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10 Plus 1: How Howard Works

(CBS)
If anyone ever called me at two o'clock in the morning claiming to be from the Pentagon and telling me to show up at Andrews Air Force base in three hours, I'd probably hang up and go back to sleep. Well, Howard Arenstein didn't, and he ended up on a minibus in Uzbekistan. And apparently the whole trip wasn't that worthwhile anyway. As the Washington bureau manager for CBS Radio News and an on-air correspondent, he's got plenty more stories to tell.

What do you do at CBS News?
I am the Washington bureau manager for CBS Radio News and an on-air correspondent. We keep the radio hourly newscasts and updates informed of all the important and a lot of not-so-important news that comes out of Washington.

We have a small staff here and there is a lot happening (as well as a lot of talk in Washington) and it keeps us very busy most of the time. I supervise reporters that work in Congress -- Bob Fuss -- at the White House -- Peter Maer as well as Dan Raviv, Barry Bagnato and John Hartge, who cover many other subjects out of the bureau. We also get contributions from bureau reporters such as Charles Wolfson at the State Department and Stephanie Lambidakis and Beverley Lumpkin at the Justice Department. We get invaluable assistance from CBS News TV correspondents, such as David Martin at the Pentagon, Jim Axelrod and Bill Plante at the White House and Sharyl Attkisson on Capitol Hill.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
There is no question that the answer is foreign news. We are forced to cover many foreign stories without having a staff correspondent on the scene. We rely on freelance stringers and help from other news organizations who have reporters in the field, such as The Christian Science Monitor. But there are many other issues that don't get covered in the four minutes of news we provide at the top of every hour, especially when we fill it up with stories that interest people intensely (like a runaway bride or a basketball player rape case) but don't really matter at all to people's lives.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
It's 1997. I'm sound asleep at 2 a.m. The phone rings. "This is the Pentagon. We are activiating the National Media Pool. You must report to Andrews Air Force Base in three hours. Do not tell anyone about this. We can not tell you where you are going. But bring warm clothes. It may be cool." Two days later, I was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on a minibus heading for Shymkent, Kazakhstan. It was a test of whether the Pentagon could get some reporters halfway around the world at a moment's notice. We flew in a KC-135 tanker with a "luxury" seating package. They got us there (who knows how much the mission cost taxpayers?) but we were sent to cover a non-story and even the Pentagon today agrees it was probably a waste of time. That particular media pool has never been mobilized since then for real.
Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
I am often assigned to stories I object to. I deal with it by discussing my objections with my editors and my boss. I do not hesitate to say when I think something is being blown out of proportion or getting more attention than it deserves. My favorite such story would be some other organization's survey, report or public opinion poll. Everyone wants attention for their story. Few of them deserve it.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
Maybe I would be the public relations manager for the Washington Nationals. My father was an optometrist (as was the father of my colleague, Peter Maer), and I once, while still in college, considered going to optometric school.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
Yes, I was an early follower of Matt Drudge when many people had not heard of him. I remember reading his Web site on the Saturday night before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. His site has taken on less significance today because many others are copying what he does. I check out Crooks and Liars, The Huffington Post, Raw Story, an Israeli site called Debka and a few others. They are bookmarked in my browser ... but we never use what is reported there as a source for a report. The blogs are tip sheets which always have to be checked out and their stories often prove untrue.
What's the last really great book or movie you found?
Among my favorite movies are Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life," and "Lost in America." I also have discovered the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, through "Talk to Her." My favorite documentaries are "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," by Aviva Kempner and "Supersize Me," by Morgan Spurlock. But lately, great movies have been harder and harder to find.
What is your first memory of TV news?
Chet saying goodnight to David on the Huntley-Brinkley Report; Eric Sevareid's black background commentaries on "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite"; watching round-the-clock coverage in 1963 when JFK was assassinated.
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
I would make radio network newscasts and the stories we air on them longer. When I first started working for CBS Radio we were sometimes allowed to produce pieces that were one minute and 15 seconds long. Today, we are urged to keep all of our reports to 35 seconds and less. It's hard to tell it all in 25 seconds.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
I'd probably have to say Bill Clinton is the most fascinating person I have ever covered. His adventures kept us busy for many years. He was also probably the biggest jerk.
And finally, a question just for Howard:What is one thing that Washington reporters know that most people don't?
We Washington reporters know what all these and many other acronyms stand for: FBI, FDA, CIA, NID, NSC, CINC, BLS, OMB, CPI, NASA, DOD, DOE, HHS, DOJ, DOL, ERISA, OEOB, EEOC, HCFA, NOAA, PAC, SCOTUS, POTUS, FLOTUS, USDA, ANZUS, NATO, EPA, AFRTS, FAA, FCC, SEC ...