Sawyer: I wanted to be like Julie Andrews. I wanted to be like Liza Minnelli. I wanted to be and still do, of course in the shower, when I'm sitting at home in the piano, I wanted to be the one who made them laugh and made them cry in musical theater. It never occurred to me to be a journalist. I wasn't one of these people who grew up with the ink in their veins or with the palpitating heart every time the fire engines went by, longing to know what was going on at the other end of town. I really came out of a different tradition which is sitting by the lake at college, thinking about Thoreau and got catapulted out of college without anything in particular to do. And my father asked me...it's a lovely catechism now that I think about it...he asked me two questions. He said, "what do you love doing?" And I said, "writing." And he said, "Where is the most adventurous place to do it?" And at the time there were no women on television in my hometown. So I said, "probably on television." And I went and applied for a television job and that's how I got here.
I know it sounds random. It will never make a case book study in any "How to be a Success" book, but that's really the way it happened.
So, from the local television station?
DS: Local television, doing the weather. Are you ready for this? You are looking at one of those artifacts of the 1960s - the weather girl. Some day when they dig them up in excavation, they're going to be wondering what on earth they could have been. I was a terrible weather girl...nearsighted beyond belief, so that I couldn't stand on the East coast of the map and see the West coast at the same time. So, I was always kind of taking a stab at the weather in San Francisco. I was never too sure. I couldn't focus it very well. But I started out and finally I talked my way into doing news and...I'd say as weather girl I had sort of a cult following. People would tune in to see what kind of gaffe I would make night after night. It was a disaster. And after about a year I persuaded them that I should be doing something else and they let me go. For one thing I'd get so bored with the weather. I understand that it does matter but to me it was always kind of a joke so that I would...I signed off one night, I think that was probably the climax for them, but I signed off one night, "The high temperature for the day is 78 and the current temperature is 85" and it never even occurred to me that there was a disconnect, because I was so bored with it. And so finally they let me start doing news.
But, okay, that's still a local station.
DS: That's a local station and then I left for eight years. I did about a year and a half of local television, I left for eight years, and came back to CBS in '78, the end of '78, the beginning of '79 and started at network television with very, precious little training. My local training had not been adequate to what I encountered at the network level. And with several, not exactly strikes against me, but with carrying some extra luggage...I was older than most of the other people coming in and to be new and older and inexperienced and I had come out of a tainted past, a scarlet past, and I had a lot to overcome.
Okay, so we wait for the autobiography?
DS: No, it's on the record. I'm waiting to see you keel over and collapse. You must know what I did for eight years. You don't know! (laughter) I worked for Richard Nixon! Right. I worked for him 4 years in the White House and four years in San Clemente. So, that's what I had done and needless to say when you come into journalism wearing this "scarlet N" and not being particularly experienced...there were a lot of skeptics about my ability to succeed, to make it there and justifiably. I mean, I would feel the same way now. I have a basic prejudice switching back and forth from politics to journalism. I don't think you can do it very successfully except in some extraordinary circumstances. Each of us likes to think that we're an exception, that we brought unusual detachment, of course, to our jobs. Bill Moyers, I'm sure, feels that way. But we're all a little uneasy about the transfer, the easy transfer.
So, the break into "60 Minutes"...this was a hard labor or a blessing?
DS: Well, no, I...well, yes, I mean, I wish I could say about some of these things I actually set a goal and achieved it. I wish I could say this was an A to B sequence in some sense. But "60 Minutes" wasn't. "60 Minutes" was an oblique gift, a wonderful, exiciting gift as far as I was concerned. When I came to CBS, I started out doing general assignment which meant standing on street corners all night long, a lot of nights and then lunging at various news figures and trying to grab 30 second "Q & A" from them to insert into someone else's piece. So, that for the first year there, it's really a test of your ability to subsume yourself to everybody else's interests. It's a kind of awful initiation rite and I used to be considered the "queen" of the stakeouts because for some reason I always pulled the awful ones. I pulled the zero degree all nighters chasing after Prince Sihanouk and we'd get in a car and we'd go tearing across Washington, D.C. and the poor man would get out of his car 20 minutes away and I'd be lunging out of a tree at him with a microphone. It's the parody of journalism; the kind that you see in comedies. And I did that for awhile and then I did political coverage. I did "Three Mile Island" and Three Mile Island was sort of the story that was very good to me, where I first got a chance to do some real reporting, to report on the Commission and it's findings; and to do a little investigative work on my own. And then I went to the "Morning News".The "Morning News" is an endurance test, - you got up at 2:30 in the morning and you go in and do two hours of live television which is great. I love it. I loved every minute of it. Then from that the man who invented, who was really the inspiration for "60 Minutes" saw me and made the request.
The program itself, though, has become a real phenomenon. As much as reporting on the news, it's actually making it now. It's a player that's brought about investigations and indictments.
DS: Well, it has. First of all, it's been in the "Top 10" longer than any other broadcast besides "I Love Lucy", I think, and "Bonanza", and certainly as far as a news broadcast goes, It's not just phenomenological, it's miraculous what it has done - to be this popular, to be a news broadcast and as you say to be the forebearer, to be the forerunner of the kind of investigative journalism you see in the States right now. I mean, I don't think "60 Minutes" should be held responsible for a lot of what it has served as the prototype for across the country because there are a lot of excesses committed in the name of investigative journalism now which "60 Minutes" never would have done. There's no question that it really was the front edge; it defined investigative journalism on television. Now, Edward R. Murrow was there doing his occassional specials beforehand, but when you're talking about week in, week out, three pieces each of which will have some sort of edge or insight, be tougher, be more muscular than the kind of thing you ordinarily see on television, it really is a champion of broadcast; a world class champion.
Personally, though, if you ran the circus at CBS, what would you like to do with the show or the news department?
DS: At CBS? I think we'd all like to see an hour evening news - it's time and substance. And insofar as we're talking about time then it would be more of it at the hour when most people get their staple of the day's news. I mean, we really need an hour. It's astonishing when you think we still have a half an hour of news, you know, in the United States. There are local news broadcasts that precede it that take up a lot of time, but it's still amazing.
To my way of thinking, yes, we have to take a lot of chances; we have to do a lot of sharper political reporting. Every campaign year we all think the same thing which is that we get involved in the horse race and we fail to stand back and really find where the nerve ending of the story is and stay on the nerve ending.
But as much as that, it seems to me that following up on the stories you reported before, that failure to follow up is probably the biggest vacuum that we leave on the air. We report things and we never come back to it; we never go back and say, "He said he was going to do this. Now, did he do it? Let's go back and see." And all of that contributes, I think, to a kind of ennui, a kind of lethargy on the part of viewing populaces. When they're thrown so much information, much of it disconnected and little of it really checked against progress,
I mean, if anything the United States is a country built on the belief as much as in freedom as in progress and we still believe in the perfectability of mankind...and when people have a sense that things are changing, that things will get better, they can be galvanized to do anything. There's still great political energy out there if you say, "We have to get from A to B and here's how we do it and here's how long it will take and this is how you go about it, so begin today." And they'll do it. But when you end up having a lot of news reporting that simply hurls the world's grievances at people with no follow-up and no holding of the feet to the fire, then it seems to me that you wear down the resiliance, the political resiliance. And that's what I think we don't do enough of.
"60 Minutes" does more of it than any other broadcast. We come back over the summer and we rebroadcast pieces we did before. And we say, "since we did this piece this is what's happened. We went back to these people and we asked them this again. We did that." And in that way, the people that we're worried about us the first time around, also have to be worried the second and third time around.
Talking about the press as a force in society, though, the Japanese press is often criticized for being really flaccid and cowardly in the face of corporate pressure. But that can't be unique to Japan, I mean, corporate pressure on reporting or the issues raised. How does the media deal with it there?
DS: Well, I think there's been so much more litigation and CBS, the CBS suit with General Westmoreland which you may or may not have read about, but it was really, it was presumed to be a suit that added to this chilling effect by not just corporate but individual and government litigants who were a lot more aggressive about suing for libel than they were. It means you think twice. But I don't know of an instance on our broadcast where having thought twice, we didn't go ahead. So, that I can't really say in the end it's caused us to pull our punches or to rein in but it does mean you do proceed very deliberately, very carefully.
I don't know what accounts for the difference, well, I assume thousands of years of culture account for some of it. for one thing - but I think the corporations, they're fair game in the States. I don't think if there's a chilling effect, it's not because people want to be polite to corporations, it's because corporations are a lot cleverer than they used to be in the States. They're a lot more inventive about ways to deal with you and ways to conceal things that they don't want you to know about and most of them have hired battalions of people who do nothing but watch out for investigative reporters. So, that it's harder work than it was before but I don't think it's a question of etiquette.
Okay, lastly and personally, by most standards of American judgement, you are at the top. Where does one go from the top?
DS: To sleep, if possible.
Do you still have the musical urge?
DS: No, that's right. To musical comedy, of course. No, I...just as I didn't plan to get here, I sort of don't plan the next part. I have the best job in television. There are five of them and Mike (Wallace) and Morley (Safer) and Harry (Reasoner) and Ed and I have them and we know it. We get to choose the stories we do. No one tells us what we have to do. We travel where we want to travel. We make our own schedules. We drop a story in the middle if we don't think it's a story. We summon more resources if we think we need more resources. And we put it on a broadcast which is uniformly respected as the most... well, how should I say this without being too obnoxious, but as, I guess, the most muscular, I'll use that word again...the most muscular and certainly the broadcast with the most political impact on television in the United States. The news magazine, at least, with the most political impact. So, where do you go from here? You go to tomorrow and the next day and the next story and the next season. You just keep trying to do it and fortunately for us, whatever it is - it is exhausting, it is draining, sometimes it is frustrating and there's nothing you'd rather do when you get up in the morning.