What has made 60 Minutes tick

50 seasons later, a look back at how a grand experiment by producer Don Hewitt became the longest-running broadcast in prime time history

Looking back at 50 years of 60 Minutes, it's worth noting that the longest running broadcast in prime time television history was created by a man with a notoriously short attention span. Don Hewitt was bored by hour-long documentaries and thought any story worth telling could be done in ten or 15 minutes. So he dreamed up this broadcast: three different segments, a little something for everyone.

A half a century later, we're here to celebrate Don's very big -- and very successful idea. We'll be profiling 60 Minutes itself: inside stories about its history and its greatest moments. From the archives, we'll have some outtakes and backstage footage you've never seen before. And interviews we've done over the years with the 60 Minutes pioneers who are gone now, but whose stamp on the broadcast is still on display, every Sunday night.

The formula for a good 60 Minutes story: keep it timely, keep it relevant and never be dull. 

"When we cover a story and report it on Sunday night and it has impact on Monday morning, that's what you hope for."

Some examples, from this 50th season.

Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. We surveyed the damage with the island's governor, Ricardo Rossello.

Steve Kroft: There was no safe haven.

Ricardo Rossello: There was no safe haven.

Just a few weeks earlier, it had been Houston's turn. Scott Pelley found widespread dismay that the city's flood control system was no match for Hurricane Harvey.

Cynthia Nealy: It's gonna rain, we're gonna have hurricanes and tropical storms, so by golly, do something to protect your people from it.

Also this year: an old warrior's last stand. Lesley Stahl with John McCain.

Lesley Stahl: I had to ask him about cancer, he didn't want to go there and I was pushing him there.  

John McCain: I have feelings sometimes of fear of what happens. But as soon as I get that, I say wait a minute. You've been around a long time old man. You've had a great life.  

Bill Whitaker's recent story with producer Ira Rosen about the opioid crisis got Washington's attention.  

Joe Rannazzisi: This is an industry that's out of control.  If they don't follow the law in drug supply, people die.  

Joe Rannazzisi once ran the DEA's war on the illicit sale of prescription drugs. A war undermined - on Capitol Hill.

An investigation by 60 Minutes and the Washington Post found that under heavy lobbying by the drug industry, lawmakers quietly passed a bill last year making it more difficult to stop the sale of addictive pain pills to shady pharmacies and doctors.

Bill Whitaker: Congressman Tom Marino, who pushed this legislation through Congress, was tapped by the Trump Administration to be the new drug czar. And two days after the story ran -- Congressman Marino withdraws his name from being considered. And I would like to think that our story had something to do with that.

Jeff Fager: We want to be relevant we want to be current we want to be about today's news.

Jeff Fager succeeded Don Hewitt in 2004 as executive producer of 60 Minutes.

Jeff Fager: And when we cover a story and report it on Sunday night and it has impact on Monday morning, that's what you hope for.

Over the years we've landed timely interviews with world leaders.

Putin of Russia.

Assad of Syria.

Saddam Hussein, with Dan Rather in 2003. The Iraqi leader denied having weapons of mass destruction, a key justification for the impending American invasion.

Saddam Hussein: I think America and the world also knows that Iraq no longer has the weapons.

It was a controversial interview. But events would prove that what Saddam said about the weapons was correct.

In 2015 Pope Francis was about to embark on a trip to the United States. A big story and a rare opportunity for a few questions from 60 Minutes.

Scott Pelley: What is your goal for America?

To meet people, he told us, just to meet with them.

Jeff Fager: I think we're more current now than we were in past years but the values and the standards that we live by are the same as they were the very first broadcast that went on the air in 1968.

The Beginning

Some behind the scenes footage of the taping of that first broadcast has survived. It began with Harry Reasoner getting rid of a cigarette.

It was, after all, the 60's.    

Harry and Mike Wallace thought the introduction was perfect.

Don Hewitt: Mike, I wanna do it again, you're sitting...

But in the control room, Don Hewitt wasn't happy with the way Mike was sitting.

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Director Artie Bloom, seated in the 60 Minutes control room next to Don Hewitt, helped create the program's timeless look

60 Minutes

And as always, Don got what Don wanted. He was a brash and brilliant man, who not only came up the idea for the broadcast, but ran it for 36 years.

And on this day they rolled the tape again -- and rolled the dice on Don's grand experiment.

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Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace introducing the first story on the first 60 Minutes broadcast on September 24, 1968

CBS News/60 Minutes

Harry Reasoner: This is 60 Minutes. It's a kind of a magazine for television.

And the very first story set the tone for what was to come. 60 Minutes had the only camera in the room as Richard Nixon and friends watched the vote at the Republican Convention. It gave him the nomination for president.

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September 3, 1968. Richard M. Nixon being interviewed by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes

CBS Photo Archive

Interviewed by Mike on the second program, the candidate made a remark that history would note.

Richard Nixon: The most important thing about a public man is not whether he's loved or disliked, but by whether he's respected. And I hope to restore respect to the presidency at all levels by my conduct.

"You're putting words in my mouth, Mike Wallace."

Virtually all of the presidents of the last half-century have fielded questions on the broadcast.

Lesley Stahl: Are you really gonna build a wall?

Donald Trump: Yes.

Lesley got the first television interview with Donald Trump shortly after he won the 2016 election.

Lesley Stahl: Are people gonna be surprised about how you conduct yourself as President?

Donald Trump: Ya know, I'll conduct myself, um, in a very good manner.

Lesley Stahl: He was thoughtful. He answered all my questions.

Lesley Stahl: But are you gonna be tweeting?

Donald Trump: I'm gonna do very restrained if I use it at all…

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Lesley Stahl conducted the first interview with President-Elect Trump after his victory in 2016

Chris Albert

Lesley Stahl: And I thought, ok he's not gonna tweet anymore.  We're gonna see something completely different. Got that wrong.

We interviewed Barack Obama 18 times.

Steve Kroft: Very smart man. Always a pleasure to interview. He was always in the moment, thoughtful and, um, relaxed. I don't kid myself. The reason he did so many stories with us was because of 60 Minutes, not because of me. Because of the power and influence of the show.

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Steve Kroft and President Barack Obama had a few light moments in the West Wing Colonnade during what was otherwise a relatively intense interview in October of 2015

Aaron Tomlinson

Mike had known Ronald and Nancy Reagan for years.

Mike Wallace: Nancy, of course, was an old, dear friend of mine.   

He'd worked with her mother in his early radio days. Even so, Mrs. Reagan gave as good as she got in their interviews.

Nancy Reagan: You're putting words in my mouth, Mike Wallace.  

Mike Wallace: You can take them out right now.

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Mike Wallace interviewed President Ronald Reagan at The White House in January 1989

Ronald Reagan Library

And in a 2006 interview, Mike had no use for the idea that Mr. Reagan was a lightweight.

Mike Wallace: Baloney. He knew enough to bring an end to the Cold War.  

An important interview for the Clintons in 1992, when Bill was running for president.

34 million people watched as the couple fielded questions about Gennifer Flowers.

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Steve Kroft interviewing Bill and Hillary Clinton about the Gennifer Flowers allegations

CBS Photo Archive

Steve Kroft: She's alleging a 12-year affair with you.

Bill Clinton: That allegation is false.

Hillary Clinton: Ya know I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him.

And for added drama, a light fell off the wall and nearly hit them.

No one was hurt, but it was a close call.

An unusual presidential interview, recalling a dark time. Scott Pelley and George W. Bush on Air Force One -- on the first anniversary of 9-11.  

George W. Bush: I can remember sitting right here in this office and realizing it was a defining moment in the history of the United States. I knew we were at war.

Scott had seen first-hand the horror of that September morning.

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Scott Pelley near ground zero on September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks

CBS News/60 Minutes

Scott Pelley: I spent about two weeks at ground zero, reporting continuously. The agony of watching these firefighters digging through, trying to find somebody alive. It was a mountain of misery.

For nearly two decades, the most important and dangerous assignments for 60 Minutes correspondents and crews have been covering the seemingly endless cycle of violence in the Middle East.

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Lara Logan hitching a ride in Iraq while reporting on the city of Tal Afar, which had been an Al-Qaeda stronghold until the U.S. military took control

Josh Yager

For 15 years Lara Logan has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II.

Most recently, she was in Mosul, during the successful campaign to retake the Iraqi city from ISIS.  

Lara Logan: I think we were there just a few minutes before you heard "car bomb, car bomb". And you know it means suicide car bomb… And everyone's shooting because the only thing that can stop that vehicle reaching its target is a hail of gunfire. And it's terrifying.

The 60 Minutes crew took cover in a house commandeered by Iraqi special forces. The car had exploded just 50 feet away.

With war, came refugees. By land and by sea.

Thousands landed on the Greek island of Lesbos, after a dangerous trip across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

Anderson Cooper was there.

Anderson Cooper: It was an extraordinary thing to witness… So many of them were just exhausted and afraid. People drown on the way over all the time. They're buried in unmarked graves and to die without your name being known in a foreign land and your family doesn't even know what happened to you, to me, that's - an unspeakable tragedy.

The Interviews


Television is, of course, a feast for the eyes. An electronic window on the world. But at the heart of every great 60 Minutes story are the interviews.

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Mike Wallace interviewed Radovan Karadzic near Sarajevo in 2005, after the Bosnian Serb leader had been indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal for crimes against humanity. 60 Minutes cameraman Norman Lloyd captured the encounter

Terry Wood

"My job is to put someone in the chair and get them to talk and tell their story as if there are no cameras, no lights, not seven people in the room. Just the two of us sitting there talking."

Scott Pelley with one of the men who shot Osama bin Laden.

Scott Pelley: You shot him

Mark Owen: A handful of times

Pelley: And at that point, his body was still.

Mark Owen: Yes.

You have to ask the right questions and you have to be fast on your feet.

Lara Logan: How many times have you been indicted?

Morley Safer: What goes through your mind?

Lesley Stahl: What is it with you?

Mike Wallace: You demanded special treatment.

Steve Kroft: Did you think you were gonna get away with it?

Scott Pelley: That's not all that's going on here.

Bill Whitaker: It almost seems unbelievable.

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Steve Kroft went to Tehran in 2015 and sat down with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani

Aaron Tomlinson

There are rules for conducting a 60 minutes interview. Number one: do your homework.

Mike Wallace: Let's get this straight.

Bob Simon: Talk to us for a minute

Number two: don't be shy.

Bob Simon: The prosecution says you're a con man. A thief.

Number three: take your time.

Wear them down, if need be.

Lesley Stahl: Let me interrupt you.

And even when you've mastered all that, it's still not as easy as it looks.

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Ed Bradley interviewed Bob Dylan for a profile that aired December 5, 2004

Aaron Tomlinson

Ed Bradley: What kind of person would do that? Those are the facts, they're not in dispute. Does that seem strange?

Ed Bradley explained in 2001.

Ed Bradley: My job is to put someone in the chair and get them to talk and tell their story as if there are no cameras, no lights, not seven people in the room. Just the two of us sitting there talking.

Ed found Mick Jagger candid - and funny.

Ed Bradley: The cliché that was associated with the band for so many years - sex, drugs, and rock n roll is - you're beyond that?

Mick Jagger: Some of that's still in there, I think.

Bob Dylan was something else.

Ed Bradley: You know, Bob Dylan hadn't done a television interview in, I guess, almost 20 years.

Ed Bradley, speaking to Bob Dylan: I read somewhere that you wrote Blowin' In The Wind in ten minutes. Is that right?

Bob Dylan: Probably.

Ed Bradley: Sometimes you'd ask a question and he'd say "yep." You know, you wanna say "C'mon Bob, give it up, give it up.

Mike Wallace, of course, was the very model of the hard-nosed reporter asking point-blank questions.

Mike Wallace: When you boil it down to low gravy it's quite apparent that somethin' was goin' on there.

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Mike sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini for a profile that ran March 11, 1979

CBS News/60 Minutes

There was his famous encounter -- during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 -- with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Mike asking him, in essence, if he was nuts.

Mike Wallace: President Sadat of Egypt calls you, Imam, -- forgive me, his words, not mine -- a lunatic.

Mike remembered getting a non-answer and icy stares from the other Iranians in the room.

Mike Wallace: Well the guy that was translating, he looked over at me and said, "You're the lunatic if you think I'm going to translate that question to the Ayatollah." He did and it got the Ayatollah's attention for the first time.

One of Mike's finest hours came 42 years ago, talking to Clint Hill, one of the secret service agents protecting John Kennedy in Dallas the day the president was shot.  

Mike Wallace: Was there anything that the Secret Service or that Clint Hill could have done to keep that from happening?

Clint Hill: Clint Hill, yes.

Hill was on the running board of the car just behind the president.      

Clint Hill: If I had reacted about maybe a second faster, I wouldn't be here today.

Mike Wallace: You mean, you would have gotten there and you would have taken the shot?

Clint Hill: The third shot, yes sir.

As it was, he'd made it to the car in five seconds, just as the fatal shot rang out. The guilt consumed him for years.

Clint Hill: It's my fault.

Mike Wallace: Oh, no one has ever suggested that for an instant. What you did was show great bravery and great presence of mind.

Clint Hill: Mike, I don't care about that. If I had reacted just a little bit quicker -- and I could have, I guess. And I'll live with that to my grave.

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Mike Wallace with former Secret Service agent Clint Hill and his wife Gwen for a story that aired December 7, 1975

CBS Photo Archive

Jeff Fager: It's not always easy to get people to talk, and to open up the way Clint Hill did. That took a long time and Mike Wallace was very patient and sometimes, and Ed Bradley used to say this, sometimes you just have to wait for them to talk.

In Washington, a very talkative town, there's one group that's long been camera-shy: the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. But in recent years, several of them have appeared on 60 Minutes.

The late Antonin Scalia in 2008. Lesley took him back to his grade school.

Lesley Stahl: Straight "A's"?  The whole time?  Come on.

Antonin Scalia: Would I lie?

Lesley Stahl: No.

Antonin Scalia: If you can't trust me, who can you trust, right?

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Lesley Stahl with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2008

Aaron Tomlinson

Scalia's fellow conservative, Justice Clarence Thomas, grew up poor in Georgia.

Steve Kroft: Indoor plumbing?  

Clarence Thomas: No, goodness, no. There was an outhouse that we shared with some other families.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's parents immigrated from Puerto Rico. She grew up in a public housing project in New York.

Scott Pelley: You know, your brother told us that more than once in this neighborhood he got beaten up.

Sonia Sotomayor: Yep. And more than once I beat up the person who beat him up.

The Investigations

60 Minutes has done its fair share of exposes, large and small.  

We blew the whistle on insider trading in Congress and the never-ending parade of small-time cons. Like turning back the odometers on used cars to get a better price.

"The good news is we're not cops... The bad news is, we're 60 Minutes."

Steve Kroft: This is not exactly legal, right?

Bill Whitlow: This is not exactly legal, no.

Bill Whitlow told us how it's done and we showed him how we do it.

Steve Kroft: See that picture? There's a TV camera back there.

Bill Whitlow: Yep.

Steve Kroft: The good news is we're not cops.

Bill Whitlow: Well, I didn't think so.

Steve Kroft: The bad news is, we're 60 Minutes.

Steve Kroft: Sometimes you have to ruin somebody's day.  But it's always somebody who deserves to have their day ruined… He did six years in prison for that.

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Mike Wallace and tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand

CBS News/60 Minutes

But it was Mike, of course, who pioneered the art of confronting the bad guys.

Mike Wallace: Track 'em down, follow them into the office or into a barroom or whatever.

It became a trademark for the broadcast and got to the point that just a glimpse of anyone from 60 Minutes produced panic in the streets.

Gradually, the broadcast backed away from ambushes and hidden cameras except when it's the only way to get the story.

Like this one: an especially cruel scam, selling phony stem cell cures to people with devastating illnesses.  

Steve Watters: If I opt for the permanent fix, will it keep me out of the wheelchair?

Larry Stowe: Oh yeah.  

Scott Pelley: You know, Mister Stowe, the trouble is that you're a con man.

Larry Stowe: Really?

Scott Pelley: [Larry Stowe] was just selling biochemical garbage that he was putting in these people's veins. And he was taking their money from them, 100 thousand dollars, cash only.  

Because of the story, Stowe is serving a six-year sentence in federal prison.

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Don Hewitt surrounded by 60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer and Mike Wallace

Brownie Harris

Over the years we've tackled some tough investigative reports. In 2006, Ed Bradley examined the racially charged case involving three Duke University lacrosse players falsely accused of rape.

Ed Bradley: The evidence we've seen reveals disturbing facts about the conduct of the police and the district attorney and raises serious concerns about whether or not a rape even occurred.

Ed and the 60 Minutes producers spent six months going over the records of the case, the timeline, photos, medical tests on the accuser -- and concluded there had been a rush to judgment.

The charges were dropped, and the district attorney was disbarred.

The story Mike and producer Lowell Bergman did in 1996 with whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand told how the tobacco industry lied about the dangers of smoking. A story so controversial that CBS corporate lawyers blocked its broadcast for months, fearing a huge lawsuit.    

Jeff Fager: The company said, "You can't air it." It's the only time that ever happened in the 50 years of 60 Minutes.

After Wigand's disclosures were published elsewhere, the report finally ran.

Jeffery Wigand: It's a delivery device for nicotine.

Mike Wallace: A delivery device for nicotine? Put it in your mouth, light it up, and you're gonna get your fix?

Jeffery Wigand: You'll get your fix.

Jeff Fager: It's incredible in retrospect because the story itself about tobacco was as important as stories get.  

From the start, the 60 Minutes reporting on the tobacco story was rock solid. But there have been some other cases where stories we've broadcast were on shaky ground, containing serious flaws.

There was 'The Mule', a 1997 story about smuggling heroin from Colombia to London. The footage came from an award-winning British documentary which turned out to be fake, with paid actors playing the drug dealers.   

A 2004 report on 60 Minutes II suggested George W. Bush got preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard. It was based in part on documents that came into question and could not be verified.

And a 2013 story about the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya was built around an interview with a supposed eyewitness who, as it turned out, had lied. Fortunately, the mistakes have been few and far between.

Jeff Fager: I think the most important thing is to own up to it, to help the viewer understand how we made the mistake, and to move on, one story at a time, earning our credibility back.

Produced by David Browning, Warren Lustig and Michelle St. John. Associate producer, Tadd J. Lascari.

Ed Bradley's interview courtesy the Television Academy Interviews.http://televisionacademy.com/interviews