Ordinary people, extraordinary stories on CBS

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman’s beat is the American heartland and the people who don’t usually make headlines.

His assignments are determined by the toss of a dart and the random flip of a phone book.

Every other Saturday, Mr. Hartman and CBS News cameraman Les Rose, both based in Los Angeles, head to a town they might never have heard of before their dart pierced it on a map.

Once they arrive in the chosen town, Mr. Hartman opens a local phone book, blindly chooses 10 names and begins dialing.

“I’ve got the routine down,” he said. “`Hi, this is Steve Hartman. I’m from CBS News, and I’ve got a crazy story to tell you-but I want you to hear me out.’ And then there’s this long pause. I usually say, `Are you there?’ and they go, `Yesssss.”’

Sometimes Mr. Hartman has to call all 10 names on his list before he convinces the man, woman, or child who answers the phone that he’s not joking and that, though he’s not going to hound them like a correspondent from “60 Minutes” might, he believes the person has a story a national TV audience wants to hear.

Occasionally, Mr. Hartman has to go back to the phone book for another 10 names. Once, he made 44 calls before striking pay dirt.

Thus begins each chapter in “Everybody Has a Story,” the feature Mr. Hartman has been doing for nearly three years. The feature began when he went looking for a folksy punch line and instead found an infectious muse who was part journalistic Oprah Winfrey, part quixotic Charles Kuralt.

In 1998, on assignment for the short-lived “Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel,” Mr. Hartman spent a couple of days in Lewiston, Idaho, with David Johnson, a newspaper columnist who had, for some 15 years then, been interviewing randomly selected people to prove that everybody has a story worth running on the front page of the Lewiston Morning Tribune, a newspaper whose circulation peaks at 30,000 on Sundays.

Mr. Johnson remembers Mr. Hartman and his producer turning out a “Public Eye” piece that was as much about Mr. Hartman trying to duplicate what Mr. Johnson does as it was about the newspaper columnist himself.

Mr. Hartman was hooked. So were key CBS News executives, chief among them Los Angeles Bureau Chief Jennifer Siebens, who “crunched some numbers” to get Mr. Hartman a test run of a dozen segments.

“The guy is just a born storyteller,” Ms. Siebens said.

Mr. Hartman serves as producer and editor on the pieces that last fall earned him a national news Emmy for writing. He has won 27 local Emmys for stories that were often joke-driven.

“People used to say, `You should be a comedian.’ I don’t get that anymore,” said Mr. Hartman, who began his career at WTOL-TV in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and wound his way from there to KTSP-TV in Minneapolis, WABC-TV in New York, and then to KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where he first worked with Mr. Rose. “This has changed me. It’s more mature television.”

It’s also very intimate television.

On the first of their two or three days in a new town, Mr. Hartman and Mr. Rose get the lay of the land and meet with their subject for a get-acquainted session during which Mr. Hartman asks about the person’s challenges, accomplishments, most exciting moments and relationships with family members.

Sometimes the stories are small: a 5-year-old who regularly sends helium-filled balloons aloft to his grandmother in heaven; a woman with grown children who half-wonders if there should be more to life now than helping out in her husband’s business; a woman of 70 shares her fitness routine.

Sometimes the stories produce moments of everyday catharsis: a workaholic finally hears how proud he’s made his father; a mother’s heart is healed by a compliment from the adopted son who had run away; a teacher fesses up to a teen-age misdeed that had long puzzled his hometown.

Sometimes the stock questions elicit stories daytime producers would kill for: a Texas mother’s unstinting love saves the life of a son being bullied for being gay; a woman who was molested by the grandfather who raised her in Idaho and finally apologized to her after the CBS newsmen left town.

“I think the talk shows exaggerate the grotesque in the name of titillation,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward said. “The stories capture the normal and the human and turn [them] into news.”

The stories run in heavy rotation two weekends a month, airing on “The Early Show” and “CBS Evening News” every other Friday and on “Saturday Early Show” and weekend “Evening News” on Saturday.

Then the stories are archived on the “Evening News” page of CBS News.com, where browsers can find a piece in which Mr. Hartman expounds with characteristic wryness on why the odds favor him calling on a resident of Nye County, Nev., or people whose names are listed on the right side of phone books.

The most recent dart throw sent the Hartman-Rose team to New York state for the first time.

“With my luck, I’m never going to get to Hawaii,” he said.

The 61st “Everybody” story, which aired the weekend of March 15-16, took the CBS newsmen to Clayton, N.M. There they met “The boy without a bellybutton,” a teen-ager who outwardly appears normal but who, because of a rare defect, was born without a stomach.

“These people do bare their souls, but I don’t think when all is said and done that it’s something people feel reluctant about,” said Mr. Hartman. “People almost without exception have been thrilled with the final product.”

Mr. Johnson, who originally begged Mr. Hartman, “Just don’t ever spoil the concept,” is not a TV news junkie, but when he catches installments of Mr. Hartman’s “Everybody Has a Story,” he said, “I really do enjoy them.”

He particularly recalls a piece about a retired doctor, still deeply affected by losing a patient, who cried. It was, said Mr. Johnson, a “Barbara Walters moment.”

Mr. Hartman chuckled as he remembered one assignment in a town so small he would have gone without his supper had he not rustled up some peanut butter and jelly from a 7-Eleven, “Barbara Walters would not enjoy this gig,” he said.