Steve Kroft · 2012In his four decades of broadcast journalism, Steve Kroft has won nearly every award bestowed upon successful journalists. He’s especially proud of the five Peabodys and two Duponts his CBS team has earned for work at the news magazine 60 Minutes.
Now, Kroft can add membership in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame to his list of proud moments.
“You do this work for yourself, and you always take pride in your work,” the Kokomo native said in a phone interview from his 60 Minutes office in New York. “You also do this for your peers, and this peer recognition is important.”
In nominating Kroft for the honor, Indiana University School of Journalism dean Brad Hamm cited Kroft’s awards, including an Emmy for Lifetime Achievement, and hundreds of stories of regional, national and international significance.
“There is no doubt that his record of achievement is worthy for consideration by the hall of fame,” Hamm wrote. “Few people in Indiana journalism history likely have achieved his national stature in broadcast journalism.”
Kroft began garnering respect for his work as a draftee in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict. As a brand-new Syracuse University graduate, he joined the information office of the 25th Infantry Division, where he escorted TV crews covering the frontlines in the first war broadcast into America’s living rooms. Before his tour ended, he was a correspondent and photographer for Stars and Stripes.
Returning stateside, he worked for local TV, then completed a master’s degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He says he already had an eye on TV correspondence and knew the training could improve his credentials and experience. It worked: After reporting for two Florida stations, he joined CBS in New York in 1980 and quickly won a promotion to the London bureau.
Kroft’s stock rose steadily. He won an Emmy in 1984, the first of 10 so far, and covered high profile stories such as hijackings, the Lebanese Civil War and the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland. CBS tapped him to co-anchor a newsmagazine, West 57th, and, in 1989, he landed his dream job at 60 Minutes.
Kroft has interviewed scores of politicians, celebrities, crooks, cons, millionaires, and movers and shakers. He has covered the big stories of the last two decades, from examining the Chernobyl nuclear graveyard to Pakistan’s political instability to Wall Street’s meltdown.
Kroft said his passion for getting the story drives him. In 2011, he snagged two of the biggest stories of the year: an interview with President Barack Obama on the killing of Osama bin Laden and an expose on the misrepresentations in Three Cups of Tea, the bestseller by Greg Mortensen. This year, he has covered the lack of prosecution for Wall Street firms’ transgressions and insider trading in Congress.
While he has a team to work with him, Kroft leads each project, from reporting and directing the research to shaping the stories. He writes the scripts, but there’s plenty of pre-interviewing and re-interviewing along the way, both of which can change a story.
“One time we covered a story in Nevada about a campaign to free a man thought to be mistakenly imprisoned,” Kroft said. “We did the research and uncovered some documents others had missed, and came to the conclusion that there was no mistake. And that’s the story we aired.”
Despite the team, the lights and cameras, stories still require old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. For the story on insider trading among members of Congress, Kroft could get no one to talk to him. He resorted to going house to house, knocking on politicians’ doors to ask his questions.
At the heart of the process is the interview. Kroft said he relies on decades of experience to guide him, but like any good journalist, he doesn’t leave anything to chance. He writes out his questions, then reads them back to himself to ensure they sound natural and to work on what he calls “phraseology.”
“The questions are in my own words and are in order,” said Kroft, who added that he learned a lot about interviewing from fellow 60 Minutes correspondents Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley. “I want to be really familiar with the questions because, when the interview starts, I have to listen to be ready to follow up with questions.”
Viewers may notice Kroft’s paper in his hands during interviews, but he says he rarely looks at the questions.
His process may sound like overkill to all but seasoned journalists. For the Obama interview after the bin Laden raid, Kroft formulated 62 questions, knowing he would not use them all. The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins used the Kroft-Obama interview as an object lesson on interviewing and posted his report on the website of the institute, a training center for journalists. Tompkins praised Kroft’s technique, even though he said the veteran broadcaster broke some “rules of interviewing,” such as asking yes-no questions or asking two questions at once.
Kroft laughed, saying that he didn’t know there were such rules, and he talked to Tompkins for the Poynter column. As for the Obama piece, Kroft said he had interviewed Obama before and, as with many people he’s interviewed more than once, quickly learned what works and what doesn’t.
“We have sort of a shorthand because I have interviewed him so many times,” he said. “I know what not to ask him – long questions – but if I ask shorter questions, I’m likely to get a shorter response and get the tempo going.”
In some interviews, tempo is elusive. Kroft recalls chats that didn’t go well and those that surprised him.
“One that’s by far the worst was with the most famous photographer in the world, Henri Cartier-Bresson,” he said. “He didn’t want to do the interview and, when he finally did, he wanted to talk about painting, which he’d recently taken up. It was very challenging.”
Conversely, Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy persona turned out to be just one fascinating layer of the accomplished actor-director, he said. In the 2003 interview, Kroft described Eastwood as “totally laid back and comfortable in his own weathered skin.”
Kroft likes those surprises.
“I’m doing a story right now with Sergio Marchionne of Fiat, who has given few interviews and seems so soft spoken,” Kroft said. “But we met with him and he seems very honest and interesting.”
Of course, good stories require multiple interviews. Kroft often talks to several people on air for each investigative piece, the cornerstone of the 60 Minutes franchise.
“People expect this kind of work from us,” he said. “We have to keep a steady stream of it going. It’s hard to do, it is expensive and it takes a long time to accomplish.”
Kroft continues to thrive on the work. With two years left on his contract, he said, he is considering options.
“I’ve already cut back from 20 to about 15 pieces a year, and I’ll be 67 in August,” Kroft said. “I think I would like to write a book, which I always say but never have time to do, and I have always wanted to teach.”
A third generation avid golfer, he expects to work that pastime into any schedule he develops. And, visits to Kokomo to see old friends, something he does every couple of years, are on the agenda.
Kroft’s Midwestern upbringing continues to shape his outlook on topics such as retirement, he said.
“For most of the people who have stayed with 60 Minutes so long, the job has been their lives,” said Kroft, who lives in New York with his wife and son, who soon will head off to college. “This has been my life for going on 25 years. But I have that Midwestern ethic of working hard, then relaxing at something different that you enjoy. I’m hoping to try that out.”
By Gena Asher, Indiana University School of Journalism Web Editor