Man of the Hour
With Steve Kroft as Lead Correspondent, '60 Minutes' Is Ticking Right Along
Monday, March 23, 2009; Page C01
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.