Living a dream deferred: How Bill Whitaker is bending the arc toward justice

June 21, 2018 11:00

Whitaker at the 2017 RTDNF First Amendment Awards

America’s prisons are "filled with people who look like you and me and your families," Bill Whitaker told 44 inmates, predominantly black or Hispanic, at New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison earlier this month.

Those inmates were receiving college degrees – an education, Whitaker said, which will set them free. He urged the graduating inmates to “seize your place in the universe.”
 
He’s certainly done that himself.
 
Whitaker and CBS colleague Marsha Cooke
at the 2017 RTDNF First Amendment Awards

He told the crowd when accepting the RTDNF Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award in March 2017, “I’m living the life my father could only dream of living.”
 
His father had dreamed of being a journalist, but that path wasn’t available to a black man in the 1930s, so he worked as a welder. Nonetheless a news junkie, his routine news viewing drew Whitaker to journalism.
 
“I remember seeing network reporters telling the American people the significant events of the day and I couldn’t imagine a more noble profession. I wanted to do that. But when I was growing up, there weren’t many people who looked like me on TV news – anywhere on TV, for that matter.”

Today, Whitaker is the first full-time African American correspondent on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” since the death of groundbreaking journalist Ed Bradley in 2006, and he is the 2018 recipient of RTDNA’s highest honor, 18 years after Bradley himself.

When Whitaker was watching the evening news with his father, “The times were momentous. The news was important: the Civil Rights movement. My dad went to the march on Washington. The Vietnam War. Anti-war protests. Cold War. Watergate.”

The times today are no less momentous, and Whitaker has traveled the world covering the big stories.

He arrived in China one spring day as relief for a colleague. That day he covered Tiananmen Square.

Since then he’s covered the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, the funeral of Nelson Mandela, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the earthquake in Haiti. His "Too Big to Prosecute" report, a joint project of "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post, just earned a National Murrow Award for investigative reporting. 

“The man has seen it all and done it all, and no matter which one of those pieces you watch, you know that Bill is deeply connected to the stories he tells, poking and probing, without for one second giving up his piercing intelligence, his humor, his humanity, his honesty, or his ability to be surprised,” his CBS colleague Marsha Cooke said on presenting him the Zeidenberg Award.

Whitaker’s coverage of any story stands out for his focus on the human side.

After more than 20 years reporting for CBS out of its Los Angeles bureau, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager, himself a recipient of RTDNA’s Paul White Award, asked Whitaker to do a story for “60 Minutes Sports.”

Whitaker’s unique and human profile of a fly fishing guide earned him a full-time spot on “60 Minutes.”

Now in his fifth season on the show, Whitaker is also no stranger to covering crime from a different, more in-depth and human perspective.
 
Whitaker accepts the 2017
RIAS Media Prize in Berlin
He’s done landmark, award-winning reporting on the opioid epidemic. He’s covered the tenuous intersection of race and policing. His 2016 “Crime and Punishment” story on the stark differences between the American and German prison systems earned him a RIAS Media Prize.

Keynoting the RTDNF’s German partner’s annual recognition event earlier this year, Whitaker shared what drives him to keep reporting with tenacity: “Bad things happen when nobody’s watching.”
 
CBS colleague Cook again: “The fact is, Bill’s stellar body of reportage for CBS News illustrates the work of our Fourth Estate at its finest: showing us what we don’t know, uncovering and discovering stories we want to know and need to know conveying the truth.” 
 
He urges his fellow journalists to do the same, echoing his advice to the Sing Sing graduates, telling the journalists in Berlin and, last week to investigative reporters at IRE's annual meeting, to “keep on keeping on.”
 
“So keep digging, keep looking under rocks, keeping shining lights under the shadows, keep voice to voiceless, hope to the hopeless. Keep reporting with honesty, integrity and facts. When the winds die down, the truth will prevail. It will be clear who is telling the truth and who is not. In the meantime, you, me and all of us: Just keep on keeping on.”

Persistence through any obstacle in pursuit of a better truth defines Whitaker’s work and his life.
 
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, a favorite quote of Whitaker’s.
 
Whitaker is truly an example of how one can push that arc faster and further on its path.
 
The more of us, journalists and otherwise, who join that push, the more people who look like Bill we’ll see in newsrooms, and the fewer deferring their dreams, like Bill’s father, or seeking a second chance at one, like the graduates at Sing Sing.
 
Bill Whitaker will receive RTDNA’s highest honor, named for the founder and first president, Paul White, September 28 at Excellence in Journalism. Join us in Baltimore to honor Whitaker’s contributions and those of John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award recipient Pete Williams to journalism. Details at tickets at excellenceinjournalism.org.