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10 Plus 1: John Blackstone On Live Shots During Wildfires And Heavy Rain

John Blackstone joined CBS News in 1980, as a correspondent based in London and later, Paris. He covered stories in the Middle East, Central America, Africa and Europe before moving to the San Francisco bureau in 1986, where he is currently based. He covers stories throughout the West, including everything from natural disasters to the technology industry of Silicon Valley. Below, John shares some anecdotes about the good and bad luck that goes along with live television and tells us why he's not a fan of those ever-popular "man on the street" interviews.

What do you do at CBS News?

I am a correspondent based in San Francisco. I cover stories, primarily in the western states, for the CBS "Evening News," "The Early Show" and "Sunday Morning."
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
We do plenty of stories about medicine and health but I think we could do more on the economics and politics of health care in America. When the head of a health insurance company can take home tens of millions of dollars but family doctors have a hard time keeping their practices open, it's an issue that has widespread impact and should get more of our attention.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
In the west we often find ourselves covering earthquakes, wildfires, floods and landslides. Mixing live television and natural disasters has its risks. We were covering a wildfire in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and worked hard to get ourselves close to the action. We set up our satellite truck at a fire camp where we could get a shot of the flames burning on the hill behind us. But then the wind changed direction and the fire started to tear down the hill toward the fire camp. Soon the camp was being bombarded by burning embers. The heat was so intense it created its own windstorm that blew down most of the tents in the camp. At times the smoke was so thick we had to lie on the ground to breathe. Firefighters had to battle to save their own supplies from being burned. Cameraman Gilbert Deiz braved it all, capturing the fire and turmoil on videotape. But an hour later, when it was time to go live on the "Evening News," the smoke had cleared, literally. The fire had moved down the valley. In my "live shot" all you could see on the hill behind me was blackened earth and a bit of smoke, only the faintest hint of the fire that had been burning so dangerously close, so recently.

Not long after, I was covering floods caused by heavy rains and high tides in Northern California. The producers of the "Early Show" wanted me to do a live report in the pouring rain with pounding surf behind me. I warned them several times that it was impossible for me to promise that it would be raining and the surf would be pounding when we went on the air. Sure enough, as I drove to the "live shot" location near the Golden Gate Bridge an hour before air, the wind was calm and the sky was clear. As we were setting up, a few clouds moved in but there still wasn't any rain. Then about five minutes to air the storm hit: the wind was wild, the rain pounded, the surf roared. When we went on the air I was soaked and windblown with the Pacific raging behind me. But as soon as we finished the live shot it was like someone threw a switch. The rain stopped, the wind went calm but, hey, it was there when we needed it. In live TV sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
I hate just about any story that involves MOS – Man on the Street – interviews (now often more politically correctly called POS). Whatever they are called, I see little point in them most of the time. They certainly do not represent a scientific survey or a random sample. How do I deal with them? I try to get a producer to do them!
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
I might have ended up writing history or teaching history. But then, in a way, I guess that is what I do now.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
Not to flatter you folks at Public Eye, but I frequently sample from the Public Eye Blog Roll. I now do most of my initial story research online and come across blogs related to almost any subject I am investigating. I am not a dedicated reader of any one blog in particular. Unlimited variety is the Internet's greatest attribute … so why always go to the same place?
What's the last really great book or movie you found?
By coincidence my last notable book and movie are both about magic. I just finished a book about the history of magic, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear by Jim Steinmeyer. Then I saw the best movie I have seen in a long time, "The Illusionist." After the movie I could tell my wife how some of the tricks were done because of what I'd learned in Hiding the Elephant. "The Illusionist" is brilliant storytelling, worth studying by any of us who tell stories for a living.
What is your first memory of TV news?
The Kennedy assassination. I still remember hearing a network correspondent reporting from someplace where it was raining that night saying: "This isn't rain, this is emotion."
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
The Internet is bringing a change I have long wanted to see. I have always thought it would be great if viewers and readers had easy access to everything that is behind a news report: the entire interview with the story subject or the whole study on which a news report is based. It is still not as seamless as it could be, but it is certainly moving in the right direction.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is probably the most impressive person I have ever covered. I worked a lot in South Africa in the 1980s when the battle against apartheid was at its height. Tutu risked his freedom and probably his life almost every day using non-violent protest to resist a racist government. The first time I interviewed him was in 1984 just after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was world famous but under the segregation of apartheid his home was a simple cinder block dwelling in the township of Soweto. When we arrived he answered the door of his modest home himself but he was dressed grandly in his Bishop's robes. I had no doubt I was in the presence of greatness.

More recently I have been impressed by Elon Musk. While others have been asking "Who killed the electric car?" Musk is bringing it back to life. He made billions creating PayPal and has now poured a good chunk of that money into Tesla Motors, applying the creativity of Silicon Valley to a problem Detroit hasn't been able to solve.

As for the jerks, I will take Archbishop Tutu's advice that forgiveness is better than revenge.

Finally, a question just for John: One of your specialties seems to be finding quirkier stories about people or events that end up being profiles for "Sunday Morning" or the "Evening News" -- the homebuilder who builds very tiny houses, the blind boy who sees by clicking his tongue, the California winery's Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament -- where did you find these stories and how do you seek out stories like this in general?
I guess the truth is, having done quite a number of quirky stories, the stories now find me as often as I find them. Every time I do something that is a little offbeat people quickly suggest other similarly unlikely subjects. I enjoy doing these pieces for a couple of reasons. First, I learned long ago that the unusual stories live on in people's memories long after most of the big, important stories have faded away. Second, often those quirky pieces present a bigger challenge than a breaking news story. A hard news story can be straightforward to write, it's all about the facts. The quirky stories are more often about emotion or humor, things that can be tougher to capture in the limited time available for a TV news piece.

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