THE FUNDAMENTALS OF GREAT JOURNALISMThe duty of journalists is to tell the truth.
Journalism means you go back to the actual facts,
you look at the documents, you discover what
the record is, and you report it that way.
—NOAM CHOMSKY, professor and author
An old television ad for the U.S. military gushes, “It’s not just a job—it’s an adventure!” The same might well be said of the profession of journalism. We think it’s the best job in the world. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s important. “I cannot think of a more interesting, fulfi lling way to spend your life,” says Mike. “A reporter’s life, by God, it’s an absolutely wonderful life. Somebody’s paying the bill to educate you—to send you around the world, if you prove worthy.”
In this chapter, we’ll talk about why it’s worth becoming a journalist, and what kind of personality and skills you need to become a journalist. We’ll also explain some of the most basic things that journalists must do well, and some basic principles that should guide them. They’re the kind of rules that not only guide both of us but also form the foundation for most of America’s best- known anchors and reporters.The Gospel of Journalism
The central goal of journalism is to separate fact from fiction. “Mike has always said that we are seekers of truth, and that’s what we are. We are seekers of truths that people would be better off knowing and that they probably don’t know,” says Mike’s longtime producer at 60 Minutes
, Robert Anderson. “And we are looking for something that is hopefully of some significance, because the more signifi cant it is, the better the story it is for us.”
Organizations that have consistently been able to uncover those kinds of important stories have become the pillars of
American journalism. Consider 60 Minutes.
The show was not an immediate success. When it fi rst started, it was in eighty-sixth place in the ratings. But it became arguably the most successful show ever on television, with ratings in the top ten for more than three decades. The key to its success is not only its exclusivity—that people will see stories there they can get nowhere else—but also because the show digs to the bottom of complicated matters. “Thirty-five million people were watching because they knew that they were getting carefully researched truth. And that’s what they were after,” Mike explains.
But most of all, journalism is important. Journalists keep politicians honest. They shine a light on injustice. They tell
people things that improve the quality of their lives. They keep our society free. “A vibrant press, a free press, is the single best check on the growth of authoritarianism, on the spread of totalitarianism,” says Marvin Kalb, former correspondent for CBS News and NBC News,
and professor emeritus at Harvard University. “A free press guarantees a free society. That’s why it’s so terribly important.”
Without journalists, government waste and corruption might go unnoticed. Without them, people wouldn’t know
about important medical advances. And without reporters, we wouldn’t know who is in need and how to help them. Simply put, journalists make our world a better place.
Robert Anderson says the stories he’s proudest of are the ones that revealed evil or good. One that springs to his mind is a piece he did about a U.S. government program that provides drugs to people in other nations who are living with HIV and AIDS. “Today there are two to three million people alive, most of them in Africa, because of a program that George Bush started, that a bipartisan Congress approved, of providing pills to people with HIV/AIDS. And for years people were dying in Africa from AIDS and Americans didn’t really know about it,” Anderson explains. His team went off to Uganda and met with people who would have died had they not been provided with medication through this program. “We were pointing out that they’re all living because we’re providing the pills. I find that an amazingly significant story,” he says.
Most journalists say there’s a certain sense of responsibility involved in deciding to become a reporter, beyond what
you might find in choosing most other professions. The best journalists have a kind of fire in their belly about what they do. “It is a calling. It really is,” says Mike. Roger Mudd, the veteran CBS and NBC News correspondent, writes of this feeling in his recent book, The Place to Be
—a work about the glory days of the CBS Washington bureau, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. “Most of us thought ourselves chosen. It was as if we had been lifted up by a journalistic deity and dropped down in the middle of the Washington bureau to serve our country by doing God’s work,” writes Mudd. The best journalists we both know, like Mudd, see themselves as performing a critically important function in seeking to root out the truth. “Exposing evil, exposing impropriety, exposing something that shouldn’t be happening, is our highest calling and we do it in hopes that by shining a light on it, the light will purify,” says Anderson. “And that’s a pretty high calling, as opposed to just trying to fi ll a page or fi ll an hour, if you can reveal something and make the world better.”
As important as journalism is, it’s also fun.
We think it’s about as much fun as any job can be. What could be better than spending your days speaking with interesting people about the world’s most compelling issues? Top journalists such as Mike get to meet lots of important people—presidents, writers, and scientists. But he’s also interviewed thousands of everyday people, people who had been through something interesting or newsworthy. It’s not always the famous people who are the most memorable, says Mike. “It’s the people, the characters in history, who have accomplished certain things in certain areas.” For example, controversial euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian,
whom Mike interviewed in 1998 and 2007, was not an elected official or a television star. He was just a person whose
actions turned him into a public figure—a very controversial public figure. Kevorkian kicked up a national debate over assisted suicide by helping several people take their own lives. These were people who were suffering from various diseases, and many of them endured chronic pain. Kevorkian’s actions—which eventually landed him in prison—polarized the country. Some people called him an angel of mercy; others dubbed him “Dr. Death.” “I had great respect for him. He had the guts to do what he believed was right,” says Mike, “and he knew he was going to wind up in trouble because of it.” Mike liked covering Kevorkian precisely because the doctor’s actions were so controversial. “This is the sort of thing that a reporter loves to get, something that is questioned by everyone because it hits home with everyone,” Mike explains.
Most reporters we know have had amazing adventures and met remarkable people through their work. When Kim Murphy, a Pultizer Prize–winning correspondent for the Los Angeles Times,
thinks of some of her favorite stories, she says it’s not really the big ones or the best ones that come to mind. “Interviewing the mayor of the small Iraqi town of Safwan in his reception room . . . he was a Baath Party apologist who was telling us how wonderful Saddam Hussein was, and he kept having flies crawling all over his mouth. Sitting with a dying camel, injured by a cluster bomb, in Kuwait. Making a headlong rush to the Caucasus in the middle of the night with a bunch of drunken Russians who weren’t going to rest unless I saw the sun rise over the high Caucasus. These were the tiny moments in a life of adventures I’ve been im mensely privileged to lead as a journalist,” she says.
In short, journalism can take you to countries all over the world—places you never, ever expected to visit—and put you
in contact with fascinating people you’d never have met otherwise, even while it gives you the opportunity to change the world for the better. We’re humbled by the opportunities journalism has offered us.
Excerpted from Heat and Light by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel. Copyright © 2010 by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.