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10 Plus 1: Producer Ward Sloane On Covering Kosovo To The Columbia Disaster

Ward Sloane, an "Evening News" producer in the Washington, D.C., bureau, joined CBS News in 1982 as a researcher in the political unit. He was later assignment editor and assignment manager in Washington before moving on to New York, where he managed logistics for coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign. He returned to Washington to become the White House producer for the morning news and joined the "Evening News" in 1993 as a producer. Since then, he's helped create and cover the aviation beat with correspondent Bob Orr, has covered a multitude of political stories and won three Emmys and a Sigma Delta Chi award along the way. Below, Sloane discusses some of the more memorable aspects of those experiences.

What do you do at CBS News?

I have a tri-part answer. I often tell people that I am a reducer, not a producer. By which I mean I take a lot of information from a day's events and "reduce" it to a hopefully intelligent and cohesive two-minute "Evening News" piece. Second, I am a facilitator and believe that I'm doing my work when the whole team is working together—the correspondent, the camera people, the editor and our graphics team. I try to keep everyone on the same page. And finally, I am a valet. At least that's how I introduce myself when I out on a story with a correspondent, so that the subject of our story knows that chiefly I'm responsible for keeping the correspondent happy.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
That's like being a single issue candidate in politics. But if I had to choose, I'd say technology.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
I've spent a lot of years working with Bob Orr. He is an extremely smart correspondent who has made a reputation for himself and CBS News. After the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in February 2003, I went with Bob to cover the investigation in Houston. One day, Bob turns to CBS Space consultant Bill Harwood and says that the foam from the external fuel tank that fell and created a hole in the one of the shuttle's wings was most likely the cause of the accident. He and Harwood talk some science mumbo-jumbo, but determine that the velocity of the foam at the moment of impact was in fact so strong it broke through the protective coating of the wing. Next thing that happens is a group of top NASA managers appear in our work space to watch our tape and listen to Bob and Bill explain their theory. Needless to say, two years later, that was the explanation for the accident.
Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
Yes. And the simple answer is that I asked to be unassigned, and I was.
If you were not in the news, what would you be doing?
I would be a homicide detective, packing ice. Maybe I've watched too many episodes of "Law & Order" or "Monk," but I love the idea that there are people who dedicate their lives to trying to make sure nobody gets away with murder.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
I am not a big blog reader. I really don't know what the fascination with blogs is all about. Who are the bloggers? And why do I care what they write? I see bloggers as guys or gals sitting around in boxer shorts with cigar ashes all around their keyboards expounding on anything and everything they can, with no sources or accountability. Of course, I always read Public Eye. On the Internet I read newspapers—chiefly The New York Times. Also I look at Yahoo "In the News" to see what headlines are popular.
What's the last really great book or movie you found?
The last great movie I saw was "Capote" about Truman Capote's research and writing of In Cold Blood, the true story of a Kansas family that is brutally murdered by two men. It was brilliant. I walked away vowing never to read anything else about or by Capote because he was so venal and amoral in his pursuit of the story. The last "great" book I read was Robert Caro's Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. You said, "great" and that's how far back I have to go. I can't wait until the next installment in his Lyndon Johnson study.
What is your first memory of TV news?
Like many people in my generation, I think I remember the news of President Kennedy's assassination and funeral on television, but because I was in first grade at the time, I can't say for sure if I really remember this or if I just think I remember it because I've seen so much of the footage over my lifetime and career.
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
I would make them remove the squares from Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" (unless, of course, I get my dream job, which is producer in charge of what goes in each square).

Seriously, I think there should be less emphasis on finding the "next big story" and more emphasis on reporting well the stories that are happening in the world. Too often there is a tendency to believe that there's another "Watergate" around every corner. I don't believe there is.

Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
The biggest jerk I ever covered is almost any athlete I've tried to deal with. It's why I try NOT to do baseball stories -- I love the game so much I don't need to find out that the players are really nasty, mean, brutish millionaires who forget why they're so rich. People I put in this category: Mark McGuire, David Cone and Tom Seaver. Oh and yes, Orioles fans, Brady Anderson.

The most fascinating person? That would be the mayor of a tiny town, called Kukes that sits on the Drin River, at the border of Albania and Kosovo. I forget his name, but I was there covering the Kosovo crisis in 1998. Thousands of Kosovars sought refuge from the Serbs in Albania, a poured into that small village. They came mostly on Ford tractors, with 10 people to a tractor. The town sits atop a long steep mountainous road, and has few resources. The square would fill up with hundreds and hundreds of refugees and a single bus would arrive to drive one load down to capital, Tirana. Whenever a bus pulled in, pandemonium took hold, a mass of people yelling, screaming crying, trying to keep touch with family members. In the midst of this, the mayor, who happened to be a communist, would calmly and politely get everyone in a line, and create order out of that chaos. It was fascinating. I will always remember watching him, and thinking, "Well, communism may be dead, but a good communist sure knows how to form a line."

Finally a question just for Ward: There is always a lot of criticism, particularly in the realm of political reporting, about journalists being biased against liberals or conservatives. There are organizations that exist primarily to highlight instances of such bias. How do you think that climate affects political coverage, if at all?
I do not believe that honest journalists worry about what such organizations say about their stories and pieces. Of course, political stories I've worked on have been picked up by both conservative and liberal organizations as being "unfair." But for these folks, "unfair" is anything that doesn't promote their agenda. And it is my belief, though I don't have any evidence of this, that a lot of the howling about media bias is primarily a vehicle to raise money.

Do I think these organizations can be helpful? Not really; I think they just want to use journalists and their media outlets for their own purposes. People who read or subscribe to those organizations are going to think the media is biased anyway. Once in a blue moon, it may be that they do serve the purpose of poking a stick in my eye and asking, hey, did I slant that item?

As journalists, we do have a responsibility to make sure that we don't allow ourselves to be used by one or the other side. I really try not to root for anyone when I cover a story (unless, of course, we're talking about a life or life threatening situation.) But in the case of Karl Rove and his role in the Valerie Plame case, I had no dog in the fight over whether he was indicted or not. I'm not sure that is true of all the media, but I'm not naming names.