’60 Minutes’ to look back at Steve Kroft’s 30 years on show

NEW YORK (AP) — Steve Kroft’s 30th and final year at “60 Minutes” was the toughest.

Television’s top news program hopes to wipe the slate clean with a new season starting later this month. But first, it takes a look back with Sunday’s tribute to 74-year-old Kroft, who’s retiring from the show.

The hour feature highlights some of his 500 stories, and colleague Lesley Stahl interviews Kroft near his Long Island retreat.

Year 30 was filled with turmoil behind the scenes at CBS, where longtime “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager was fired for sending a threatening text to a colleague working on a story about an investigation into his troubling behavior. Questions also were raised about whether he tolerated an abusive workplace. Charlie Rose, a “60 Minutes” contributor, was fired for sexual misconduct. After a period of uncertainty, Bill Owens was elevated to replace Fager, becoming only the third executive producer in the show’s history.

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“It was very hard,” Kroft told The Associated Press. “It was just painful. It affected relationships on the floor because people were divided into camps.”

Kroft said changes at CBS News had nothing to do with his exit, even though Owens noted that he and Kroft “didn’t always see eye to eye.” Kroft said 30 years at “60 Minutes,” 40 years at CBS News and 50 years in the business were round numbers that made the timing right. Kroft said he wanted to leave while he has the ability to try new things.

“I never lost passion for the stories,” he said. “I lost passion for what it takes to do the job. If you do the job right at ’60 Minutes,’ it’s really exhausting, and I notice that more in my 70s than in my 60s.”

Kroft set a high bar with beautiful writing and scrupulous reporting, Owens said. Stahl tells her former colleague: “you gave us depth.”

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Some of his best-remembered stories came during the financial crisis a decade ago and explained its complex origins. He did several stories about Barack Obama as a candidate and president — Kroft says Obama was his most interesting interview subject — and Hillary Clinton’s famed “stand by your man” interview in 1992.

He showed the required versatility of a “60 Minutes” reporter, and Sunday’s special looks back on stories about Chernobyl, Clint Eastwood, Clarence Thomas, Beyonce, Jerry Seinfeld and life on an island off the Scottish coast.

When Kroft joined in 1989, the show had a murderer’s row of correspondents including Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner, along with founding producer Don Hewitt. Stahl joined in 1991.

“It was not just intimidating, it was terrifying,” he said. He recalled being taken aside by Dan Rather, who said, “I just want to warn you. It’s a jungle. There are a lot of big cats. They’ll take one swat with a paw and you’ll be limping for six months. It was good advice.”

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Kroft proved himself with some strong stories in his early years, which was both good and bad.

“You get to the point where you don’t want to get the other correspondents pissed off because so much of what was going on there was fighting with the other correspondents for good stories,” he said.

John Dickerson replaces Kroft this fall and, like his predecessor last season, is being counted on for a limited number of stories.

Stahl, Scott Pelley and Bill Whitaker are the show’s only full-time correspondents. Sharyn Alfonsi, Anderson Cooper, Norah O’Donnell and L. Jon Wertheim contribute stories on a part-time basis.

That’s one direction Kroft doesn’t like.

“I think we’re getting too many people doing the stories,” he said. “I think one of the strengths of the original show was that you knew who was going to be on every week. Now you don’t necessarily have that.”

Owens said he’d like to have six or seven permanent correspondents, too. Budget considerations aren’t holding the show back, he said, noting that it often takes people time to get accustomed to how “60 Minutes” operates; Pelley and the late Bob Simon both started out doing a limited number of stories, he said.

“There’s no doubt that we’re in a transition period here,” Owens said.

He said “60 Minutes” will recover from its tough year like it survived last season, by paying attention to the responsibility and legacy of the broadcast. After decades on the air, it is still routinely among each week’s top 10 shows.

“At the end of the season everybody was very proud, and I think everybody is looking forward to a sort of clean white sheet of paper this season,” he said. “We can get out and cover the news without worrying about everything that was written about over these past couple of years.”

The uncertainty isn’t fully gone, since new corporate management will likely raise questions about financial support for CBS News. Owens said he’s confident the show will be in good shape.

“This show has survived the departure and death of Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Bob Simon and it’s always gone along just fine,” Kroft said. “I expect it to continue, because I think the program is incredibly valuable to CBS and very valuable to the national discussion. There’s nothing else on the networks or cable quite like it.”