'60 Minutes' Lands First U.S. Interview With Saudi Arabian Leader After Khashoggi Killing

Eric Kerchner for CBSNews/60MINUTES
Norah O'Donnell interviews Mohammad bin Salman for the season kickoff of '60 Minutes.'

The interview with Mohammed bin Salman was conducted by Norah O’Donnell on Tuesday in Jeddah.

The 52nd season of CBS' 60 Minutes will kick off Sunday with an interview with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi ruler whom U.S. intelligence officials believe was involved in the plot that resulted in the abduction and murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The interview — conducted by Norah O’Donnell, her second with the crown prince known as MBS — took place Tuesday in Jeddah. It is bin Salman’s first U.S. interview since Khashoggi was dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Turkey almost a year ago. (Bin Salman was previously interviewed by a friendly outlet in the Middle East.) The Saudis have blamed the grizzly murder on a high-ranking member of the country’s security service, which bin Salman oversees. The interview also comes as tensions in the region have once again hit a boiling point with the Saudi defense ministry blaming Iran for recent drone strikes that forced Saudi Arabia to shutter half of its oil production.

It will be a much different interview than O’Donnell’s previous sit-down with bin Salman, 34, who is second in line to the throne, although he is the de facto ruler of the oil-rich American ally. That interview, conducted in March 2018, examined bin Salman’s preferred image as a reformer, one that has deteriorated as Khashoggi’s murder refocused the world on the country’s dismal human rights record. Indeed, multiple foreign investors, including Ari Emanuel-led Endeavor, cut ties with the kingdom.

The interview is an opportunity for O’Donnell — who took over as anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News last summer, with the show scheduled to make its move to a new Washington home base later this year — to showcase her interviewing skills. 

For 60 Minutes, the new season and the bin Salman booking should serve as a welcome page-turner after more than a year of intense scrutiny at the news division and the company overall.

“When there’s a lot going on in the world, people tune in to 60 Minutes,” said executive producer Bill Owens, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter before heading to Saudi Arabia with O’Donnell. “Whether it’s the financial crash, the immigration crisis or what’s happening in the Middle East, we are the adult in the room when it comes to explaining that. It’s not people shouting to a live camera like most of cable is. We take a lot of care in putting together these stories.”

60 Minutes still regularly makes TV's top 10 in the ratings, and last season averaged close to 11 million viewers every Sunday. The premiere installment of the show also will include a report from Bill Whitaker about the abundance of great white sharks in the water off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 

CBS News president Susan Zirinsky officially named Owens as the executive producer of 60 Minutes in February following the conclusion of various internal investigations into the culture at CBS. His promotion came six months after the ouster of former exec producer Jeff Fager and capped more than a year of intense scrutiny that began in November 2017 when Charlie Rose was fired amid numerous claims of sexual harassment.

In April, Owens promoted Tanya Simon to executive editor of 60 Minutes, the position he held before being tapped as executive producer. The transition at the show also will play out on the air, with the exit at the end of last season of longtime correspondent Steve Kroft and the addition of John Dickerson, who joins as a regular correspondent. Dickerson was CBS News political director before segueing to an anchor role on Face the Nation and, briefly, CBS This Morning, but his purview at 60 Minutes will include stories outside of politics. Owens expects Dickerson to anchor approximately five pieces this season and gradually ramp up to a full load. The show also will focus on modernizing its digital platform and is in the process of hiring a journalist to oversee that update. 

Insiders credit Zirinsky with a division-wide reset that has included a beefed-up human resources presence and an emphasis on open communication and cross-show cooperation. 60 Minutes, in particular, has long been known as a challenging environment in which to succeed, owing to its famously competitive producer and correspondent corps, long hours and frequent travel (often, but not always, to inhospitable locales). But the show also has evolved with shifting corporate standards. “There is less yelling, that’s for sure,” said Owens, adding, facetiously, “There’s also no more smoking, and people aren’t drinking on the floor.”

Continued Owens, “But it’s still really competitive, believe me. People can disagree and people can even fight about things, but everybody needs to be respectful. We’re going to need to disagree; good journalism relies on a lot of facts and perspective and a lot of hard work. All that can happen. And you can say you’re sorry if you lose your temper.”