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10 Plus 1: Stephanie Lambidakis On The Law Enforcement Beat

(CBS)
Covering the law enforcement beat for CBS News, producer Stephanie Lambidakis has in recent years focused on terrorism -- covering everyone from John Walker Lindh to Zacarias Moussaoui. This week, she took some time to tell us about what kind of stories she'd like to cover more of, what story she really didn't enjoy covering and why there are times when she'd like to unplug cable news.

What do you do at CBS News?

I cover the law enforcement beat for CBS News working out of an office at the Justice Department. The beat covers the whole alphabet soup of federal agencies: the FBI, ATF, DEA, and the agencies that make up Homeland Security. I work for all the CBS News broadcasts – led by the "Evening News" – and also report for CBS Radio News.
What single issue should be covered more at CBS News?
While terrorism obviously dominates our coverage, I'd like to see more stories about what used to be the bread-and-butter of the beat: crime and the criminal justice system. What are the trends, and what's happening to those more than 2 million Americans behind bars?
Give us a great behind the scenes story.
The date was July 15, 2002. Several days of important pre-trial hearings were starting over the government's treatment of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. It was supposed to be a parade of witnesses and piles of evidence, but prosecutors stunned the courtroom by announcing that Walker Lindh was pleading guilty as part of a secret deal arranged over that weekend. After the hearing, lawyers on both sides ribbed reporters mercilessly on how such observant people never noticed that no heavy lawyer briefcases were ever brought into the courtroom, nor did anyone noticed how relaxed all the parties had been that morning.
Have you ever been assigned a story you objected to? How did you deal with it?
The only story I recall really complaining about was the case of Chandra Levy, the intern romantically linked to a congressman who disappeared in the summer of 2001. The coverage was over the top, but thankfully, the "Evening News" only did one or two stories over the course of a year.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
If I weren't in news, I'd probably work somewhere in medicine (even though I'm not smart enough to be a doctor!) or be a psychotherapist. I am fascinated by the invisible forces that shape people's lives.
Do you read blogs? If so, which ones? If not, what do you read on the Internet?
I still love the feel of newspapers, so I don't read a lot of blogs, but I do enjoy Underneath Their Robes, which the privacy-obsessed federal judiciary probably loathes. A few blogs have reported ridiculous things on my beat – for example, the one that's still "reporting" that Karl Rove has been indicted under seal, even though Rove has been told he will not be charged.

I read all the major papers online and get breaking news alerts on my BlackBerry. They're a huge help.

What's the last really great book or movie you found?
I try to read poetry every day. Right now, I'm re-reading the translated works of Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. Her poem, "A Photograph From September 11th" still haunts me. I don't go to the movies often, but I did get to see "The Devil Wears Prada." The fashion, the one-liners and Meryl Streep are great summer fun.
What is your first memory of TV news?
I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area in a family of news junkies who worshipped Walter Cronkite. I have vivid memories of the Apollo moon walks, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots in Washington that followed. During Watergate, my father recorded every minute of the impeachment hearings. The huge reel-to-reel tapes are still in my parents' attic.
If you could change one thing about the profession of journalism, what would it be?
Sometimes, I wish I could unplug cable news or hit the freeze button so they'd have to actually read the indictments before announcing something dire. When seven men were arrested in Miami recently for an alleged terrorism plot that only mentioned the Sears Tower in Chicago, some of the breathless coverage made it sound like the building was about to be bombed.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
I can tell you about jerky behavior! It was a long time ago, but I'll never forget the time Justice Antonin Scalia screamed at me in the middle of an intersection while the camera was rolling. We had tried several times to get Scalia and the Court to address the question of their lack of minority clerks, but got no response. So when Scalia attended the annual Red Mass before the start of the term, we waited on a sidewalk outside and asked him questions. His security detail almost pushed me off the sidewalk, and Scalia got madder and madder as he lectured me in the middle of the road. It's a wonder we didn't get hit by a car. People still ask me about it because it was such an unforgettable moment.

The Zacarias Moussaoui case is probably the most fascinating story I've covered, and Moussaoui himself was much more complex than your average defendant. It was a rollercoaster from start to finish. Despite the despicable things he said in court to the families of the 9/11 victims and the gruesome images, there will never be another trial like it again.

Finally, a question just for Stephanie: You've been a "refugee" from the Justice Department for some time since the recent storm limited access to the building. How valuable is it to be based in the Justice Department building? Do you do a lot of reporting, overhear information, etc., there that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do as well outside of the building?
Refugee is the right word for it!

It's very valuable to be in the building, especially since the press room is right next to the Office of Public Affairs which disseminates the department's news. You can start the day by walking the halls to get the pulse of the department and talk to people: not only the chief spokespeople and their staff, but the top officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who stops by the press room much more often than John Ashcroft did. It's much better to be there than to try to catch up by phone after a story breaks.