The Public Eye Chat With…Jennifer Siebens

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News Vice President and London Bureau Chief Jennifer Siebens. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: What are your strategies for getting people interested in news that is, literally, foreign to them?

Jennifer Siebens: Well, you know, at CBS it isn't a hard sell, because the folks who run the shows – the executive producers and their staff – have an inherent curiosity about it. But I have found that there is a real weariness with the war in Iraq. And why not? It's just so relentlessly depressing, and it's gone on three years longer than it was meant to. And is likely to continue further. So how we interest them in the grind of the war becomes a challenge, particularly given the difficulties and the very real dangers of covering that story.

But I think that the basic principle holds: You try to find a strand, a thread, something that is illustrative of the current reality. And generally those stories are told by finding really interesting people whose lives are shaped by the events around them. A character with whom the viewer can identify. Other times it's just goofy pictures or scary pictures, in the case of a market bombing or so forth.

Brian Montopoli: You're responsible "for CBS News' editorial and logistical coverage of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia." What, exactly, does that entail, and what exactly does that mean?

Jennifer Siebens: (laughing) Sorry if I'm laughing. It is kind of daunting. I have a second title where I just call myself "Vice President of the World." It's silly. From London, we do keep an eye, 24 hours, on everything this side of Asia. Our footprint of responsibility, if you will, goes as far as New Delhi, India, and then you keep going and our Tokyo bureau takes over from there. And we obviously share duties because we're not an endless army.

What it means is that every day, you are checking in with – we have offices in a lot of places. We have an office in Jo'berg, we have one in Tel Aviv, we have people in Cairo, Baghdad, Amman. And so I do try to make a point of talking to all of those offices by email – of course I'm addicted – or telephonically. To monitor the Arab world we watch two or three Arab networks, and we also have translators who come in around the clock, and are not only monitoring the Arab networks, but they're also monitoring all the Web sites, and there's a lot of chatter there.

And those guys are fantastic. Three of them, all Arab speakers, and they're journalists. So when we get all excited because there's some new pronouncement by some cleric that we think is something new and different they can calm us down and say, "no, you know what, he's been saying this for the last six months. This is nothing new. It managed to spike today, but it's not new."

Brian Montopoli: I presume it's difficult to get [foreign] stories on the air. There's only so much of a news hole. And you're trying to do a foreign story from a non-conflict zone.

Jennifer Siebens: Yeah. Believe me, there are days I would much rather be working for a 24-hour cable network, because it's just – it can be frustrating and infuriating. But I love CBS News, I've worked here for a very long time, and I'm not about to go. But yeah, you're right, it's a very very narrow chute to squeeze stories through, and particularly on the "Evening News" – we're talking 21, 22 minutes. And there's real hand-to-hand combat to get your story on TV, believe me.

Brian Montopoli: Can you let me in on any secrets for how you get your story on the air?

Jennifer Siebens: Well, screaming doesn't work. That's the first thing – don't scream. You really have to try to just wow them with your knowledge of a story and its impact on an American audience, such as that of CBS News. Why this story has to get on television. And you try to be very clever about it and give it a reason to be on today. It has to be on today. And the best thing of all is if you can say that either "ABC and NBC are going to do this also tonight, you know," shame them that way, or to say "the New York Times is leading with this tomorrow." Because we're all very competitive – it's like the NFL of journalism, what we do.

Brian Montopoli: You spent 20 years on the West Coast, running the show out of LA. You oversaw coverage of the Michael Jackson case, the O.J. Simpson case, Rodney King. What does that entail, to oversee coverage of these celebrity circuses? And how do you keep your sanity while doing it?

Jennifer Siebens: Well, you can ask people whether I kept my sanity. In all of those cases we did all of those trials two times – Rodney king was two trials, OJ Simpson was two trials, and Michael Jackson was charged twice with child molestation. So everything, we got to do it twice.

You know, I don't know. These are just crazy stories. And popular culture and celebrity is, as far as I'm concerned, every bit as legitimate as covering war. I like to quip that there are only 12 stories in the history of civilization – we just keep recycling the same twelve themes. And celebrities, and celebrities acting out, is clearly one huge theme.

It was very difficult – OJ Simpson was the most difficult…You try to keep the same rigorous standards of accuracy. And that's really hard. Because you have the tabloids in there as well. In some cases, they do pay for information. Sometimes they get information. You're trying to match information that is coming from a not-so-savory source, but may not be incorrect. That was really, really hard.

I think I weathered it. I don't think we embarrassed ourselves. And people always say, "Well, how can you do that? It's so bottom feeding. It's not important." You know what? Every news organization finds a spike – readers, viewers are interested. And you will never find anybody who says they watched the OJ Simpson trial, the first one that was televised. Everybody's ratings went through the roof. But nobody watched it!