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10 Plus 1: Correspondent Jim Stewart On 37 Years In Journalism

Jim Stewart, a correspondent at CBS News for more than 16 years, announced his retirement from CBS News last month and Friday was his last day in the office. Before he left, he agreed to be this week's "10 Plus 1" subject. We also spoke to him earlier about his time at CBS News covering the Pentagon, the Justice Department and everything in between (we're considering that his "plus 1.") So here's one more chance to read about his experiences as a journalist of 37 years.

What do you do at CBS News?

I am a correspondent assigned to cover the the Justice department, the FBI and counter-terrorism.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
There is no single issue that should be covered more at CBS News. I think that I would like to see more beat reporting at CBS News. I think I would like to see us be more inquisitive and critical of government decisions and I think you can do that best by having someone immersed in a beat who closely watches it every day and comes to know it as well as the people who work there.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
Well, I could get sued if I told some of the stories... In the news media, you get to see behind the scenes all the time, it's like watching sausage made. It's not pretty sometimes.

When you pursue any journalism, especially on a national scale, you're behind the scenes every day because you are the first author of history. You're writing what we think we just saw; what we think we just heard and you are behind the scenes for that. You are there during the half hour before the press conference starts and you see the aides running crazily trying to gather facts for the defense secretary or the president or the attorney general or whomever it may be. Every day is a behind the scenes experience on history.

Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
I would be asked to do stories all the time both in print and in broadcast media that I thought didn't rise to the level of being a national story. I felt it was just a waste of our time to report it. But I did the stories, in any event, convinced that the viewing public was smart enough to realize that this was just a snapshot of something and nothing to really be upset or concerned or worried about. The public is smarter than we think.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
I was in pre-law in college. I would probably be a prosector. It would suit my personality. One of my first heroes was a U.S. District Judge named Frank M. Johnson Jr., who wrote many of the great civil rights decisions in Montgomery, Ala. I was a young reporter for United Press and, bless his heart, Judge Johnson would explain his decisions to me sometimes and they had national ramifications and I was so afraid I would get them wrong. I often thought though that I could enjoy the law, not in a corporate board room, but in a courtroom. Maybe it's because I like to argue.
Do you read blogs?If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
No I don't [read blogs.] Like most people, I shop on the Internet. I am constantly checking long-range weather forecasts, constantly checking the markets. I'm constantly pursuing individual interests whether it be, what's the menu at that restaurant we passed last night? To, you know, what was the name of that river I once rafted on in the far west many years ago and how would I get there again?

It's a way to cruise through information – and I say information with a big dose of salt, because no one monitors that information. It's not accountable to anyone and surprise, surprise, sometimes its dead wrong.

What's the last really great book or movie you found?
I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Wolfe's book, "I Am Charlotte Simmons." Having raised three children who went to college, I thought it sort of captured what I thought my college experience was like and what the current experience is like ...and the sense that it pulled back the curtain on big time athletic programs and made sense out of the pressures that kids face these days.

I'm currently re-reading Patrick O'Brien's 21-novel study of the British Navy.

What is your first memory of TV news?
This dates me, but we didn't have a TV til I was 10 or 12 years old. It was a luxury item. It was brand new at the time. But once we got one, I was conscious of the fact that every night the voice of god – whether it be Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite -- was talking to me.
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
I wish we would get back to understanding the power of the written word – that it's not a visually driven profession as much as we think it is. Oddly enough, I think the Internet may do that. The Internet doesn't depend on the latest car chase video, it's the written word, the power of communication through the written language. And it has revealed, I think, something that doesn't surprise me, which is that there are a lot of journalists out there who can't write.
Who is the most fascinating person you've ever covered and who is the biggest jerk?
Fascinating in a dark way was a congressman named Larry McDonald, who was one of the first of the super conservatives to emerge from Southern politics. He was a man conservative even by today's standards, so he belonged to the John Birch Society. He had aspirations to be President of the United States. And had he not died -- in the most ironic manner possible, aboard the Korean airlines jumbo jet that was shot down by the Soviet Union, the very people that the John Birch Society hated the most – I think he would have made a run at it. I did several exposes on him; had him thump me in my chest several times, make threats. But I found him utterly fascinating.
Oh god. So many so little time.

The biggest jerk I ever covered was a woman whose name I cannot even recall now. She was a colonel in the U.S. Army in charge of overseeing the prosthetic devices for amputees at Walter Reed. I was doing a story on a private company in Texas that offered to give all the amputees at Walter Reed new devices – state of the art legs and limbs that would allow them to literally climb mountains, ski, run, do whatever they pleased. And at no charge. I asked her why she wouldn't allow these men to go to Texas and receive these devices. And she said, "Because they're my patients. I tell them what to do. And why do they need those devices anyway when all they do is sit around and watch television?"

Colin Powell, I'm told, almost had a heart attack when he saw that on television and within an hour fired her. And the next day the boys got their limbs. It's one of the few times I think I've had instant gratification from a story.

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