On June 1, CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante marks his 50th year with the network. This week he will receive the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation’s lifetime achievement award at a ceremony in Washington. He talked to B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about that career and the current administration’s efforts to bypass the press corp. An edited transcript follows.
Did you always aspire to be a TV journalist?
I did. I really got the bug watching [Edward R.] Murrow and [Walter] Cronkite. While I was in my first television job in 1960, I would see them doing documentaries and You Are There and programs like that and the idea of being all over the world and seeing history made firsthand really appealed to me.
I did local news at WISN-TV Milwaukee [which for part of that time was a CBS affiliate]. It was seeing them that made me want to move on to a larger territory.
And CBS News in particular.
Yes, CBS was always in my sites. Fortunately, CBS offered something called the CBS Fellowship, which was a chance to study for a year at Columbia University and take any course you wanted. I got the fellowship in 1963, and I chose the political science curriculum. I was able to get hired the day after classes ended and started traveling right away.
And you have been with CBS ever since. You must have had other opportunities. Why did you stay?
The only two or three times that I talked to other companies, the offers were not as attractive in terms of what I could do. We’re not talking about money, here. CBS gave me the opportunity to cover the White House early on, in 1981. Obviously I like it because I’m still there. It’s a front-row seat to history, in spite of the frustrations that come with it.
You talked last year about your frustration with how the Obama administration was bordering on state-run media. Why do you think that was the case and has it gotten any better?
No, it hasn’t gotten any better at all. I was exaggerating perhaps slightly, a little bit of hyperbole to make the point. But that particular discussion turned on the administration’s ability to put out its own TV—which they do once a week, usually of things to which the general press is not invited—some inside stuff that we can’t get, and to distribute their own pictures to [events] which still photographers are not invited.
Is that unique to this Administration?
No, every administration that I have covered, starting with Ronald Reagan, thought that they would like to go over our heads directly to the public, but only our last two, the George W. Bush and this administration have had the tools to do that.
Times have changed, and we have to understand and work with it, but you don’t have to like the fact that the White House will cut us out and put out their own stuff. Now, if they put out their own stuff but also allow us to cover it, I’ve no objection.
Technology has clearly affected how the White House approaches media, how has it affected how you do your job?
It has made it easier in one respect. There is so much information at your finger tips. I can remember when I was covering the Reagan White House, if I wanted to look at legislative history or what a previous President had done, I would call someone in our research department and ask them to look it up. But now, we can find the information ourselves. Now, obviously you have to be careful what you accept as fact on the Internet, but it is all there. That is a tremendous help, and allow you to dig into databases that before you would have to go to a city or county building to do.
The changes in the past 50 years are, on balance, pretty good. You can’t fight them in any case so you have to learn to adapt.
Is there a downside to the speed at which news can be disseminated thanks to the Internet, and the pressure to be first? It is now so easy to put out information.
Yes it is. We used to have an hour or two or maybe even more in some news cycles to go over, double check, rewrite and make it a snappier piece of prose. We no longer have that opportunity. We do when we are crafting something for the Evening News or CBS This Morning, but not if we are going to tweet something, and I don’t do much tweeting, or if we are about to put it out on the ‘net or tell our Web people to go ahead and publish.
Is the pressure coming more internally from you in not wanting to get beaten, or from management not wanting to get beaten?
I would say the former. I don’t particularly want to see one of my competitors come out with something that we have or are on the verge of getting but haven’t gotten out yet. I mean, I know what management wants, but they haven’t been very pushy about it.
What was the toughest story you ever had to cover?
Three weeks after I was hired I was sent as a junior member of a very large team to Mississippi to cover the disappearance of the three civil rights workers down there in that summer of voter registration [James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by Klansmen while trying to register African-Americans to vote]. I did a lot of work after that for the next year and a half in the south, and Chicago after that, reporting on civil rights. That was really hard. I knew growing up in Chicago that there was de facto segregation in the city in the North, but had never seen or experienced segregation as it existed in the South. Not to say we didn’t have it in the north, but it was so palpably different, so very real and right in front of you in every instance. The amount of hatred was a shock.
Then I covered the Vietnam War four times and was dismayed to learn that our military was not always completely direct with us. Imagine that?
That must have been dangerous as well.
Yes, it was. You went out and risked getting shot at and did get shot at. But we also knew that [people] like the immediacy of the war. They preferred stories that had some action in them.
Any stories you would consider as the high points of your career?
I have always enjoyed covering politicians. The moral high ground was probably in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, but the fun was in covering politics and elections. I love politics because it is a chance to watch people using power. The Reagan election was fun for me, and it got me into the White House as a correspondent, but I’ve liked them all.
You have watched a lot of real political drama. Why do you think increasingly cynical political shows like House of Cards and Scandal have become so popular.
Those shows, which I watch and enjoy, are deeply cynical because they reflect the general public’s view of the way business is done in Washington, which is to say there are probably a lot of people who believe that when they look at House of Cards that murder is not out of the question.
In my experience, I’ve never known it to be quite that bad. But, hey, it captures people’s imaginations and if they don’t like politicians anyway, it’s really going to resonate. I get it.
Do you have a favorite?
House of Cards.
This is a lifetime achievement award. Anyone you want to thank for helping you along the way?
Everybody helped me along the way. This isn’t a solo job. If you have a producer with you, you have another set of eyes on your script and you have someone who can figure out what the images are, or at least second-guess you. The editors, the camera people: It is a team thing. Whatever I have done that is any good has been done with the cooperation of a lot of other people.
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