Some of what transpired in this assignment and its execution is, I think, a reflection of some of the healthy introspection that goes on in a news organization. I didn't "pitch" the story; it was assigned to me. I kind of figured my day in Beirut would be busy - and productive - enough that I'd have a credible "hard news" piece to offer the "Evening News." I had some ideas to pursue and some people I'd made appointments with to meet.
But Monday morning I woke up to an e-mail saying the "Evening News" wanted a story answering two questions: "What's Hezbollah?" and "What do they want?" I'd been copied on some internal e-mail traffic, and as I read it, it seemed to me some of the inspiration to try and take a small step back had actually come from a CBS News colleague. He'd been watching the broadcast, and as a viewer he had some questions - which he mused about in an e-mail.
The assignment made good sense to me, though actually I thought the questions had been asked and answered in a section of another story done for "Evening News" the week before. I did make it known that I had some other editorial business that I thought might bear fruit and that I wanted to pursue - and mentioned to a producer that I thought the "who and what" about Hezbollah might end up being just a part of my story that night.
I had some research with me that I reviewed - some think tank analyses, newspaper articles, an excerpt from a book. We put out calls, and sent an office assistant out to deliver some interview requests in person. It turned out the "media officer" for Hezbollah was conducting a tour of his bombed-out neighborhood for some other journalists, which we could not join; he couldn't talk to us. One of the news agencies whose services we subscribe to, however, was on the tour: we got words and pictures from them.
Our London bureau did an interview with a scholar whose Cambridge University dissertation was about Hezbollah's conflict with the U.S., and who's currently editing a book of speeches and interviews by Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. I interviewed Ibrahim Mousawi, foreign editor of Al Manar TV, which is the outlet on which Hezbollah's official statements - and Nasrallah's only TV "interviews" - are broadcast.
Mousawi and I talked a long time, on-camera and off; he was insistent that I not identify him as a "Hezbollah spokesman." The organization doesn't have one, officially. He conceded that he is frequently described that way and has the expertise to be one. I told him we'd come up with a way of identifying him that met his concerns and the truth. In the end, his on-camera comments didn't make it into the piece as broadcast on the "Evening News" -- information he gave me did. We transmitted his on-camera interview to London, and asked that it be made available to cbsnews.com. (Click on the player below to watch it.)
I had to record an "on-camera" for the piece, and it seemed to producer Ben Plesser and me that it ought to be done in the bombed-out neighborhood where Hezbollah's headquarters were. Since we hadn't been invited to the day's guided tour, we were on our own. We made a reasoned assumption that out of courtesy Israel wouldn't be bombing it while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was still in Beirut, so we drove in with our camera crew, and found a burning pile of rubble for our backdrop. Men on motorbikes - who patrol the area - followed us, but all they confronted us with was curiosity. We didn't get bombed, but we didn't waste time.
Most of the pictures for our story came from our London library. Producer Lynne Edwards and editor Mark Ludlow in London had to compile it and screen it and let us in Beirut know what it showed; more video came from New York's archive. The system for gathering this stuff is sometimes informal - someone among us remembers having seen an image that's worth chasing, or knows that another broadcast did something relevant, and a librarian is given a vague request for a bit of videotape - which is magically found.
Writing the piece was simply a matter of deciding how to squeeze a bit of history into a bit of television without violating the truth, upsetting the conventions of the medium, boring or mystifying the audience, irritating my editors, or running over my allotted time. I don't know how to explain that process; it's what we do. Can a scholar's twenty-minute interview on his favorite subject be fairly distilled into a 12-second sound-bite? Of course not - but his words can raise a point or illustrate one; his presence in the piece punctuates the production and also signals to the viewer that we've made an effort to explore this subject, and we're broadcasting a distillation of what we've learned.
I think "explainers" are hard - both to do and sometime to get on the air - because they're not about something happening right now, which is TV news' specialty. The script isn't describing an event, but needs some sense of immediacy to justify knocking a news event out of the broadcast. And given time constraints, it'll never be enough to answer all the questions a viewer might have. But I think what we do isn't just meant to satisfy curiosity, it's meant to stimulate it, too.
Oh - and I was told I'd have two minutes for my story. But I think I actually stole a bit more than that.