Bill Whitaker: Standing Up For The Truth. What A Concept
Upon winning a prestigious L.A. Press Club Lifetime Achievement Award, the ‘60 Minutes’ stalwart on overcoming prejudice, being a TV news pioneer, and how he achieved a world class career.
By Alex Ben Block
Credit: Gary Leonard
A QUIET MAN SPEAKS OUT FOR TRUTH TELLERS
When “CBS 60 Minutes” Correspondent Bill Whitaker accepted the L.A. Press Club’s highest honor, he first joked with his presenter, Rita Moreno, about her second time in “West Side Story,” which won her an Oscar 60 years ago, before turning to what was forefront in his mind as he accepted the Joseph M. Quinn Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bill Whitaker at the podium to accept the Quinn Award, presented by legendary actress Rita Moreno, with Award hosts KNBC4 anchor Robert Kovacik and KCBS anchor Pat Harvey. Photo Credit: Gary Leonard
BILL WHITAKER ON WHY THIS IS A VERY SPECIAL AND CHALLENGING TIME FOR JOURNALISTS
“This Press Club event takes place at a time when the big picture for journalists, for all truth seekers, is no technicolor musical,” said Whitaker, a veteran of almost four decades with CBS News, noting that “in state after state” books are being banned, and school classes are cancelled that touch on “uncomfortable topics,” ranging from the Civil War to Civil Rights and many others.
“The American Library Association reports,” added Whitaker, who joined “60 Minutes” in 2014, “that there were more books banned her in the U.S. in the past year than any year since they began keeping track.”
“State legislatures are trying to censure our history and are using the fiction that the 2000 election was stolen to justify a collection of ‘safe guards,’ all of which seem to make it more difficult for people to vote.”
He added, “The very pillars of democracy, free speech, fair elections are being shaken. Freedom of the press which is lodged in the first amendment, providing the present foundation for our system of government, is under siege.”
As local newspapers and media are being “decimated by the digital transformation,” added Whitaker, “news consumers have turned en masse to social media which when consumed uncritically can manipulate minds, reinforce bias and fan fears.”
The truth, he continued, “is being drowned out by a deluge of misinformation. When honest journalism does break through, autocrats around the world, in the Middle East and Afghanistan, come after journalist themselves. Attacks on journalists have made it to America too, with accusations of ‘fake news” and ‘enemies of the people.’”
“It can send a chill down your spine,” said Whitaker gravely, “to see what happens to countries that don’t hold fair elections, that legislate against the truth and truth tellers, that tell their citizens not to believe their eyes, that a siege on the capital is not a siege.”
Photo Credit: CBS News
“These are strange times for journalists, for truth tellers,” continued Whitaker. “It’s not in our nature or our training to take sides, but I’ll tell you, I’m on the side of truth. I’m on the side of facts, history, science. I’m on the side of the First Amendment, and democracy.”
“The L.A. Press Club,” he concluded, “stands for a principle that a free press is crucial to a free society. It is especially crucial today. And I’m proud to stand with my fellow Awardees tonight, who have shown such tenacity, standing up for truth.”
That impressive list included First Amendment Lawyer Susan E. Seager, L.A. Times globe- trotting photographer Marcus Yam, Fox 11’s Christine Devine and Laugh Factory founder Jamie Masada.
However, it was Whitaker who still stood out not only for his dedication to being a journalistic truth teller, but for being there at all. He broke into TV journalism four decades ago when he was the rare person of color on any TV news show, local or national, and he succeeded not because of race but by being an outstanding reporter who got his facts right and treated everyone with dignity.
Over the years, Whitaker has done many stories from covering the OJ Trial in Los Angeles to the death of George Floyd, but he never colored his reports with his own views about race. Yet this quiet, effective, humble newsman was deeply impacted by race issues in his own upbringing, learning lessons from his parents that have stayed with him throughout his life and yes, they have colored his work, even if it is done with an electronic version of invisible ink.
Nobody is happier that the tide in news has turned and now more diverse faces and viewpoints are seen, read and heard across the media landscape.
“I'm really happy to see it,” Whitaker told me during our exclusive interview. “I mean, how crazy is it that just in the eighties, there were so few people who looked like me on television. That's just nuts. And today it's, it's like, this is what America looks like. I always said to people, ‘why doesn't inside the newsroom look like outside the newsroom?’ if you're going outside to talk to the people of your city, why don't people in the newsroom look like the people out there? it seemed to be pretty simple to me. I don't understand why it was a problem. And it's less of a problem now and that's a very, very good thing- that the newsroom look more like America. Gee, what a concept.”
While covering impactful local, national and international stories, Whitaker has always put the news, the facts and especially the sources and subjects of his reports first. For someone in the public eye, he has remained a very private person, rarely talking about his family background or his two now grown successful children. For the press club awards, he did tip his hat to his wife Terry, saying without her, he could not have spanned the globe year after hear had she not been his support at home.
The cover of the 64th annual Southern California Journalism Awards cover.
photo credit Alex Ben Block. Special thanks to LA Press Club Executive Director Diana Ljungaeus
This article started out as a profile on Whitaker in honor of winning this prestigious award, but as you will read it also gets into his real roots, his own struggles with being one of the few and often the first African American in his position as news has happened. His record of being first of. His race to break the electronic glass ceiling of national television is note-worthy itself but he rarely discusses it or allows others to pin it on him. He is not the black reporter, or correspondent. He is just one of the very best in his field no matter what their race, religion or national origin.
What follows is his story, which is an expanded version of the profile done for the LA Press Club Awards program, which was distributed to those lucky enough to be in a Universal City ballroom on Saturday night, June 25, to see and hear Whitaker live and in person.
As the L.A. Press Club headlined it, this story is about “A Career of Honesty, Integrity and Perseverance.”
HE RACED TO BECOME A PIONEER WITHOUT A LOT OF NOISE
In 1987, Bill Whitaker was sent on assignment 30 miles from the Atlanta bureau of CBS News to all-white Forsyth County, Georgia, where about 1,500 black and white protesters marched because the local government kept African Americans from moving there. The marchers were met by thousands of angry counter-protesters including hooded Ku Klux Klan members, many shouting the N-word and throwing rocks as police struggled to keep them apart.
He recalls that at an earlier march, protesters had been badly beaten. “The next week, there was a huge rally of people marching saying, ‘you cannot be this racist in the late 20th century,’” recalls Whitaker, then 36 and in his third year as a network correspondent. “And there was a point where I got separated from everybody.”
“I ended up in the crowd of racists,” recalls Whitaker, “people who were like calling me out, threatening me.”
Scene from the 1987 Forsyth County protests, taken from YouTube video
He was “being jostled a bit,” he remembers, but “Nobody punched me or hit me with a rock or anything like that. But you just saw that this issue is so raw it animates our worst instincts. It is in many ways the defining issue we we've been grappling with from beginnings of this country. And we still haven't gotten there.”
It was also a defining moment for Whitaker, who emerged shaken but unscathed with a new sense of mission: “I must do all I can to help this dialogue, to help people understand that we are one - black, brown, Asian, native American - to understand this is our country. And we've got to figure out how to live with one another. And if I, as a journalist, can do anything to help us work our way through this, hear each other, talk to each other, then I've done a good job.”
In the years since with CBS News, and after 2014 as the second African American correspondent on TV’s top magazine news show, 60 Minutes” (following Ed Bradley, who died in 2006), Whitaker has covered all kinds of stories, all over America and around the world, including Europe, Asia, the Middle East (his work on Syrian refugees was outstanding), North Korea, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Mexico and South Africa, covering Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
He has done break-through reporting on the opioid crisis (jointly with the Washington Post), sexual assault, nuclear disasters, data links at Swiss banks and much more, earning some of journalism’s highest honors, plaudits from critics and his own bosses.
“Bill Whitaker’s reporting and storytelling is unmistakable,” says Bill Owens, executive producer of ’60 Minutes.” “Bill is drawn to the most serious subjects of our time, bringing decades of experience to find the truth while educating our audience. Bill Whitaker’s name belongs in the same breath as every legendary reporter who has ever worked for 60 Minutes.”
Now he has also won the Joseph M. Quinn Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalistic Achievement and Distinction, the highest honor from the Los Angeles Press Club, to be presented June 25 at the 64th Annual Southern California Journalism Awards dinner.
"The depth of Whitaker's reporting on a wide range of important issues has provided a valuable public service," said Los Angeles Press Club President Lisa Richwine. "Pieces on the opioid crisis and generic drugs, in particular, exposed behavior that made me wonder 'how did they think they could get away with that?!'" Whitaker's reporting helped make sure they didn't.”
Whitaker in Egypt in front of the Pyramids Photo Credit: CBS News
Throughout his nearly four decades as a broadcast journalist, Whitaker has also continued to cover racial issues, with a calm, professional approach even during crises in Cleveland, Chicago, Tulsa and Minneapolis, rarely revealing his own passionate personal feelings about civil rights, inherited from his father and mother.
He was born William Whitaker II in Philadelphia on August, 26, 1951; and grew up in the aptly named town of Media, Pennsylvania.
“I was a curious kid,” Whitaker said in a video prepared for his Quinn Award presentation by CBS. “Nature and science have always interested me, so growing up I was curious about my environment, riding our bikes, swimming in the creek. It was a pretty good childhood.”
“My cousins tell me I used to play reporter,” he recalled with a chuckle. “I would get a stick and hold it up like a microphone and ask them questions.”
The Whitaker family. That is Bill Whitaker on his mother's lap. Photo Credit Bill Whitaker
WHEN HIS MOTHER STARTED HER CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST CAREER
It was in his aptly named hometown, Media, Pa. - before his birth, In 1944 - that his mother, Marie V. Whitaker, carrying a baby, accompanied by an African American friend, entered a local restaurant which refused to serve them. Two white women saw the discrimination and invited them to a different restaurant. Shortly after they founded the Media Fellowship House “to promote understanding and acceptance of all people without regard to race, culture, gender, age or disabilities.” It has continued that mission, serving seniors, educating children, offering housing assistance, mortgage programs, education, job training as well as entertainment and holiday programs. It even houses the local chapter of the NAACP.
“She was a nice woman and sort of turned that into her superpower,” says Whitaker, recalling “When we first moved there, we moved our church affiliation from a black church to a white church. This was the mid-50s. When this family of five well-scrubbed black people showed up there was an exodus of the members. They wouldn’t pray with us. Or sit next to us.”
“I was aware of what was going on, but my mother sat in the same pew for the next 50 years and watched the church fall and rise up again around her,” recalls Whitaker with pride. “And when she passed away, the church was full of people who came to say farewell to Marie Whitaker. And it was a diverse crowd.”
When her son was invited to guest host” Jeopardy” for two weeks in May 2021, his choice of a charity to support was The Fellowship House.
Photo Credit: Jeopardy! Productions Inc.
His father William (the first) was an equally determined civil rights advocate who attended the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 with great hope, and heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I have a dream” speech. He left with optimism but returned home to report this struggle was going to take longer to achieve than he had thought.
“They raised us to be proud of who we are,’ says Whitaker. “Both of them were very smart and both pushed education on all of us on, on all the children, both my sisters. One sister's a lawyer, one was an executive in a corporation and, and I’m a journalist. They said don't believe what the outside world is telling you about yourself, know yourself and know who you are and what you can do. And don't be stopped. Don't be stymied by the negativity that as a black person in the United States, you will face.”
“I don't see black stories and Latino stories and white stories,” says Whitaker.. “I see American stories.”
“So, if I highlight a story and it's about a black person, I'm not doing it because you know, like, oh, is a black reporter doing the story about a Blackberry,” says Whitaker. “You could say that. But I also think that an American story is a story about America. It's about us. It's about how we behave, how we're treating our fellow citizens. What can we do about it? And if we don't know that our fellow citizens are being mistreated, we can't do anything about it. So that's where the journalism, that's where the journalist comes in.
“There's nothing I can do about how someone is going to perceive me when I walk in the door,” he adds. “There's nothing I can do about that. That's their background, their, their take on life. And, you know, if they see me coming in as some black guy, who doesn't get them, doesn't understand their side of the story, there's nothing I can do about that, but sit down and talk to them. So, at the end of the conversation, I would hope that you would know that I'm there because I'm interested in your story. What is it that you have to say, even if you're the demonstrably the bad guy. Why are you the bad guy? What put you in this position?”
Young Bill in his Scout's uniform with his Dad in happy times. PhotoCredit CBS News and Bill Whitaker, taken from the Awards video created for the LA Press Club
His father died when Whitaker was only 13, he said in the CBS video presentation. “My father was a news fanatic,” recalled Whitaker. He wanted to be a journalist himself when he was a young man, but back in the late 30s and 40s that was an unrealistic goal for a black man in America.”
Whitaker shows off his dad's ring which he always wears as a reminder.
Photo credit CBS News and Bill Whitaker, From the video done for the LA Press Club
When his father died, Whitaker’s mother gave him a ring that he always wore, and he has worn it ever since, to remind him that he was not just there for himself but also for his dad and for all those who came before him and did not have the chances he got. “And here I am all these years later as a journalist living the life he could only have dreamed of. I’m sure he would be so proud.”
His education kicked into high gear after he graduated from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a B.A. in American history. He went on to Boston University where he earned a master's in African-American studies. His pursuit of journalism led him west. He earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
Bill Whitaker at age 19. Photo Credit: Bill Whitaker
At the time, recalls Whitaker, “there was a sort of pipeline from Cal, the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, to (San Francisco PBS station) KQED’s newsroom…A professor put me in touch with the news director who was a Cal graduate.”
As a broadcast associate at the public TV outlet beginning in 1979, he was a glorified copy boy running, rushing tapes up and down the stairs. By his third year there he was a producer but was not on the air, which was his dream.
He applied for on air jobs all over the country without success and was ready to give up, but his then girlfriend Terry, now his wife of almost 40 years, scolded, “come on you know you want to do this. Keep trying. Somebody will hire you.”
He finally got his break with WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1982 as part of a minority training program, with CBS picking up half of his salary for the first six months. They stationed him in the “research triangle” in Raleigh, where he became capitol correspondent. He covered a heated, expensive Senate contest with racist Republican Jesse Helms winning reelection and found he loved the work.
His reports on the Helms contest were picked up by CBS’s national news shows. The bosses in New York liked what they saw and in 1984 hired Whitaker for their Atlanta bureau. He went on to cover three presidential elections, and served as bureau chief in Tokyo covering all of Asia. One of his stories put him in Communist China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 when a student-led pro-democracy protest led to a massacre by heavily armed Chinese government soldiers.
“I had just moved to Tokyo,” recalls Whitaker, “a couple of months earlier. My family was just getting adjusted and I was called (to Beijing) to spell a reporter who had been there for the month. The (Chinese) kids set up on the square. They had the goddess of democracy and all of that. They sort of saw the opportunity to speak to the world because the whole world's press was there…And as I'm coming in, all Hell’s breaking loose, the, the massacre occurs. So, I wasn't actually on the square when the shooting happened, but I landed shortly after.”
Bill Whitaker in Tiananmen Square covering the famous uprising for CBS News.
Photo Credit CBS News/Bill Whitaker
“We went up on the roof and we're watching as the troops from outside the city were coming in to take over for the troops who were based in the city, because the government was concerned that the troops in Beijing were maybe less loyal since they were there and saw what the kids were doing and they worried that they might be less loyal.”
“So, I'm sitting on the roof, watching these troops come into Tiananmen Square. Later, the kids would grab you and take you to a makeshift clinic. Students and doctors were working on people who had been shot and had been crushed. It was remarkable. But I think the most remarkable was how the communist government of China spun the story. They took the very same images, the very same video that we were showing the world. And instead of seeing noble students calling for democracy and standing up for the rights, being mowed down by their government, they said that these were western-backed hooligans who were trying to foment chaos in the capital.”.
The government also tried to shut down the western journalist, Whitaker recalls: “They literally pulled the plug on us. Dan rather was doing a live report and a government agent came and pulled us off the air.”
“CBS was scrappy” he adds. “So, we had ways, we had people who were able to get our video out under the noses of the Communist party. It may have slowed us a step, but we were still able to get the reports out.”
After Asia, Whitaker was stationed in Los Angeles beginning in 1992 with his family, covering everything in the western U.S. from wildfires to movie stars. His reports were frequently on the CBS Evening News, Sunday Morning and everything in-between. That included feature stories and profiles on Hollywood’s top stars and creators including Barbra Streisand, Norman Lear and Gladys Knight. He also did a memorable profile for Sunday Morning profiles on then retired boxer Mike Tyson. He interviewed political figures like Michelle Obama, then First Lady, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
His outstanding work earned him a coveted slot as one of the correspondents on “60 Minutes,” beginning in 2014. That led him to move with his family after 23 years in the Hollywood Hills from Los Angeles to New York, where he lives in a modern apartment in Harlem with a view that includes Central Park.
Whitaker says being on the top-rated prime-time news show has also changed his life. As a local reporter and then a CBS national news reporter, he was rarely recognized. Since joining 60 minutes eight years ago, however, he is frequently stopped, often by people who want to compliment his work.
However, as famous as he has gotten, he has worked hard to remain very private in his personal life, sheltering his wife and two children from the glare of recognition he has had to learn to graciously accept.
Why? “I'm the one whose name and face are out there, explains Whitaker. “ They, they didn't choose this. I did.”
He compliments his beloved wife Terry, for supporting him, giving him good advice along the way, and keeping the family together as he moved from Atlanta to Tokyo to Los Angeles to New York, and when he was on frequent trips for this next report.
Over the years he made it a point to rarely be photographed with his family to keep them from facing the constant scrutiny he accepts that goes along with his job.
His children are now grown and have found their own success. He says his son William III, now 34, started a financial company based in New York City which he says has “taken off, and actually has clients who pay him. His daughter Leslie, now 32, worked for a high-tech firm but didn’t like it so left to join a video game start up based in Berlin, Germany. “She’s loving it,” says her proud dad.
Whitaker’s advice to young journalists is to recognize this moment calls for “serious journalism.”
“We’ve got people who don’t trust us,” he adds. “People who think that just because we are journalists, we are untrustworthy. I think the say to earn their trust back is just keep doing what we’re doing with honesty and integrity and perseverance. We just keep at it. Like my mother sitting in that the same pew for 50 years.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly identified Whitaker at the OJ Simpson trial. That photo and caption were removed.