The Public Eye Chat With…Anthony Mason

(CBS/The Early Show)
Today we give you the inaugural entry in our new feature, which we've imaginatively named "The Public Eye Chat." Our first subject is CBS News business correspondent Anthony Mason, who sat down with me yesterday for a discussion about himself, his job, and his profession. Below you'll find excerpts from the chat. You can also listen to the whole thing by clicking on the link below.

to hear the full interview.
Brian Montopoli: Why did you go into TV News -- not "why did you go into news," or "why did you go into TV," but why did you go into TV news?

Anthony Mason: Well, in my case it goes way back. I started when I was a kid – and I'm talking probably like 10 or 11 years old – I actually conceived of my own imaginary television network. I mean, I had the whole thing programmed out in a spiral notebook. I programmed every single show. I stole shows from other networks that I liked. It would have been like '66 – I called it Green Hornet Broadcasting 'cause The Green Hornet was my favorite superhero, and The Green Hornet show was on every night at 7:30 on my network. Even though I think the only ever made 26 Green Hornet shows. But that didn't matter.

And then I just conceived of all these other shows that I liked, and I would sort of make them up in my head, and then of course I had my newscast. Which I did with – I used my father's telescope as the camera, and I set up a card table, and hung a little sign in front of it that said "WGHB" – Green Hornet Broadcasting – and I did my show.

BM: Do you ever feel constrained by the format of doing – of trying to tell a full story in less than two minutes? Does that frustrate you?

AM: There's no question it's constraining, but it also provides you an incredible discipline. Because the fact of the matter is, you can get the essence of most stories across in two minutes – you really can. It forces you to really boil everything down to its essence, and you have very narrow places where you can insert any kind of stylistic touch you want to put in. But, yeah, sure, I've done thousands of two minute news pieces, and in the end you sort of say to yourself "there's only so many ways I can do a story about gas prices." I've done hundreds of them.

BM: Do you think that if you were a print journalist you would be doing different types of stories? The Wall Street Journal, for example, will have, like, options backdating stories. I know that the Wall Street Journal obviously has a different audience, but does the format encourage a certain type of story?

AM: Absolutely. Part of the reason I took this beat was because I considered doing business news on TV a real challenge, because a lot of times you're dealing with numbers, and numbers by their very nature are not visual. And we're in a visual medium. And obviously stories that have pictures lend themselves to television more. And some of them are really hard to translate. You end up just doing one graphic after another. Which, while it works in terms of explaining the story is not particularly compelling or certainly very visual.

So it's a real challenge. There are only so many ways you can do certain kinds of business stories. Stock market stories. I've pushed to try to find every way I can to use a picture, and I hope they never take the human beings off the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, which they might do – that's going to make it even harder to make it look like anything. And in the end, that's part of our job – to tell a visual story.

BM: How did you end up as a business correspondent?

AM: To be perfectly honest, I had absolutely no background in business whatsoever. Several other members of my family did, and were kind of shocked when I took this job. My father said to me – and there was this kind of long pause when he said it – "Do you think you're qualified?" And I was like, "Dad, you know I'm not, I can't fool you." He started his own mutual fund.

So, it's always been around. But it was just what I said. I considered business at the time that I took this job, which is what, I don't know, 8, 9 years ago now, I considered it to be very underreported on network television. A lot has changed with CNBC and everything that happened in the late '90s. All of a sudden business got a ton of attention and now CNBC does a great job covering business news. But I still think the networks sometimes do it the old fashioned way. And it's hard to change habits.

BM: Can you elaborate on "the old fashioned way?"

AM: I think – there's business in everything we do. In every single thing we do. There's business in baseball, there's business in music, there's business in – you name it, there's money behind it. And there are characters who deal with that money. And I think you can look at all of those stories from a business standpoint. And I think too often the business beat is "what are gas prices today?" and "who did those evil corporations fire?" or "what bad CEO is making too much money?" and business is almost viewed as the big bad boogeyman that's not doing enough. And in some cases, it is. But the fact of the matter is, business is kind the fundamental underlying structure of society that makes it go, and you need to kind of look at it that way.

BM: So would it be fair to say that mainstream news organizations have an institutional bias against business because it's this big entity and you feel like you have to frame your coverage within huge – of course, a huge CEO pay package is a story, and something people can get upset about – but, by virtue of the topic, it's not like you're covering something more innocuous.

AM: An institutional bias may be a little strong, but there is certainly a lack of understanding is a better way of putting it. I think at a time there might have been an institutional bias. I think a lot of people who come into journalism didn't know much about business, and weren't that interested. And I was certainly one of those people. And I kind of woke up when I hit 40 and realized I had to put my kids through college and all that stuff and I got married and my father in law ran a small business, and I started hearing what it's like to keep a business running. And how hard it is, all the people you have to employ and look after, and I started seeing it from a whole other side that I never looked at.

And I think that's part of the problem – most of us are on the employee side of things, and not on the employer side. And there's another side to it.

BM: You talked about, when you started this job, not having business experience. Business is not like every other beat – there is presumably a lot of institutional knowledge you have to build up, numbers you have to understand. Is it a problem that you came into the job without that knowledge?

AM: If I were working for CNBC I might think it was. But my job essentially is to take business stories and relate them to ordinary folks who have no business knowledge and…it helps sometimes to be ignorant, because you ask, as we like to say, the stupid questions…You ask questions that people who don't know anything would ask, and you can bring it down to their level more easily.

We used to have this thing when I worked overseas and we covered foreign stories, and we would get really interested in the politics of the countries we were in, we used to have an expression – "you don't want to go native." You don't want to become so interested in what's happening in Pakistan that you forget that Americans don't know any of that stuff, and you can't relate it to them. And the same thing applies to some degree with business. Most people don't understand the mechanisms of the stock market or corporate governance, nor do they probably really care. You've got to be able to take the relevant stuff that matters to them and boil it all down.

BM: Tuesday you did gas prices. To editorialize, I personally am a little sick of the gas prices stories. For a while, when they were high, it seemed like just about every day we had a gas prices story. Are you sick of gas prices stories? Why so many?

AM: To be honest, if I never had to do another gas price story in my life, I would not be sorry. There is only so much you can say about it – that's part of the problem.

It was interesting, I was filling in for Charlie Osgood and anchoring the New Year's Eve show on "Sunday Morning," and this item popped up. And it was what people had said was the story that most interested them in 2006. And it was gas prices. And I was like, "Oh, no – I'm going to have to do dozens more gas price stories." It's something that people seem to care about. If you drive every day it's something you notice, and you want to know why, and it just bugs you. It's a frustrating story to cover because very often the answers are kind of elusive.

BM: You're from New York, you live in New York, you went to college in DC. I would say it's fair, and I have the same background, to say that your background is somewhat blue state. Which is why I wanted to ask this question: The right wing critique of the media is that it's a blue state, elitist – they don't get the rest of the country, they're sort of looking down on the rest of the country to some extent, and that's hurting organizations like CBS, because a lot of the country can't relate, and therefore they're turning to alternative media outlets – talk radio, Fox News, whatever. What do you think? Do you think CBS needs to work on that, or do you think that's sort of a red herring?

AM: I think, fundamentally, it probably is true. I think traditional media tends to skew more liberal. I think there's ample evidence of that. Does it skew the coverage itself? I don't know that it skews the stories, but it may skew the selection of stories. And I think that's something everybody's conscious of. That doesn't mean I think you need to be conscious of tilting your story one way or another, it just means you've got to be conscious of it. You've just got to think that there are a whole bunch of attitudes in the country and you've got to be aware of that.

I got a shock lesson in that when I took my first job in journalism, when I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Where everybody looked at me like I was a Martian. I mean, people would ask me, "where you from, boy," and I would say "New York City, sir," very earnest, and the conversation would just come to a dead stop. And I stopped saying where I was from when people would ask me. I'd just say "back east." I learned really quickly in the year and a half I was there that people thought differently than I did and did things differently that I did.