So, what do you do for a living?
I get paid to be curious, and to tell stories. I produce individual segments for "60 Minutes"; between six and eight of them every season. I work with the correspondent Lesley Stahl … we came to 60 Minutes at the same time back in 1991, after having covered the White House together for CBS. We often tell each other that we have a couple of the best jobs in journalism, because we're able to choose stories that interest us, across a very broad range of topics, then we're given the time and resources to learn as much as we can about those stories, and then we try to tell them as well as we can.
What is not being covered enough at CBS News?
Technology, business, sports, and religion.
Too many of our technology stories tend to be in two categories: "gadget of the month," or "the sky is falling." I think we could do a better job of covering the ways in which technological change is altering the very fabric of our culture … how we communicate, parent our children, learn about the world, and think about one another. Not in a pointy-headed or wonky way … a lot of this stuff is really fun.
On business, I think you can make a good case that corporations, both American and foreign, are the most important institutions in the world today. They're far more innovative and fast-moving than any government, their R&D is producing more discoveries than any university, and they're having a profound impact - for better and for worse – on people and the planet.
Sports? Well, I'm a fan, but I don't mean that CBS News ought to be doing scores and highlights … we couldn't compete with "Sportscenter." I just think that sports occupy a really central position in our culture, and there are a million good stories about the people and the games and the $$$.
On religion, 80% of Americans profess a belief in God, and most of the world's conflicts have some religious component, but too often our stories simply don't reflect enough depth of understanding of matters of faith, whether here or around the world.
What's the strangest thing that has ever happened to you on the job?
Several years ago I was working on a profile of George Lucas as he was re-opening the "Star Wars" franchise. We were shooting at Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company Lucas owns, where they were filming some pick-up shots for "Episode One." An assistant director approached me and asked, "Do you want to be in the movie?" I said, "No, I don't think that would be a good idea. I'm working on a story." She said "Do you have kids?" "Two boys," I responded. "What would they think if you told them you had a chance to be in "Star Wars" and turned it down?" I thought about it for a second, then said "Where's wardrobe?" 15 minutes later I was dressed as a senator from an alien planet, standing in front of a green screen with a dozen digital cameras pointing at me, shouting a couple of words of dialogue and gesturing wildly, as instructed. I called my kids that night and told them that Dad was going to be in the movie. Of course, when the film was released, I was a microscopic, unrecognizable dot waaaaay in the background of a single scene. So much for stardom.
If you had 10 broken fingers and no gas in the car, which colleague would you want to be there?
Can I have two? Norman Lloyd, a longtime CBS cameraman who's now retired, and Jim McGlinchy, who's a senior producer for the Evening News. Norman shot many of our best 60 Minutes stories, and Jim and I were partners covering the White House in the 80's. I have traveled all over the world with both of them. I know they would save my life, get the story (probably not in that order), and then prop a cold beer between my cast-covered hands. I'd do the same for them.
If you were not in news, what would you be doing?
Maybe a teacher, or a charter-boat captain. And if I won the lottery, I'd quit and just follow Duke basketball full-time.
What is the biggest change at CBS during the time you've been here?
The technology, of course. But more interesting to me, it's the sense that we're not just a public service institution, but also a for-profit business. If that translates into a nickel-and-dime mentality, as it sometimes has, that's bad. But it really ought to be a good thing. Of course we can never lose sight of our obligation to be fair, to operate with compassion and integrity, and to speak truth to power. We can't pander, or seek the lowest-common denominator. That's the public service part, and the debt we owe to the founders of CBS and CBS News. But we ought to be accountable to our 'customers,' and conscious of our competitors. It ought to make us smarter, and more nimble, and more interesting and creative and forward-thinking. I think it was easy to be a little lazy and complacent, even arrogant, back in the old three-networks-and-nothing-else days. I've gone back and looked at some of those stories and broadcasts. Many of them were spectacular, of course. But you know what? A lot of them were also pretty pompous, or just plain boring.
What are the last three books you've read or the last three movies you've seen?
Books: "Saturday," by Ian McEwan; "The Historian," by Elizabeth Kostova; "No Country for Old Men," by Cormac McCarthy (in progress).
The last movie I saw was "March of the Penguins."
What is your first memory of TV News?
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was in the third grade. We learned of his death during school, and then we were sent home. I remember sitting with my parents and sisters watching television for what seemed like the next several days, through his funeral. TV made me know how awful it all was, and how important.
Would you want your child to go into the news business?
Sure, if it really lights them up. I want them to be passionate about whatever work they choose … to really find their 'calling.' I have one son who's interested in sports broadcasting; it's fun to see the fire in his eyes when he talks sports. Our other boy is a whiz on the soccer field, and if he wants to chase that dream, great.
Who is the most fascinating person you've covered and who is the biggest jerk?
Dr. Thoralf Sundt was the most inspiring and interesting character. A brain surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, he was the first person Lesley and I ever profiled for 60 Minutes. He was one of the world's best at repairing aneurisms in the brain … he would perform operations that other neurosurgeons wouldn't touch. At the time we did our story, he was dying of multiple myeloma, a disease he'd been battling for more than five years. His bones were so brittle that he could break a rib when he coughed, and he wore a rigid torso brace. But his hands were still solid – his gift intact - and he saved lives almost up to the moment he lost his own. To meet a guy who had such a powerful sense of what God put him on this earth to do was really fascinating.
Boris Yeltsin was the biggest jerk. I know he displayed considerable courage as a political leader, but I saw him on the tennis court, at his dacha outside Moscow, and I watched him bully his young grandson. That did it for me.
Finally, our reader question this week comes from magpublisher, who asks in the comments section:
"How often does Sixty Minutes go looking for a story, spend weeks researching that story, following the subject of that story around ... then killed that story?
It is quite common for a story idea NOT to turn into a piece that actually airs on "60 Minutes." I'd guess that for every 20 ideas that I look at, only one or two actually become stories. Often an idea simply isn't as interesting as it first appeared to be, or research shows the original premise to be wrong or flawed, or a key figure in the story decides not to participate, or Lesley's not as interested in something as I am (vice-versa, too). Those things can usually be figured out within hours or days (as in "No, the Holy Father really doesn't want to sit down and talk to you."), and long before you ever get out in the field with camera crews.
And though I don't keep track of this officially, I know that it's extremely rare for a story to be completely finished -- shot, edited, screened -- and THEN 'spiked.' Of course, my boss won't hesitate to do that if a story doesn't measure up, either factually or in the quality of the story-telling. But he and his senior folks have a very good handle on the stories that are in production, and usually between the correspondent, the producer, and the bosses, a flawed or sub-standard story will get the axe much earlier in the process.