It's fitting that Mason, 51, carries on that tradition at CBS , following in the footsteps of such legendary storytellers as Edward R. Murrow and Charles Kuralt. But this type of reporting is growing increasingly scarce in an era of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs and when gossip is king in journalism.
What makes Mason stand out further is that he weaves interesting tales about the arcane world of business and finance.
As we sat in the nondescript Olympic Flame diner near the CBS News building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Mason told me that "CBS Evening News" Executive Producer Rick Kaplan had challenged him to go "anywhere in the world" to report a story about debt.
Mason's assignment took him to Kuwait, where he recalled interviewing the head of the Kuwait Investment Authority -- after battling sand storms. "We ended up spending $20,000 to interview this one guy who buys up a lot of our debt," he said.
However, he clearly remains jazzed about the piece.
"It was really good television -- a great story, great characters, well told," he said, sounding more relieved than triumphant. "You're never really sure if the pictures will play out what you've envisioned."
The business beat
Mason, who has been reporting for CBS since the 1980s, said he "raised his hand" a decade ago to volunteer for the business beat, but he never expected to stay on it for quite so long.
"If you had told me I would be covering business for 10 years, I would've told you were absolutely insane," he said. "When I was a kid, it was something my brother, a banker, and my father, who started the Japan Fund, did. I was more interested in covering global crises."
His biggest career regret is being unable to report from the New York Stock Exchange in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He recalled that an NYSE official told him, "If you can get here, we'll let you in, but good luck."
At the time, Lower Manhattan took on the air of a war-torn third-world country, as rescue workers dug through rubble in search of victims.
"I wish we could've spent the night at the stock exchange," he muttered. "I still kick myself about that."
Occasionally, as he did last weekend on "CBS Sunday Morning," Mason stretches his interests and does a non-business story; one gem was his profile of pop singer Neil Diamond. (Even someone like me, who never embraced Diamond's music, liked the segment.)
Regardless of the topic, he understands the challenges of telling a good story on television.
"You get two minutes to tell a story, so there should not be a wasted picture," he said.
That's partly why Mason said he isn't interested in covering the White House.
"You're a prisoner of their press machine, and visually, the stories are extremely limited," he said. "As a journalist, you're kind of a filmmaker and you want as many tools as you can find to tell the stories. I'd find that incredibly frustrating -- I'd disintegrate. I'd scream."
Then he laughed and said, "If I were 10 or 15 years younger, I'd want to be on the campaign trail."
That's no surprise, really. He fondly remembers getting hooked on politics at a very early age. He once stood on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 77th Street in Manhattan, near where he grew up, and shouted to passers-by, "Step right up and meet Bill Diamond, a candidate for the state assembly." He laughed. "I was 12 years old!"
'The Green Hornet' network
As a child, Mason had a fertile imagination. Inspired by his favorite TV show, "The Green Hornet," he decided to form his own imaginary TV network.
Its call letters were WGHB -- for Green Hornet Broadcasting -- and, he added with a big laugh at his youthful seriousness, "it was a part o the Allied Broadcasting System!"
Mason later pursued a career in broadcasting, and his travels took him to Memphis and Tulsa before he gravitated to Philadelphia. Before that, he said, he'd never been west of the Mississippi.
He was learning about America in profound -- and sometimes poignant -- ways. Shortly after arriving in Memphis, he asked a native to identify a nearby river. He was told, "Uh, it's the ."
The television business was also an eye-opener. When he was ready to move to Philadelphia, he was prepared to demand an annual salary of $13,000. The station manager cut him off by telling him, "Legally, I can't pay you any less than $30,000."
Eventually, Mason went on to report from London and Moscow for CBS and covered such major stories as the collapse of Communism. "Every day I was working on that story, I knew it was momentous," he recalled. "It was breathtaking to have a front seat at history. In my gut, I knew I'd never see a story any bigger."
When I told Mason that some of his anecdotes sounded like something straight out of "Broadcast News," the terrific movie about a fictitious Washington, D.C., TV news bureau, he nodded.
"That was the most accurate movie ever made about TV news," he said. "When I saw it, I thought, 'Someone finally got it.'"
Sorry, dear readers, Mason stopped short of dishing dirt about Katie Couric and the troubled "CBS Evening News." He remained a loyal employee, not a gossip-monger. "How could I not be loyal to a show after 20 years?" he asked.
He prefers to reflect on the show's quality, not the criticism of the ratings. "It's still a first-class show," he said. "I'd stack it up against anything else on TV. There is nothing more powerful than a well-told story on television."
: What do you like or dislike about the "CBS Evening News"?
: "Exec faces new challenge: meshing Newsday, Cablevision" by Mark Harrington (Newsday, May 15): It seems that Tom Rutledge, Cablevision's chief operating officer, visited the headquarters of Newsday, which Cablevision just acquired, but he didn't meet with reporters or make himself available for questions. That somehow figures. Cablevision's management treated beat reporters of the New York Knicks, another Cablevision asset, as a necessary evil. .
"I don't know whether you read any conservative blogs, but if not, you should, since there are more and more examples of outright misrepresentation about McCain (and other things) going on at the NY Times and about the only place you'll find out about it is blogs."
-- Gerald Apge
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By Jon Friedman