Following in the footsteps of five current and former “60 Minutes” colleagues before him, Steve Kroft will be honored with the Paul White Award at this year’s RTDNA convention. The award recognizes an individual’s lifetime contribution to electronic journalism.
Kroft, 64, started his journalism career in the Army, when he was drafted for service in the Vietnam War after receiving his undergraduate degree in communications from Syracuse University in 1967. He got the TV bug while taking crews to the front while assigned to the information office of the 25th Infantry Division, and later reported for Stars and Stripes. After leaving the service in 1971, he worked for WSYR-TV in Syracuse, got his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and reported for two Florida stations before joining CBS News as a New York City-based reporter in 1980. After a promotion to correspondent and stints at CBS’ Dallas, Miami and London bureaus, Kroft was named a correspondent on the newsmagazine “West 57th” in 1986, jumping to “60 Minutes,” with his colleague Meredith Vieira, in 1989 when “West 57th” was canceled.
He’s remained at “60 Minutes” ever since. His exclusive interview of Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1992, following allegations of marital infidelity on the part of the then-presidential candidate, brought him to prominence. His work has won five Peabody Awards, two duPonts and 10 Emmys. In 2008, he landed the first interview with Barack Obama after his election to president.
He recently discussed his career with NewsPro correspondent Elizabeth Jensen.
NewsPro: You were off serving in the Army at a time when many of your storied ‘60 Minutes’ colleagues were also in Vietnam, making their names with their reporting. Did you ever cross paths with them? What did you learn from your military service, if anything, that served you later in your career?
Steve Kroft: I ran into Morley very briefly in Cu Chi in 1970 where I was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s information office. He does not remember, but his mere presence scared the daylights out of all the brass. I’m sure they must have had something to hide.
I learned a lot from my experience in the Army. It gave me sense of discipline, and an opportunity to watch some great reporters in action. When I joined Stars and Stripes later in my tour, I got the chance to cover the biggest story of my generation.
NewsPro: You had already done war reporting and local reporting when you went back to get a master’s degree in journalism. Why did you decide you needed more training that you couldn’t get on the job?
Kroft: I knew I wanted to become a network correspondent eventually, and thought a year in New York at Columbia would improve my credentials if, and when, the opportunity presented itself. I also wanted to learn from the great Fred Friendly who was a professor there and became my first mentor. It turned out to be a great decision.
NewsPro: ‘60 Minutes’ has been one of the rare shows that survived a transition from a very heavy-handed founder, Don Hewitt, to a new leader, Jeff Fager, and it has actually thrived. Was there ever a time when you felt the future of the franchise was in doubt and to what do you attribute the successful transition?
Kroft: I think everyone at ‘60 Minutes’ was concerned about what might happen when Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace eventually stepped aside. The transition was handled very adeptly by Les Moonves and the CBS News management. The addition of ‘60 Minutes II’ to the schedule allowed Jeff Fager to run a shadow ‘60 Minutes’ for a number of years and develop some younger talent like Scott Pelley and a cadre of producers, who would eventually join the mother ship. The infusion of new talent energized the operation, and Jeff’s leadership has been brilliant.
NewsPro: Now that Mike Wallace has retired and Morley Safer has moved to part-time, you are the senior member of the ‘60 Minutes’ reporting team (not counting commentator Andy Rooney), after being the ‘baby’ for so long. Will you be following in the footsteps of some of your colleagues and working into your 80s?
Kroft: No. Don, Mike and Andy were and are freaks of nature.
NewsPro: The prominent platform of the Paul White Award has often been used by honorees as an occasion to rally the industry to a higher standard. Not to put too much pressure on, but give us a preview of what you plan to say.
Kroft: As of this writing, I am just beginning to think about it. I know I will address, in some way, the challenges journalism faces in this very difficult economic climate, and what changing technologies mean for the future of our profession.
NewsPro: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Kroft: Generally, optimistic. Journalism is too important to disappear, but someone is going to have figure out new and effective ways to pay for it as new technologies continue to evolve.