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10 Plus 1: Greg Kandra & Co.

Greg Kandra, editor of "Couric & Co.," has worked in pretty much every corner of CBS News, having spent 24 years as a writer and producer. He began as a production secretary in Washington in 1982 and moved on to write for CBS Radio and later for a slew of programs anchored by some heavy hitters – Charles Kuralt, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley. He also co-wrote the CBS documentary "9/11" in 2002 and has done writing work outside of news – writing for "Survivor" reunion shows. Today, Greg shares some of his highlights, including his ultimate career goal of retrieving Stephen Colbert's dry cleaning and/or coffee.

What do you do at CBS News?

I'm the editor of "Couric & Co," the Evening News web log (er, "blog"). I also produce Katie's daily commentary, "Katie Couric's Notebook." In my spare time, I send snarky IMs to Dick Meyer.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
In a word, faith. Okay, I admit to a bias here: in May, I'll complete five years of study and become an ordained member of the Catholic clergy, a Permanent Deacon. So my antennae are probably more attuned to stories of spirituality and religion. But most Americans believe in something, or Someone, and I think in the post 9/11-world, with two wars raging and terror threats increased and wands being waved over us at airports, we're being reminded again and again of how impermanent and precious life is. Many people are searching for meaning in a world that is increasingly troubled, increasingly fractured. Newspapers are beginning to give more attention to this – the Washington Post just launched a pretty good discussion forum on faith, moderated by Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham – and CNN has a full time "Faith and Values Correspondent," Delia Gallagher, who's terrific. But I think network television can and should do more. This is an unexplored, largely overlooked area of American life.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
Years ago, I was working as the assignment editor in CBS News Radio, and we got word that Douglas Edwards had died. It was a weekend, and people were scrambling to find another CBS News legend from his era to talk about him. A light bulb went off in my head. I called someone I knew from my days in Washington, Lesley Stahl, and asked her if she knew how to reach Eric Sevareid. She gave me his home number. I took a deep breath, and called. Incredibly, he answered the phone. I told him who I was and what had happened, and asked if he'd like to comment. "Give me five minutes to compose my thoughts," he said in that famous voice. A few minutes later, I called back. Before I could even say "Hello," That Voice boomed through the phone: "This is Eric Sevareid and this is the level at which I'll be speaking. Three, two, one…" I scrambled to get the tape rolling, and what followed was an eloquent, perfectly composed tribute, delivered in that impeccable cadence, in that unforgettable voice. It ran about 45 seconds. On the next hourly, we ran the whole thing, in its entirety. This was 16 or 18 years ago. I can't imagine they'd get away with running a sound bite that long today.
Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
Here's a flip side of the Sevareid story. When I was working in Radio, if there was a terrible accident, or an unexpected death of someone famous, it wasn't uncommon to have to call friends or family and get their reaction. I hated that. I used to dial the phone and pray that I'd get a busy signal. But I can't remember ever reaching someone and actually breaking bad news to them. Maybe I was just lucky.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be in some form of ministry. Either that, or getting Stephen Colbert's coffee and picking up his dry cleaning. (I like Colbert a lot. I worship the water he walks on.)

A lot of people ask me: if priests could be married, would you like to be a priest? I don't think so. The priesthood is all-consuming. But every now and then I do think I'd like to go off and live in a cloister and chant the psalms and bake bread. But after an hour of that, I'd probably go nuts. And I'm not sure my wife would approve.

Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
At least once a day, I try to at least scan Public Eye, Andrew Sullivan, Media Bistro (does anyone in the media not read that?), NRO, and Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing in the Washington Post.

I also like to sample several religiously themed Web sites. The Anchoress is an old friend of mine, so I'm always curious to see what she has to say (and she says it so well!) and I get a kick out of Whispers in the Loggia, a blog run by Rocco Palmo, a 23-year-old Philadelphian who knows everything about everyone in the Catholic Church. Amy Welborn's Open Book is great for Catholic news, too. I check out newspapers online, too: the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times. And, of course, the always-entertaining Drudge. Lately, I've become enamored with YouTube, too, and like to check out Stephen Colbert clips. (Have I told you how much he cracks me up?)

What's the last really great book or movie you found?
Shameless plug: my friend James Martin has a new book called Becoming Who You Are that I'm giving friends for Christmas. It draws wonderful insights from the lives of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Jesus Christ, among others. (I'm crazy about Merton, and my great unfulfilled ambition is to do a book about him one day.)

As for movies: some months back I was on a long flight and one of the movies featured was "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." I had never seen it before. It's pretty dated now, really a mid-60s time capsule, but Tracy and Hepburn were just great, and it struck me that the movie was structured and executed like a play – it really could have been done on stage, as a well-made three act drama. And the dialogue crackled. You never see movies like that anymore. (Frankly, the best dramatic writing these days is happening on TV. Exhibit A: any episode of "House" or "The West Wing, or almost anything else written by Aaron Sorkin, for that matter.) Am I hopelessly square, or what?

What is your first memory of TV news?
In the late '60s, there was nothing more chilling than coming home from school, turning on the TV and seeing the card go up in the middle of "Dark Shadows" for a "Special Report." It was never good news. Another assassination, another setback in the war, another unexpected death of an important public figure. I'll never forget that.
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
Fewer cakes in the newsroom. Every birthday, anniversary, engagement and pregnancy is a reason for cake. Frequently, an ice cream cake. We sing, we celebrate, we eat. I'm asking for new pants for Christmas.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
When I was a lowly Production Assistant in Washington, they sent me out on a rare assignment, to do an interview with Herb Block, the legendary cartoonist at the Washington Post. I can't remember a word he said. All I remember is sitting there with my jaw hanging open, looking at all the cartoons lining his walls. He had one of those angled desks that artists use, and bottles of ink. And I couldn't believe I was actually sitting in his office, at the Washington Post, talking to him. I'd grown up seeing his cartoons on the editorial page of the Post – he was a staple there for 40 or 50 years – and it was just such a kick to meet him.

As for the other half of the question: I've never covered any jerks. They've all been absolute angels. Now, excuse me while I go to confession…

Actually, a certain CBS News executive (who is no longer with the company) earns the prize for biggest jerk I've encountered professionally. He once complained about my work to an executive producer, saying "I think his writing is too smart for our audience."

Finally, a question just for Greg: You've written for a number of CBS News programs in your career. What do you think about the quality overall of television news writing?
It's a dying art, I'm afraid. There aren't a lot of people anymore who write full time, all the time. A lot of people in the business see TV writing as a stepping stone to producing, or even doing on-air work. Many of them are good, but they just don't have the love of language, the passion for prose (how's that for alliteration?!) that makes the copy – as they used to say -- sing. I cut my teeth writing for newsmagazine shows – beginning with "America Tonight" with Charles Kuralt, and then "Street Stories" with Ed Bradley and "48 Hours" with Dan Rather. All those men cared deeply about words, and were gifted writers themselves – Kuralt, in fact, was among the best in any medium, anywhere. As a result, they demanded more, and I spent a lot of anguished hours polishing and revising and refining what I wrote. It took a lot of effort to try and make it sound effortless. When I watch some of the newsmagazine programs today, and listen to the copy, I just don't get that sense. The anchor copy is just there to fill space between taped pieces. And, of course, the kinds of stories we're telling have changed. How many times can you write "Every parent's nightmare" in a lead-in? How many times can someone use the words "shocking" or "incredible" in a sentence before it becomes meaningless? Whenever someone asks if I have any advice for someone starting in the business, and I always say: "Learn to write. Learn to write well. And learn to write well under deadline." There aren't enough people able to do that, and the business is desperate for it.

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