Over the course of his long career – 25 years as producer at 60 Minutes and another 15 years as senior producer of ABC’s Primetime Live and 20/20 – Ira Rosen has won a long list of accolades, including multiple Peabody and duPont awards, 24 Emmys and six Investigative Reporters and Editors awards — more than Washington Post editor Bob Woodward.
But for Rosen, the most meaningful praise came from 60 Minutes executive producer and creator Don Hewitt, when he would get a “Hey, Mildred,” from Hewitt – the highest order of praise one could get.
Rosen, 67, will talk about his career at the top of the media industry Monday as part of the lecture series at the Adolf and Rose Levis JCC Sandler Center in Boca Raton. He’s promoting his memoir, Ticking Clock: Behind the Scenes at ’60 Minutes’.
“Our Levis JCC audience is comprised of lifelong ’60 Minutes’ viewers, many of whom would never miss a Sunday night episode,” said Stephanie Owitz, director of arts, culture and learning at the Sandler Center.
“I know that they will be thrilled to hear the inside story from a true insider,” she says. “We are so pleased and honored that Ira Rosen will be here to present his new book.”
For Rosen, who has a condo in Fort Lauderdale, his days at 60 Minutes can be summed up simply.
“It was one of the best jobs you could ever have in journalism,” Rosen said. “We had total reach. Every Sunday we talked to 60 million viewers. We had an unlimited budget; I could go anywhere I wanted.”
He remembers jumping on a plane at JFK in New York and flying to Moscow at the drop of a hat to meet with with Russian scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov.
“We had the time and resources to research stories properly,” he remembers.
In his book he talks about playing “airport roulette,” in which, trying to dig up a story, he
would head out to the airport, go to the first counter he saw, throw down his corporate credit card and say, “Next flight out.”
In whatever city he landed he would peruse the local newspapers, looking for newsworthy stories. If he didn’t find a good one, he’d head back to the airport for his “next flight out.”
Rosen signed on at 60 Minutes at 26, having been fired from four newspaper jobs before working on air at the local New York TV station, WOR-TV (Channel 9, which was the home of Joe Franklin and the Million-Dollar Movie), when someone showed his tape to Hewitt.
He was living at home with his parents in Queens when Hewitt called.
His mother answered the phone and when Hewitt said he’d like to offer Rosen a job, his mother replied, “Oh, no. He’s not interested. He’s got a good job.”
Hewitt and Rosen’s mother ended up bonding over the phone and exchanging kugel recipes. Rosen eventually left that good job for a better one at 60 Minutes.
While prestigious and lucrative, working in a high-pressure newsroom was not always a piece of cake. The pressure of climbing the news ladder was “insane” and “unreal,” he says in the book.
Many of his big-name colleagues had carte blanche to act how they wanted. Rosen says he received verbal harassment from Mike Wallace that was “criminal.”
He endured the abuse, he says, out of fear but mostly out of ambition. “I loved being a ’60 Minutes’ producer,” he writes in the introduction to the book. “I took the treatment as part of the job description.”
One of the perks of being a 60 Minutes producer were certain “superpowers,” he says, “to convince whistleblowers, con men and mob bosses to tell their stories.”
It is these stories that made 60 Minutes a Sunday night staple and that he recounts in the book.
Many stories focused on corruption in Washington, D.C.
He exposed the practice of congressmen and senators trading stocks on insider information that they learned in closed-door hearings, a piece that led to a major ethics reform bill (the Stock Act) that was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2012.
In the summer of 2005, he traveled to Pakistan and obtained the interrogation tapes of some of the most dangerous terrorists captured by Pakistan including the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Other stories included “The Nazi Connection” — the secret files on how the U.S. smuggled Nazi war criminals into the U.S.; the first interview with former President Jimmy Carter after he returned to Plains, Ga. from the White House; the story of FBI agent Richard Miller and his seduction by a Russian KGB agent; and the only interview with a Mafia boss, Joe Bonanno,, which was conducted by Wallace.
Twenty years after that story aired, he produced another one of a Mafia boss — John Gotti Jr. – interviewed by Steve Kroft, that would take the full hour on 60 Minutes.
He’s most proud of the story he and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker did in conjunction with the Washington Post in 2019 on the opioid crisis. He worked with Palm Beach County State’s Attorney Dave Aronberg on the story.
“It was the most memorable and most important story of my career,” says Rosen. That expose brought down Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., whom former President Donald Trump had appointed to be the country’s drug czar.
Rosen admits to missing the “good old days.” He laments that 60 Minutes has changed and is now focused on more topical stories and doesn’t speak to what is special about the long-running iconic show.
He regrets the loss of good storytelling that he says was Hewitt’s trademark.
“A good story has to have a build,” he says, noting that is something he learned during summers spent working in the Catskills and listening to the likes of comedians such as Red Buttons, Alan King, Jan Murray and Henny Youngman.
He still watches the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, but admits to taping and editing as he goes. “I never watch the first two minutes – it’s a tease,” he says.
He gives credit to current 60 Minutes correspondents Bill Whitaker and Lesley Stahl – “two of the best storytellers.”
“They still know how to do it,” he says.
After all the gossip and pulling back the curtain on the image of the show, what is the takeaway?
“The biggest takeaway from the book is the effort it takes to succeed,” says Rosen who notes that it took persistence and “courting” for four years to get John Gotti Jr. to go on camera.
“If you’ve lived an interesting life, it’s selfish to keep it to yourself,” he says paraphrasing underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau.
“I’ve led an interesting life,” he says. “There are some stories that didn’t make it into this book; I’m saving them for the next edition.”
Ira Rosen will speak at 7:30 Monday at the Levis JCC Sandler Center, 21050 95th Ave. South, Boca Raton. Tickets for non-members are $18. Visit levisjcc.org for tickets or more information, or call the box office at 561-558-2520.
Rosen promises to give out his mother’s secret kugel recipe (“beyond belief – better than anything the New York Times ever published”) to anyone who buys a copy of his book.