minutes for whom the author was a principal producer. (“I was trapped with Mike Wallace,” Rosen writes.) You will learn that it’s the intrepid producers who typically find and set up the stories, track down the subjects, and arrange the interviews. Rosen did this with everyone from Yasir Arafat and Jimmy Carter to Larry Flynt, Muhammed Ali, Marlon Brando, and Dr. Strangelove (Edward Teller.)

But it was the great issues of the time that Rosen also pursued, from Three Mile Island to Nazi war criminals being allowed into the U.S., from Jesse Jackson’s meteoric rise in politics to the Italian mob. (Wait until he talks about his relationship with the Gotti family). For me, learning how he found stories was intriguing. At 60 Minutes, Rosen seemingly had an unlimited travel budget and would hop on flights just to search for stories that could become fodder, for say, a Steve Croft feature.

What a luxury, but also an intense responsibility because the competition among correspondents and producers was stiff. And of course, Rosen had to put up with Wallace who could be as cruel to those assigned to him as he was to female staffers that he allegedly assaulted. On the 60 Minutes team, Wallace wasn’t the only boor involved with the broadcast, says Rosen, who pulls no punches in his description of the work environment at CBS New York.

Yet 60 Minutes, presumably tamer today inside, remains a vital American institution and a highly desirable career objective for any journalist.  Sharon Alfonsi, who was a reporter at WVEC in Norfolk in the late 1990’s, reached 60 Minutes in 2015, and in 2018, Paul McCartney admitted to her on air that he couldn’t read music, was wildly insecure, and worried about his legacy.

Rosen left 60 Minutes for a while for ABC where he launched the use of hidden cameras and worked alongside Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson on 20/20 and Primetime Live. But certainly, it’s his first glamour job that defines his life, and ours.

Frankly, despite the faults Rosen details, I love 60 Minutes. When the clock strikes 7 pm on Sundays (or later during the darn NFL season when the 4 pm game runs late), it is appointment viewing in my household. And I’m rarely disappointed, so when I learned that one of its most noted producers was coming to town, I practically demanded that I have the chance to spend time on stage with Ira Rosen. I wolfed down his book and invite you to as well, either before August 1 or right after you hear him that day at lunch. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Ira Rosen will speak at the Simon Family JCC at 12 pm on Tuesday, August 1. $12 admission, $6 for ages 55+ (lunch included). $27 for lunch and signed book. Special pricing for lunch and book ends July 25. For more information and to register, visit JewishVA.org/BookFest or contact Hunter Thomas at HThomas@UJFT.org. 

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The Lee & Bernard Jaffe Family Jewish Book Festival is held in coordination with the Jewish Book Council, the longest-running organization devoted exclusively to the support and celebration of Jewish literature.

Joel Rubin