Correspondent Jim Stewart Looks Back On His Time At CBS News

(CBS)
Correspondent Jim Stewart, who has been a journalist for 37 years (more than 16 of them at CBS News) announced his retirement from CBS News last month. As we said then, and we'll say again, he's long been a friend to Public Eye. He was again kind enough to sit down with me on his last day in the office on Friday to reflect a bit on his time at CBS News. Tune in on Thursday for more from Jim, when he'll be featured as this week's "10 Plus 1" subject.

What will you miss the most about this job, what will you miss the least?
That's easy to answer. I mean, I will miss people the most. It's not about the stories, it's about the people. I learned after switching from newspapers to broadcast journalism that this job is much harder to do. You can travel with a certain anonymity as a print reporter, with your pencil and your notepad and a quizzical look on your face. [In television news] sometimes you drag along two-ton trucks, antennas, camera crews, producers, bright lights and televisions. It's hard to get spontaneity. It's hard to get past the veneer that people now automatically put up when they think they're "on TV." It's also much more deadline-driven.

What I will not miss is this splintering of our profession that, I think, has demeaned it. There was a time when you could go to the magazine section of your drugstore and choose from 20 different publications. I honestly think that now you can probably find 20 different publications on just the game of golf. There was a time when you had three television channels to choose from and I was stunned to find out I now receive 338.

I'm not sure we're well served by that many voices. I'm not looking for a state-run television system. I'm not looking for one network to dominate all others. But you do lose quality when you disperse the talent and the different viewpoints across such a broad spectrum.
Why do you think you've been able to develop the sources you have over the period of time you've been a journalist?
Very good question. [Thank you!] And the advice that I always give to the young journalists when they ask that question is this: understand the people that you are covering. And what I mean by that is learn the culture. Example: when I covered the Pentagon I could stand in front of a general officer or an enlisted man and I could read his history on his chest. I knew what those decorations meant. I knew where he'd served, with what distinction he served, I knew where those units were. I could read his career.

When I covered the Pentagon I made it my business to understand -- because I had been in the military -- what their next career moves were. It gave me an opportunity to talk to them as an equal on some occasions…as someone who understood what they were dealing with. And the same was true in the FBI. I went to a great deal of trouble to understand how new agents are chosen and educated and what their career aspirations were. Many a time I'd call somebody at the FBI and never ask a question about something that may have been burning in my mind to know the answer to. But I would just call and gossip with them about the latest promotions announced by the director. That bought me a lot of entre into an organization that is usually very close-lipped.
Why do you think that is? Just because they grew to trust you and respect that you had an interest in what they did?
Yes. It made me somebody who was interested in them and interested in their needs as opposed to somebody always looking to suck up to them and learn the latest secrets of an investigation.

I say this not out of pride, but as a matter of fact, I gave career guidance sometimes. They would want my take on whether to accept this move or that move. Not that I knew better, but I was an outside ear for them. Sometimes they might face disciplinary action and would want to know, did I know an attorney that they could talk to? Or, what did I think should be their response?

I made it a point to go to their promotion parties on occasion. And their retirement parties. I would celebrate those moments with them.

Did you ever feel like that relationship with them would somehow compromise your ability to cover them impartially?
Oh no. No. Let me be very plain about it. I did it, yes, because I liked these individuals as people. But I wanted the access. When there was blood on the sidewalk and we were about to go live to a national audience, I needed that access. I needed to be able to get on the phone and call that secret cell phone number of someone and say, "Jack, what the hell is going on?"
A lot of the networks are trying to lure younger audiences. That's something that's always been part of the game. Do you think in seeking that audience they are alienating the audience that exists?
That's a question for the suits. I don't know. I think that if you have, as I said before, 338 channels to choose from, and you deliberately flip through all the things you have to flip through to get to the "CBS Evening News," I think you've made a conscious election and statement that, "Hey, I want to see the news." So if you don't show them news, why should they watch you?

That's not to say that we're not. This is where I get into trouble, but I'll say it anyway. I think you tinker around the edges of a news broadcast all you want, and that's good. But you will be judged when the crap hits the fan. When people aren't watching you out of curiosity, they're watching you out of a burning hunger and fear and desire to know what's going on. If you don't remember 9/11 for that reason, then, there is no better example.


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