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Sullivan: How ’60 Minutes’ became ‘the Tony Fauci of newsmagazines’

Early this month, with the “60 Minutes” season nearly ready to wrap production for the summer, Executive Producer Bill Owens took a heartfelt pitch to his boss, CBS News President Susan Zirinsky.

“We can't stop,” he told her.

Zirinsky agreed, despite the fact that the labor-intensive Sunday-night news magazine show weighs heavily on the network budget, and took the plan to the corporate honchos. Remarkably, they got on board, too.

As a result, instead of ending the season last weekend, new episodes will continue until at least June 28.

That development is not likely to make President Donald Trump happy. He railed, with the usual cries of “fake news,” against the May 17 interview with government whistleblower Rick Bright, who was recently demoted from his job as top federal vaccine official. Trump dissed him as nothing but “a disgruntled employee.”

Bright - who had earlier warned of the dangers of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that Trump now says he's taking to prevent COVID-19 - told interviewer Norah O'Donnell that the administration has no coherent pandemic strategy. As for the early response, it was slow and chaotic.

When I asked Owens to respond to Trump's rage-tweeting that the report was incorrect and that CBS doesn't care, he declined: “The story speaks for itself.”

These days, when such stories do speak for themselves, a whole lot of people are listening. For the second week in a row, “60 Minutes” was the No. 1 primetime show in the country, with an audience hovering around 10 million. (By comparison, a show like MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” which generates so much buzz, is lucky to score an audience of 1 million; and even the most popular prime-time cable shows rarely hit 5 million.)

So those “60 Minutes” numbers are big news in TV world - and particularly welcome, since the last time the show garnered so much attention it was for a far darker reason.

In September 2018, longtime executive producer Jeff Fager was fired as the whole network was roiled by charges of high-level sexual misconduct and efforts to conceal it. Top boss Les Moonves had stepped down only days before amid sexual harassment accusations.

“There's no question the ‘60 Minutes' staff was really shaken, with the sense of ‘are we going to be able to survive this?'?” said Tom Bettag, a former executive producer at four networks, including the “CBS Evening News”; he was the longtime executive producer of ABC's “Nightline” in the Ted Koppel years. Now, Bettag told me, he sees the show thriving, largely because it is providing something prized amid so much uncertainty.

In an era where much of media is selling junk bonds to the public, he said, “60 Minutes” is like Treasury bills: solid and reliable.

If that sounds a little dull, Bettag begs to differ, comparing the credibility of the show, which debuted in 1968, to that of another American institution: “They're committed to making their brand the Tony Fauci of newsmagazines.”

Almost every segment for the past two months has been pandemic-related, ranging from Scott Pelley's stunning interview with the overwhelmed New York City medical examiner, featuring images of the refrigerated trucks that served as makeshift morgues; to Bill Whitaker's newsmaking interview with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro; to Leslie Stahl's report on working conditions in Amazon warehouses.

Stahl, the show's longest tenured correspondent, also offered a few words on her own bout with COVID-19, which landed her in the hospital for a week.

“It's a target-rich environment, unfortunately,” Owens told me, because every part of American life has been affected by the pandemic, offering abundant story possibilities.

The show has dug deep into the troubles of farmers, rural hospitals and the newly unemployed. But it has also provided uplifting moments, such as a General Motors line worker described his satisfaction in helping to make ventilators; and poignant ones, such as musician Wynton Marsalis paying tribute to his jazz pianist father Ellis, who died from COVID-19.

The program may be at its best when it takes on a potentially dry subject - like how the pandemic might affect climate change - and makes it both accessible and moving, as in Jon Wertheim's piece featuring climate activist Bill McKibben.

I asked Owens, who was Fager's second-in-command, about the tumultous time just after he was named.

“It was totally chaotic, network-wide,” he said. He took it one week at a time, staying focused on the next deadline and then the next one. Meanwhile, the outside world demanded attention, starting that same month with the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, then the release of the Mueller report soon thereafter, followed by Trump's impeachment and acquittal.

“There's been,” he noted wryly, “a lot of news.”

Never more so, though, than in the past few months. On several Sundays, all of the program's three segments have centered on some aspect of the pandemic.

That intense focus has proved the right call, though Owens predicted that coming weeks may bring a broader topic mix.

“Whether or not the ratings followed,” he said, “the journalism has made us proud.”

That the ratings have followed speaks volumes about the hunger in this moment for credible information and about Americans' desire to understand more deeply what has befallen us - and what looms ahead.

Margaret Sullivan is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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