The Public Eye Chat With...Wyatt Andrews

And now, the second installment of our new feature. This week's subject is CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews, who sat down with me yesterday for a discussion about how he covers health care issues and the Supreme Court. Below you'll find excerpts from our conversation.

A good deal of the "Evening News" audience is older Americans, for whom Medicare, prescription drug prices – stories you focus on -- are particularly important. It's also not a terribly sexy subject. Do you think that the "Evening News" spends enough time on this subject, considering the audience makeup?

It's hard to know what the exact mix is. And you have to be careful … all the broadcasts right now are in this very strange place where we have to survive in the business by attracting and holding an audience and to some extent you have to cater to that audience. But you also have to cover the news. So everything all the time can't be about just pleasing or pandering to the audience. On the other hand, this is the reality. The reality is that we do have an older demographic and we have some obligation to serve them.

So, that's a long-winded answer to say that I really don't know if we have the mix right. All I know is that our bosses in New York are very receptive and encouraging to make sure that we perform this service for an older audience and I have been basically ordered by New York to be on the lookout for consumer-oriented stories that are of interest to an older audience.

One interesting demographic trend in the country is that America is on the cusp of getting very old very fast … baby boomers are retiring – that's the short way to describe it. We are getting into an era when the entire country is going to be on more -- not less -- consumer drugs.

You are also the network's Supreme Court correspondent. How do you approach the task of explaining a decision or the circumstances surrounding a case – often extraordinarily complicated subjects – in less than 3 minutes?
We just had a big meeting with the two producers who help me cover the Court. What we do is look at the whole range of the 30 odd cases that the Court considers in any one term and make two determinations: what is important constitutionally and then secondarily, what is interesting from a human point of view.

There are lots of cases that come before the Supreme Court that really have to do with extremely dense constitutional issues that are very important in the law, but really don't impact a lot of people. Frankly, we don't do a lot of those cases on television because we are broadcasters and because we have a very large general interest audience, we tend not to touch the dense constitutional stuff.

Conversely, there are also stories that are brought by quirky individuals. And what is coming up, for example, in the next term is a Wyoming rancher is fighting the federal government, [which] insists that it, the government, has a right to easement across [the rancher's] land.

I'm going to propose we do that story for the "Evening News," even though the constitutional issues aren't that portentous. The story of this one guy taking on the government and making it to the Supreme Court, I just think it's so American and very appealing and very interesting on a human level. There's another case where a guy is claiming that a high speed chase after which he was arrested, is unconstitutional. I just find things like that fascinating.

The most fascinating thing about the Supreme Court is that all of these cases come from someplace real. Even though there is a lot of dense constitutionality involved -- and the Wyoming rancher is a great example – cases that reach the Supreme Court began as a backyard argument and I just find that fascinating.

Are there advantages or disadvantages to covering several beats? For example, do you feel like because you don't exclusively cover the Supreme Court do you have fewer sources, does it limit your ability to develop sources?
Yes. Absolutely. I absolutely am at a disadvantage against the people who cover the Court full time. Because the truth is it's sort of a part-time endeavor for us. In fairness to our bosses, it's a part-time endeavor because very few of the 30 cases will actually make it on T.V.

The advantage to me is a personal thing. I function better with variety. It's as simple as that. I covered the White House during the first Bush administration and to be honest, when they asked me to leave the White House beat and take this job as a national correspondent, I couldn't wait to get out of the White House. Could not wait. It's important to cover the White House well, but it was the same place, the same people every single day and just personally speaking, that was just stifling. I enjoy the variety. I enjoy dealing with health care one minute, an investigative piece the next and a light feature the next. That works for me.

You taught a journalism course at University of Virginia last Spring. What was the course?
It was a survey course on journalism, it's title was "Journalism and the Media."
What kinds of impressions did you find among students of television news? Were they viewers of the "Evening News"? What did they like or dislike about it?
This is a big conversation you're engendering here. Students in general these days are not big consumers of the media. They are not readers of newspapers. And they are not generally consumers of broadcast news.

Students these days are far more likely to watch cable on occasion, get their news on the Internet on occasion, to watch Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I can just tell you in my own household, I have college students right now and generally speaking they don't know the difference between cable news, Jon Stewart, "Entertainment Tonight," or the "CBS Evening News." They don't get what the essential difference is. And that's what my course was about. How do you assess the differences between Bill O'Reilly, Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer?

And there are real differences in broadcast news between what is put on local television and why; what is put on broadcast news and why; why cable is often shout fests. Students don't know that. It was an eye opener to me because I had their undivided attention. They did not know these things. And these are some of the brightest 19 and 20 year olds in America.

Why do you think that confusion exists?
Because the truth is that these days young people are not big consumers of news. They don't watch, they don't read the newspaper -- their citizen gene hasn't kicked in yet.
When you were that age, did you consume a lot of news?
Yes. I read the paper every day. But I decided early on in college that I wanted to be a reporter.

I went to UVA and the guys in my apartment – sophomores in college – had a subscription to the daily paper and to the Washington Post. One guy was a pre-med student and he didn't read much news. But at least two or three of us read the Washington Post every day and watched the evening newscast.

Were you guys normal or dorky?
I have no idea. We might have been dorky. They might have been watching it because they knew I was interested in journalism. But you asking about my college culture – in my day we thought it was the normal thing to do, to read the newspaper. That's not true anymore.