Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Q&A with Bob Fuss

Bob Fuss is the author of the new memoir Kidnapped By Nuns: And Other Stories of a Life on the Radio. He spent four decades as a radio reporter, working for UPI Radio, NBC Radio, and CBS News, before retiring in 2014. He is based in the Washington, D.C, area.

Q: Of all the stories you covered, which ones especially stand out in your memory?

A: So many stories have been exiting and fun, certainly including the presidential campaigns I’ve covered, starting with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. They were exhilarating but also exhausting.

I remember on the Dukakis campaign in 1988 being asked if there was anything worse than flying to six stops a day and working non-stop on that campaign and my answer was the only thing worse than covering a presidential campaign would be not covering it.

I think if I had to choose a favorite story, though, it would be the Voyager spacecraft, which I covered over a period of 10 years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Those two little unmanned spacecraft sent back the most extraordinary pictures from Saturn, Jupiter, and the other planets they visited, and I remember sitting watching in awe as the pictures came back, realizing the things I was reporting would change not only the scientific understanding of those planets but the astronomy textbooks down to the elementary school level.

Some of the most memorable stories were not pleasant ones. I remember the first big plane crash I covered in 1978, when a PSA passenger jet crashed into a neighborhood near the San Diego airport, killing everybody on the plane and people on the ground too.

I covered a lot of tragedies after that including earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes that killed far more people, but it was the first. Eventually you learn to push your emotions aside on a story like that and just do the best reporting you can, but that first time was the hardest.

I’ve also covered a lot of really fun stories, from a giant balloon festival in New Mexico to “looking” for Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, but probably the most fun (and best boondoggle) was ringing in the new millennium on Tonga, which is in the world’s first time zone and so entered 2000 before anyone else.

Q: What are the biggest ways journalism changed over the years you were a reporter, and what do you see looking ahead?

A: One thing that certainly stands out is the change in technology, and that in turn has a dramatic effect in the way some stories are covered--and not always for the better.

When I started covering national news 40 years ago, there were no cell phones, no internet and no portable computers. That means when you had to file a radio story you needed to find a telephone and sometimes that meant going into offices or house-to-house trying to find someone to let you use their phone.

I still remember covering stories in Mexico when my expense account included an item for “extraordinary communications costs,” which meant bribing people to let me use their phone.

All the new technology has made it much faster to file news stories, and that has some obvious advantages and some less obvious disadvantages. The ability to file instantly from anywhere means the competitive pressure to file a story quickly, which has always been there, is now orders of magnitude greater. The result is that reporters often no longer have time to think about what they are going to say.

It would seem obvious that it is a good thing to think about what you are going to say on the radio (or television or Twitter or anywhere else) before you say it, but the fact is as the technology has changed that thinking time has been steadily reduced and sometimes just disappears altogether, and that means reporters make a lot more mistakes.

In the same way, allowing cameras in the courtroom dramatically changed the way we covered trials. When I used to cover a trial, no matter how huge a story it was, we had to sit in the courtroom until there was a break.

This meant we couldn’t file every time a witness said something that might be newsworthy, but on the other hand it also meant that we heard a big chunk of testimony before filing our stories and had a lot more context.

I am not happy generally with the state of broadcast journalism these days, and I place some of the blame on the cable news networks. The fact is that there is not enough important news in a day to report 24 hours non-stop. Some days there isn’t enough important news to fill the five minute hourly newscasts on network radio.

But you can’t go on the air and say “Nothing much is happening right now, so go back to what you were doing,” and the result is that things that aren’t important get exaggerated and the bar for news judgment keeps getting lower.

When police car chases get escalated to the level of national news it skews everything else. If everything is important than nothing is, and listeners and viewers are cheated out of one of the most valuable things journalists are supposed to bring to the process — good judgment.

Looking forward, it’s clear that the whole world of journalism is changing very quickly and it’s not at all clear where it will end up. The huge growth of Twitter and blogs is creating a situation where news travels more quickly and everyone becomes a reporter and a commentator, but also makes it much harder for consumers of news to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.

Q: You spent many years covering Congress. How would you characterize the effectiveness of the legislative branch, and what are some of the most important changes you saw in Congress?

A: I have a chapter in my book titled “The Worst Congress Ever” and I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to know it is this one.

Congress has become incompetent, incorrigible and incapable of functioning in any normal way, and it’s extremely frustrating and hurts the country.

There has always been partisan nastiness in Congress (there were a few duels in the 1800s!) but things really changed dramatically in 2011 and the blame has to be placed squarely on the Tea Party Republicans who came into power that year.

Over most of the 23 years I covered Congress, members of the party in the minority had the freedom to be irresponsible, using all kinds of harsh rhetoric and gumming up the works when they didn’t get their way.

On the other hand the party that had the majority in either the House or the Senate didn’t have the luxury of being irresponsible because they had to govern, and that sometimes meant voting for things they didn’t like, including funding the government and borrowing money to pay the bills.

But the Republicans now running the House act like they are still in the minority and seem completely incapable of governing. A good-sized group of them seem to have no interest in governing, and their leaders have had no luck in getting them under control.

There have been other changes over the years and sadly I don’t think any of them have been good. The worst is that moderates have been squeezed out of both parties. Due in large part to gerrymandering and the sharper divisions within the country, moderates in both the House and Senate have become an endangered species, and without moderates it is very difficult to reach compromise and without compromise it is impossible to legislate.

The biggest change in the Senate over the years has been that is has become more like the House in its partisanship. Because of the Senate rules, especially the filibuster, nothing much can happen without compromise and consensus, and senators used to get along better with each other and work together despite their partisan differences.

When I first started covering the Senate, there was a practice that if a senator was sick or for some other reason unable to be present for an important vote, a friend from the other party would abstain from the vote, so that the senator’s absence wouldn’t effect the outcome. Can’t imagine that happening today.

Q: Of the many presidents you’ve covered, were there some that were especially enjoyable—or unpleasant—to cover?

A: Well, certainly some presidents are more “media friendly” than others, President Obama being one of the most difficult for reporters, but I’ve never had any unpleasant experiences with any of them. Lots with their aides and press secretaries, but none with them.

I would say the nicest president I covered was George H.W. Bush, who despite his occasional references to the “liberal media” was always extremely pleasant and friendly. When he would vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, reporters would often bring their children on the extended summer stays and Bush would invite them out for rides on his speedboat.

President Reagan always had a fun story to tell and was certainly pleasant in relaxed or social settings.

President Clinton was never really at ease with reporters but was always a joy to talk to because he has an amazing mind. He loves to talk and has an enormous stock of knowledge about an amazing range of subjects and of course is always charming.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on enjoying retirement. I really find it wonderful not to go to work and to just get up every morning and know I can do whatever I want that day or perhaps nothing at all.

Though I will likely find other ways to keep busy, I am getting a lot of pleasure out of exploring my lazy side.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One of my passions is travel, and one of the unusual things I did in this book is combine the main story with travelogues that I wrote over the years for friends and family that were never published.

I love exploring new places and experiencing new cultures, and when I totaled it up I had actually visited more than 70 countries along with all 50 states. Some of the more exciting trips have included Tibet, the Galapagos Islands and Patagonia, but the more places I go the more get added to my list, and I am currently planning a trip to go see polar bears in the Arctic of Canada and thinking about Colombia and New Zealand.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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