A staple in broadcast media, Emmy-winning journalist Bill Whitaker has graced American televisions since 1979.
Stints in San Francisco, Charlotte and Atlanta led to CBS News, where he served as correspondent in Tokyo and, later, Los Angeles, where he was frequently seen reporting for “CBS Evening News.” Appearances on “CBS Sunday Morning” and “The Early Show” increased his visibility, leading to his joining the “60 Minutes” team in 2014.
Throughout his career, Whitaker has reported on wide-ranging topics domestically and internationally including political campaigns, natural disasters, celebrities, technology, international conflicts and economics, establishing his reputation for consistently delivering trusted and nuanced news coverage with grace and sensitivity.
You frequently cover really tough stories. How do you manage to relay the enormity of that suffering you’ve seen?
I find that viewers will — all of us — relate to human stories. So all of the tragedies, earthquakes in Haiti and earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, I try to look at through the lens of the people who are going through it so I can relay that emotion back to the viewers. What’s it like to lose your home? What’s it like to look out and see nothing but devastation, where there once was a thriving village and a main street and cars and life, then there’s all of a sudden nothing? Or, in the case of something like Tiananmen Square, where it’s a political horror that befalls people, I like to take the point of view of these people and relay it to American viewers so they can understand what it’s like to go through that. “Just the facts, ma’am,” they used to say. Instead of just facts, I want to relay the facts, but put in a bit of human emotion. And I think that makes the story resonate a little more.
How do you deal with that personally when you’re covering something like a tsunami or an earthquake?
I’ve got a job to do. And you just sort of put your personal feelings aside and do the job, gather the information, make sure the cameras are getting the things you’re seeing, talk to people who are going through this hell and find out from them what it’s like. And it’s usually not until I get finished with the story that it hits me what I just witnessed. I know, after Tiananmen Square, I was working day in and day out for about four days and didn’t have a chance to stop and think about what I had witnessed. And I do remember taking a shower, after about the fourth day, and just, you know, I just kind of broke down. It’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from what you’re seeing. But in trying to put the story together and trying to gather the information, you just have a job to do, and you do it.
You’ve also done a lot of reporting on futuristic concepts like artificial intelligence, ghost guns and the Swiss bank leaks. Do you have any insight for journalists as we begin to navigate this near future, where due to technology, disinformation and polarization, the idea of “facts” is becoming increasingly subjective and really more difficult to nail down?
I will tell you, we did a story on deep fakes and that’s scary, for lack of a better word. The things they can do now are, one, amazing, and two, alarming. For the piece they had some of the engineers take a sample of my voice and then they could make me say anything. They had like 10 seconds with me speaking. So they got the cadence and the tenor and the tone, and then they could type in anything and make “me” say that. And even for me, knowing my voice, I was kind of amazed. They have a technology that can create a face. They made my face. And since I know my face, I see my face every day in the mirror, I saw the things that didn’t line up, you know, I saw “that’s not quite me,” but it was very close. And they swear that within another five years, they will make it so it’s undetectable. They can already generate faces of people who don’t exist, and then make that “person” say something. And it sounds like a real person who’s saying something. You know, it’s crazy. It’s wild. It’s amazing and frightening.
We have trouble discerning truth from untruth now. It’s really going to be difficult for us to know what we can or should believe. I’m not a technology person — I’m the least tech savvy person you might meet — but there’s got to be a way to have an imprint on an image that says where it was recorded, when it was recorded, by whom, by one piece of equipment. There’s got to be some way you can just put a marker on it, so you know that this information came from a place and at the time from a phone or a camera, so you can check to see if it’s real, or if the person was in that spot at the time you’re saying this person said that. There just has to be some way we can use the technology or use technology to make this less scary. But it’s coming.
You’ve interviewed a long list of famous folks, including Barbra Streisand and Michelle Obama. Can you share a time when someone really surprised you?
Oh, I probably get surprised most of the time. I think the one who surprised me the most was Mike Tyson. Going in, I certainly knew his history and I thought that meant I knew a lot about this person. And I met him. And he was so far away from the stereotypes and the things people have said and written and thought about him, so far from that, that it kind of set me aback. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s thoughtful. He’s self-aware. And these were all words I would not have used to describe Mike Tyson before I met him.
Journalism — especially broadcast journalism — is such a collaborative process. I’d love an example of how you work with your team to build a story.
Oh, it’s a totally collaborative process. We can’t go on the air unless you can see it and hear it. That means you need the photographer and the sound, and the producers who help do all the things that set everything in motion. Me, I’m the front man, the one you see. But you wouldn’t see me if it were not for all the people I work with. We’re all journalists, and we all bring different things to the table. The photographer sees things I don’t see. And I’m not totally aware of everything he or she sees until I get back into the edit room and I get to look at it and go, “Oh my God, look at that picture!” He or she brings something more to the storytelling.
Oh, and the sound technician.
There were times that we were in Iceland covering the eruption of a volcano and it was at once visual and visceral, as well. It’s like you hear the earth rumbling. It’s like this incredible rumble from deep underground. And the sound man got sound that made it so immediate, that there were portions that replay in the piece when we’re presenting this to “60 Minutes” where you just say, “Stop, listen to this, just listen to this.” When you stop and hear the lava moving, it almost sounded like broken glass. And that helps tell the story in a more impactful way. Couldn’t have told the story as well without that, and certainly not without the visuals. I certainly couldn’t do this without my teammates.
What are some other highlights of the job that make you think, “This is great. This is my favorite part.”
I’m fascinated by us, by human beings. This job allows me to go around the world documenting us, what we’re thinking, what we’re doing, how we create, how we destroy, how we survive. I mean, it’s just never boring. It is always fascinating. And sometimes I am truly tired — the idea of getting on another plane — and then I get off the plane and I’m in a different place, and I’m meeting different people, and I’m having a totally different experience. And that’s why I got on the plane — so I could come see this, and talk to these people and be able to tell their story. It’s always a pleasure and kind of a blessing and an honor to be able to tell people’s stories. That they put their stories in my hands and trust that I’m going to do them justice, it’s an honor.
As a Black journalist, can you speak to some changes in the industry since you began? And do you have any advice for Black journalists just starting out, or for folks who have been doing it for a long time?
Things have changed. There’s much more inclusion in newsrooms today, much more diversity. I always tell kids and journalists who are starting out — I don’t mean this to sound silly or naive — but especially in the United States, I really don’t see “Black stories.” I don’t. These are human stories. And the United States is on a continent populated by people from all over the world. So I don’t see how it’s possible to pigeonhole one group of people and say, “these are ‘Black American Stories’ and these are ‘Asian American Stories.’” It’s the American Story, telling the story of this country, this continent, these people, and we’re all here together, and you need to know what’s happening across the street, you need to know what’s going on in Harlem, you need to know what’s going on in Montana because that’s who we are. That’s the makeup of this country. I can’t imagine telling the story of the United States in 2022 and just focusing on, I don’t know, white suburbs, or Black
rural areas, or immigrant communities in coastal cities. It’s like, that’s just the piece of the story. That’s not our story. So go out and talk to all of us. Find out what all of us are thinking and put that all together to tell America’s story. That would be my advice to them.
You were a guest host for “Jeopardy.” How was that?
How was that? Yeah, well, I tell you, I’m glad I like my day job. (Laughs) I’m glad I did it. It was a real experience. It really was. But I understand there’s a big difference between entertainment television and television news. Television news, I get it, I get it. You know, it’s pretty straightforward. You go out with a camera, you sit and you talk to people and you write it up and you put it on the air. It’s pretty straightforward. With entertainment TV, you have to not only hit your mark, but you’ve got camera A moving in and the static camera where you deliver the commercials and the camera over the contestants to the side and there’s another camera behind the big board, and you’ve got to know when to turn to all these cameras, and the commercials are coming up, and there are a lot of moving parts, and they whisper in your ear: “Alright, gotta go to the commercial,” and it’s like, “AAAAAH! I haven’t even finished asking the questions yet!” So it’s like there’s a lot of stuff going on. I taped 10 shows. And I think I started to feel comfortable around show seven.
Finally, is there a message you’d like to share with your fellow journalists?
That what you do is important. That what you do is necessary. And we are written into the Constitution for a reason. Bad things happen when nobody’s paying attention. So we have to pay attention. We have to go in where — you know, especially with politicians — where I think they would prefer that we not pay attention. But it’s our duty to take a look at what they are doing in our name and for us to understand what’s going on so we can make decisions about whether we want this guy or that woman to continue to represent us. Journalists play a crucial role and they should know that it’s a noble profession.
Sheri Flanders’ work appears in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reader. She was the recipient of an author’s fellowship at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing and a finalist for the 2020 Peter Lisagor Awards for journalism.
Feature photo courtesy of CBS News/60 Minutes.