By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009
On the night of the Emmys last fall, when one of his stories was up for an award and his tuxedo-clad colleagues were leaving for the ceremony, Steve Kroft stayed at the office until 1 a.m., rewriting a story that his bosses had already approved.
"He's that kind of madman professor," says "60 Minutes" producer Ira Rosen. "I wanted to kill him. . . . He really, really toils over each sentence."
During the correspondent's two decades with the program, the storied franchise was primarily identified with Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Ed Bradley. But Kroft has finally emerged from the shadows, with 10 of his 12 pieces topping the broadcast this season, including an interview that aired Sunday with President Obama. "He's the lead guy now," says executive producer Jeff Fager.
Kroft, who spent 90 minutes with Obama, says the president was "very, very relaxed" and seems comfortable with him after several previous interviews. "He did not seem at all concerned about what the press has been playing up as his worst week," says Kroft, who was editing the story until 3:30 a.m. Sunday. "My own personal feeling is they sense they're having trouble getting their message out in Washington and wanted a discussion at a more leisurely pace that went beyond a sound bite. . . . The challenge was to try to break through and get him to talk about things he hadn't been talking about."
Whether he's reporting from the White House or a war zone, the newly designated lead guy is anything but flashy. Kroft delights in tackling such subjects as credit default swaps and oil price speculation, doing much of the digging himself rather than relegating it to his producers, a common practice in television. And when the 63-year-old reporter sits down with a newsmaker, you tend to remember the person's answers, not Kroft's questions.
"Anyone can be aggressive or even rude, and that's judged as tough," Kroft says, relentlessly twisting a wadded-up piece of paper in his office overlooking the Hudson River. "But unless you have reason to do that, I'm not sure it gets you much. The point of an interview is to try to get useful information and allow people to reveal things about themselves."
The Indiana native, whose father was a Union Carbide plant manager, does not carry himself like a television star. Kroft has a weathered face and a bit of a paunch. He stares into the middle distance as he talks, turning only occasionally to face a visitor. He does not pour on the charm. Recounting his background, he says, "I can speed this up if it's boring."
And he seems like a throwback in the Twitter age, scribbling his thoughts in a battered, leather-bound spiral notebook filled with years of notations.
Kroft's work habits are legendary. On a trip to Pakistan to report on terrorist insurgents, Rosen says, "we drove the entire day in Punjab to interview a Pakistani journalist who was making a point he wanted in the piece. We ended up cutting him out."
Another producer, Frank Devine, recalls Kroft driving up the cliffs of Normandy because he wanted to see the American cemetery, after it had closed, by scaling the back wall. "I thought I was going to die climbing up that hill," Devine says.
Producers talk of discovering Kroft on his office couch, under an overcoat, at 7 a.m. after one of his periodic all-nighters. The latest took place in late February, when Kroft was crashing a piece about the unsuccessful whistleblower in the Bernie Madoff stock scam. "I'm getting too old to do that," he says.
One reliable source -- Kroft's wife, journalist Jennet Conant -- says he has trouble relaxing, even on vacation. "He is his work," she says. "He never reads a newspaper that he doesn't start pacing around and analyzing the inherent bias. He's consumed."
Little wonder, then, that Kroft is regarded as a tough taskmaster. "He drives people hard," Fager says. "It does grind him down."
"He's incredibly demanding -- incredibly hard on himself, incredibly hard on others," says producer Andy Court. "Always because of a journalistic professionalism."
The CBS program continues to feature such standout correspondents as Lesley Stahl, Scott Pelley and Bob Simon, with Safer and Katie Couric in part-time roles. But Kroft's ascendancy reflects a faster, newsier edge -- including last week's sit-down with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke -- that is propelling "60 Minutes" to a banner year. The program is averaging about 15 million viewers this season, up from 12.9 million last season, and has risen to become the 13th most popular show on television. Fager, who took over five years ago, has all but banished celebrity fluff; "60" hasn't profiled a single movie star this season.
Kroft interviewed Obama several times during the campaign, at one point asking him, "What makes you think you're qualified to be president of the United States?" The relationship paid off soon after the election when he scored the first interview with the president-elect. Kroft inquired about a variety of issues, but also asked about college football playoffs and quizzed Obama and his wife, Michelle, about strains on their marriage, doing the dishes, raising their daughters and the search for a family dog. Kroft says he didn't want to "get so bogged down in follow-ups" that he shortchanged "the whole personal side of the election."
At times, Kroft's interviews have drawn flak from the left and right. When he sat down with Obama's top campaign deputies on election night -- calling them "talented, laid-back and idealistic" -- the conservative Media Research Center said that "Steve Kroft abandoned hard-hitting journalism and instead offered a glowing profile."
In 2007, when Kroft profiled Clarence Thomas -- and said that the perception of him as a "sullen, intellectual lightweight" was "unfair and untrue" -- New York Times columnist Frank Rich accused him of giving the Supreme Court justice a "free pass." Kroft pressed Thomas, who was publishing his memoirs, about the explosive 1991 confirmation hearings involving Anita Hill, but Thomas repeatedly deflected the questions, and much of the segment was devoted to his life story.
"I thought people were more interested in who this guy was, or is, than they were in what happened with Anita Hill," Kroft says. Instead, he says, "they wanted me to sit there and beat him up about Anita Hill. . . . I didn't have to ask him tough questions for the audience to see the bitterness."
In some interviews, Kroft can push back hard. Last summer, he challenged former Pentagon official Douglas Feith on the handling of the Iraq war. When Feith said that his boss at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, never signed off on a controversial plan to disband the Iraqi army, Kroft shot back: "That's the part I find hard to believe." He told Feith that former CIA director George Tenet "called your intelligence evaluations total crap," and that Gen. Tommy Franks had described him as "the dumbest guy on the face of the planet."
Feith, who was promoting a book, says now that for Kroft to use the Franks insult at the top of the broadcast and then "come back to it a second time, something that was nothing more than empty name-calling, that's hostile."
But Feith says Kroft was not entirely negative: "He ended by emphasizing that I donated 100 percent of my revenues from the book to charity. He could have ignored that."
* * *
Steve Kroft never planned to go to Vietnam. He got drafted, in 1968.
Kroft became a military journalist, doing broadcasts for Armed Forces Radio, writing for Stars and Stripes and working with network correspondents, whose ranks he soon aspired to join.
"I wanted to get shot at, to be somewhere where there was a story to write," Kroft says. "I was young and stupid, probably. I loved the adrenaline rush." His greatest disappointment came when he returned home.
"People thought if you were in Vietnam, you were crazy, you were a drug addict, you were a baby killer. It was pretty depressing. Like everyone else in my generation, I was bitter. I'm still, I think, bitter about that war."
After collecting unemployment for six months in Syracuse, N.Y., where he had gone to college, Kroft landed a job with a local television station and found himself covering a dynamic new mayor, Lee Alexander. "I fell in love with him," Kroft admits. Alexander wound up in prison after a kickback scandal, a development that Kroft says "really soured me on politics."
After the GI Bill enabled him to get a master's in journalism at Columbia, Kroft worked for stations in Jacksonville, Fla., and Miami before joining CBS as a reporter in 1980. While working in the Dallas bureau, Kroft went to El Salvador and was interviewing a soldier in the country's civil war when a sniper started firing at his subject.
As they scrambled to safety, Kroft could be heard on the tape saying, "Well, I guess we made the 'CBS Evening News' tonight."
Kroft got his dream job when he was dispatched to the London bureau, flying to hot spots and war zones with a young producer named Jeff Fager. In 1989, after a stint on the short-lived magazine show "West 57th," Kroft was tapped as a part-time correspondent for "60 Minutes" when Diane Sawyer left for ABC. Looking at the old bulls who ran the place "was intimidating," says Fager, who was hired as Kroft's first producer. The veterans tended to get their way when the "blue sheets" with correspondents' assignments were finalized.
"Mike Wallace and Morley and those guys fought very hard for their blue sheets, and he was the new kid and they gave him a tough time," Conant says. "He was somewhat shellshocked. . . . He had this deer-in-the-headlights look." Kroft likens that period to being a "fraternity pledge."
Wallace, 90, says that "there's a certain amount of competition for stories all the time, every place." But he says "we had nothing but respect for Steve. You're talking about a real pro and a decent man."
Kroft's big break came in 1992, when he persuaded candidate Bill Clinton to tape an interview after allegations of infidelity by a former Arkansas lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers threatened to sink his campaign. Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos wanted to know the scope of the interview.
"George, the only thing we're interested in talking about is Gennifer Flowers. We're not going to have a big conversation about policy," Kroft recalls saying. He says Wallace appealed to CBS executives to wrestle the interview away from him.
When Clinton, with wife Hillary at his side, denied Flowers's allegations while allowing that their marriage wasn't perfect, he helped salvage his candidacy. But things turned testy as Kroft pressed Clinton to say he had never had an extramarital affair and questioned whether he and his wife had an "arrangement."
"I wanted to slug him," Clinton, who later admitted to having had sex with Flowers, wrote in his autobiography. Kroft's reaction: "He'll have to get at the end of a long line."
On Sunday's program, Kroft repeatedly pressed Obama on the banking crisis and the infamous AIG bonuses, and challenged him for laughing while invoking the unpopularity of the auto bailout (the president called it "gallows humor"). But it was more of a conversation than an interrogation, especially as they talked about his wife, his daughters and examined the new South Lawn swing set.
Over the years, Kroft tackled subjects from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl to AIDS in Cuba. Though he didn't win an Emmy on the night he was crashing last fall, he has collected 10 of them -- one for lifetime achievement -- along with two DuPonts and three Peabodys, mostly for investigative work. But occasionally he lightens up, such as in a feature last month on Coldplay. Even then, he told the band's lead singer: "Someone wrote that Chris Martin is like watching an unsteady trapeze act, one moment brimming with self-confidence, anxious and angst-ridden the next."
Kroft recently began musing about retirement, or at least cutting back to part-time status, so he could play golf and spend more time with his 14-year-old son. But he signed a two-year contract extension last year after being assured that, despite tough times in the industry, he wouldn't have to take a pay cut.
"At his age he doesn't have to -- as I tell him all the time -- go to Pakistan or Afghanistan," Conant says. "But he feels a responsibility, if we're at war, to cover these stories."