Television station WBTV, in North Carolina, recently featured HWS Trustee Bill Whitaker ’73, L.H.D. ’97, correspondent for CBS’ acclaimed newsmagazine television program, “60 Minutes” and an Emmy award-winning veteran of CBS News. The article reflected on Whitaker’s early career and his first break into reporting, which happened at WBTV.
In his first role as a reporter, the article recalls, “Whitaker covered lots of meetings and learned how to make them come alive by reporting on the issues that would be discussed beforehand and interviewing regular people the issues would affect.”
The article also points out Whitaker landed at WBTV “Just as the historic Senate race between Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms got going, well before the actual vote in 1984. It became the meanest and most expensive Senate race to date and got him noticed at CBS.”
A former WBTV colleague of Whitaker’s, Steve Crump, recalls, “I remember the tornadoes in North Carolina in 1984. He has this innate way of connecting with people and telling their stories in a way that is not intrusive, that demonstrates compassion and aims at one’s heart when he writes a piece.”
“There’s nobody more deserving at CBS for a shot at ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Crump continued. “I find that 30 years later he remains grounded in who he is, paying great attention to detail to his craft and being true to himself.”
Whitaker, of Los Angeles, Calif., is a graduate of Hobart College and a member of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Board of Trustees. He has had a successful career in television journalism since his graduation. Since 1984, he has covered many of the major breaking news events and issues of the day, including the pro-democracy uprising in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, the Persian Gulf War, the Unabomber case, the O.J. Simpson murder and civil trials, the Columbine school shootings, and the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Whitaker also has covered many of the recent history-making events such as Nelson Mandela’s memorial services, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and immigration issues on the United States-Mexico border.
In 1989, Whitaker received an Emmy Award for a segment he did for “48 Hours.” He was honored at the Minorities in Broadcasting Program seventh annual “Striving for Excellence Awards.” He is also engaged in his community. Whitaker has been active in adult literacy tutoring programs, and he and his family have served meals in homeless shelters.
Whitaker has remained connected to his Geneva alma mater. He has been a well-received speaker at campus events throughout the years. In 1994 and 1999, he opened and then closed the more than $100 million capital campaign as the master of ceremonies at the campaign celebrations. In 1997, he was awarded an honorary degree by the Colleges for his service. He holds a master’s degree from Boston University in African-American studies. He also attended the master of journalism program at the University of California at Berkeley.
The full article is available online and the text is below.
WBTV alum lands on ’60 Minutes’
Mark Washburn • October 11, 2014
He was beginning to wonder whether anyone would give him a job. Then he got a call from a station in North Carolina called WBTV.
Thus Bill Whitaker broke into reporting, a career path that this weekend takes him to the top of the TV news food chain as a correspondent on “60 Minutes.”
In 1981, Whitaker was working at public TV station KQED in San Francisco, helping produce documentaries and as a writer for a dramatic production called “Up and Coming.” He wanted to go into reporting, though, and whenever he was out in the field, he’d ask photographers to film him doing a stand-up report so he’d have an audition tape he could send to news directors.
A native of Media, Pa., Whitaker graduated in 1973 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., with a bachelor’s in American history, got a master’s degree at Boston University in African-American studies, then studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. After that, he spent a summer in Liberia, Africa, studying the labor movement, then went on to public TV in the Bay area.
He remembers arriving in Charlotte in October 1981.
“This was Charlotte before the new airport,” Whitaker says. “You come down the stairs, and your bags were in a little bin. I’d just come from San Francisco …
“I quickly came to realize it was a small town, but with big dreams. They had this plan for the Charlotte that exists today. It was on paper and in people’s minds – they had it all planned out.”
Whitaker covered lots of meetings and learned how to make them come alive by reporting on the issues that would be discussed beforehand and interviewing regular people the issues would affect.
In documentary work, he had months to put a segment together. At Channel 3, he had to grind out a story that could play at noon, 5 p.m. and all the later newscasts. “I was like, ‘How is this possible?’ “
He moved up and took over as the station’s Raleigh correspondent, back when WBTV and WSOC (Channel 9) covered state government. “Charlotte was considered the big city back then, and nobody was clamoring to be assigned to Raleigh, which at that time was a pretty sleepy state capital,” says Whitaker.
But he arrived at the right time – just as the historic Senate race between Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms got going, well before the actual vote in 1984. It became the meanest and most expensive Senate race to date and got him noticed at CBS.
One of his favorite memories of working in Raleigh involved a prison break. WBTV sent a helicopter over to pick him up and take him to where the search was going on.
Then it flew him back to Raleigh, dropping him off in a vacant field. He’d been promised a car would be waiting for him to take him to the studio. There was no car. He was stranded in the boonies and deadline for the 6 p.m. broadcast was approaching.
When a car came down the road, Whitaker took off for it, waving frantically.
“I can see this woman in the car and she looks scared to death,” he says.
“I give her this story that must have sounded incredible, that I work for a TV station in Charlotte and I just got off a helicopter that landed in the field. She looks at me and says, ‘OK, get in.’ When I get in, she tells me that she’d just been listening to the radio when I came up, and they described the man who escaped – a black man about 6-foot-2 with a mustache,” which fits Whitaker perfectly.
“Mercifully, she drove me to our bureau. I later sent her the biggest bouquet of flowers anyone had ever seen.”
Whitaker joined CBS News in 1984, and worked in Atlanta and then became correspondent in Tokyo, which took him to assignments throughout Asia, including the uprising in Tiananmen Square. CBS sent him to Baghdad for the build-up to Operation Desert Storm. He was based in Los Angeles for two decades before he moved this summer to New York and “60 Minutes.”
His first story, about a notorious Mexican drug lord, airs on Sunday night’s installment.
Steve Crump, a former WBTV colleague who will have an interview with Whitaker on Monday’s 6 p.m. newscast on Channel 3, says he’s always had a personal, low-key way with interviews.
“I remember the tornadoes in North Carolina in 1984,” says Crump. “He has this innate way of connecting with people and telling their stories in a way that is not intrusive, that demonstrates compassion and aims at one’s heart when he writes a piece,” Crump says.
“There’s nobody more deserving at CBS for a shot at ‘60 Minutes,’ ” he says. “I find that 30 years later he remains grounded in who he is, paying great attention to detail to his craft and being true to himself.”
Making the team at “60 Minutes” is a pretty big deal to a guy who once wondered whether anyone would give him a reporting job, says Whitaker, 63.
“This is about as high as you can get in journalism,” he says. “It’s wonderful, remarkable. I don’t want to walk around with a big goofy smile on my face and clicking my heels, but I have to pinch myself.
“When it did happen, it was a wonderful surprise. Good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait, and work hard.”