10 Plus 1: Randall Pinkston On Covering The White House, Wars, And Everything In Between

Since 1990, Randall Pinkston has been a correspondent with CBS News, starting at the White House. He has since moved to CBS in New York, and he's covered both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This week, he shares some stories about living in a mud hut in Tora Bora (where the food was actually pretty good) and about his experiences before entering television – he almost became a lawyer.

What do you do at CBS News?

My job title is correspondent, which is another word for "reporter." I do news reports for CBS News broadcasts. Ideally, I travel to the locations where the stories are happening, interview individuals who are involved with the event and describe what I see to our viewers. Often, I am unable to travel to the scene, so I rely on video and interviews that are done by our world-wide team of CBS News producers and photographers as well as our affiliates. Compiling newscasts is a very collaborative process. After the executive producer and/or assignment manager decide what story will be done, correspondents work with producers, photojournalists, sound technicians and editors. We also work with a separate team of producers and technicians who take stories produced for television and augment them for presentation on our website. Last but not least, our stories are also edited for presentation on CBS Radio. On breaking news stories, we often file reports exclusively for radio.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
I believe one of the most important foundations of democracy is the electoral process - one that is free, fair and accurate. Since 2000, there have been several instances of major problems in our system, locally and nationally. Before the next crisis, I think news outlets (not just CBS) should devote some time and resources to reviewing the procedures and equipment we use to select our political leaders. Of paramount importance is the notion that citizens who choose to vote should be encouraged, not hindered. And if there is any doubt about the accuracy of a vote count, there should be a reliable way of determining how many votes were cast - in other words, something akin to a paper trail, not a "digital trail" susceptible to tampering.
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
In November, 2001, I covered the U.S. air campaign against Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda, who had scattered into the mountains of Tora Bora. Initially, all Western journalists were lodging at the Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and traveling to and from Tora Bora every day. Then, we received word that a certain journalist with the initials G.R. from another network had pitched a tent on the plateau near the area where bombs were being dropped. So, we all moved to Tora Bora.

It's desolate, rustic country, no paved roads, lots of hills and dirt paths. So, no surprise that there were no hotels or rooming houses. Producer (now London Deputy Bureau Chief) Andy Clarke scouted about for lodging for our team - including photojournalist Massimo Mariani, Sound technician/journalist George Ionnides, and our drivers, translator and guards. What Clarke found was a hut, approximately 14 by 50 feet. It was divided into one large room and a smaller one.. much like a two bedroom apartment … except, the walls and floor were made of mud...

It had a window and one wooden door. The ceiling was wood beams and I seem to recall it was used to hold the mud. The drivers and translators took the right "apartment," the four of us took the unit on the left. It was our living space, our work space and even our dining room. I lost weight on that trip (a good thing) but had no complaints about the cuisine. After a day's news-gathering watching bombs fall, our Afghan allies firing their ancient tanks and the militias going in and out of the mountains, Andy and I would return to the mud-hut to work on our script and feed the material (via generator-powered digital technology) back to our London bureau where it was edited and fed on to New York.

While we were doing that, George and Massimo would prepare the evening meal. It usually consisted of local vegetables and a dish of pasta that they prepared with some of the most delicious spices and herbs I've ever tasted anywhere. Our Greek and Italian tech-journalists cum chefs had put in special orders with our base in Islamabad to ship the food stuffs to us. I can't tell you what they ordered. I can tell you I would dine at any restaurant where they choose to cook, as long as it's not in Tora Bora.

Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to?
No. Quite the opposite. There have been many stories that I wanted to do but could not get the assignment. But I've never been assigned a story to which I objected.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
Many years ago, I thought I wanted to be an attorney, specializing in communications law. While working in Hartford, Conn., for CBS affiliate/Post/Newsweek-owned WFSB-TV, I attended and graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law and was accepted for a fellowship at the National Association of Broadcasting. But it was too late. News was in my blood. WCBS-TV came calling and I put aside my "legal dreams" and stuck with news. Regrets? Every blue moon, but mostly, this career has been one incredible ride.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
Only if I'm working on an assignment. Otherwise, I read (of course!) which covers every possible topic that I can imagine. I read the New York Times almost every day. As a subscriber, I also have free access to the op/ed pages and other "for-pay" $) columns. I also visit a site that features a mostly free collection of newspapers-- For media news and/or gossip, I like and Richard Prince's "Journal-isms". Every now and then, for kicks and giggles, I Google myself ... Hey, don't tell me you've never done it…
What's the last really great book or movie you found?
I watch most movies after they are released on DVD so, pardon me if I'm a bit '"behind the times." I loved "Ray" and was floored by Jamie Foxx's musical skills. Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington are two of my favorites - it was fun watching them in "Inside Man." The book I've read most recently is John Grisham's The Painted House. It's not his usual fare but definitely keeps you turning the pages. I grew up in Mississippi and while my family background isn't the same as the one described in the novel, Grisham's story resonated.
What is your first memory of TV news?
My first memory of broadcast news was from the radio - each morning at 8a.m., there was a network newscast on the station that we listened to in Jackson, Mississippi (WJDX AM) called "The World News Roundup" with Russ Ward. At night, around 6 p.m., we listened to Morgan Beatty's "News of the World." These were NBC broadcasts. On weekends, there was a radio magazine called "Monitor," which covered news and features around the world. I especially remember the "weather lady" who would read the names of far away cities and the weather conditions. I can recall trying my best to spell places like Djakarta and Sierra Leone, then going to the old Atlas to try to find them.

By age 12, I was much more into watching TV. There were only two channels, an NBC affiliate , WLBT-TV - where I would later launch my career in broadcast journalism, and WJTV-TV, the CBS affiliate. My family (sorry CBS) stuck with their radio habit and watched evening newscasts on WLBT-TV with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The first stories that I can recall watching focused on the civil rights movement - James Meredith's efforts to desegregate the University of Mississippi, the Freedom Riders, the lunch counter demonstrations, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the U.S. space program. In elementary school (before schools were routinely equipped withTV sets and before desktop computers were invented) our teachers would bring in portable TV's so that we could all watch major space launches.

If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
I think we should pay more attention to the historical context of news stories. For example, when a prominent news personality makes a statement that directly contradicts something that they said in the past, I believe we owe a duty to viewers to point it out - if not every time, as often as we can. This is especially true on matters of public policy. Unless contradictions are reported, repeated misstatements can become accepted as facts and the officials who propagate those falsehoods are free to make ill-founded decisions without fear of complaint from the electorate.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
I have covered many fascinating people, among them: President George H. W. Bush, Governor Jimmy Carter, author Walter Moseley, civil rights visionary/educator Bob Moses, actors Bill Cosby and Danny Glover, producer/philanthropist Camille Cosby, lynching survivor James Cameron, sculptor Augusta Savage, activist Grace Thrope, singer/song writer Marie Dulne of Zap Mama, Mayor Ed Koch, civil rights leader/presidential candidate Jessie Jackson, political leader Nick Carbone (Connecticut), activists Randall Robinson and Al Sharpton, educator Benjamin Mays.

Can't really remember any jerks right now - that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Finally, a question just for Randall: In your about the differences between Arab and Western media, you pointed out that Arab media outlets show more graphic images of the Middle East conflict than Western outlets. What other differences did you notice? Do you think one side or the other has a more accurate picture of what's going on?
The primary difference is that most Arab satellite channels devote almost all of their coverage to the conflict. I can't speak about the story contents because I don't speak the language. According to our CBS translators, the Arab channels report the same basic facts covered by Western media. They also present more extensive and, sometimes, unedited presentations by Hezbollah, Al Queda, Hamas and other anti-Western sources. And, as my Weekend News report mentioned, they show graphic images (dead bodies, mayhem) repeatedly.

If you want a minute-by-minute account of bomb drops, I suppose Arab media supplies that if only because of the continuous nature of their coverage. I would not, however, say that "live" coverage is necessarily more accurate, because it does not take into account the context and the political positions of all of the parties to the conflict.

While Arab channels do present competing voices (Western and Arab), our translators say they are more likely to present more reactions from Arab politicians and civilians - and fewer comments from Western and/or Israeli sources explaining the reasons for military actions.