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"60 Minutes" producer laments the rise of punditry, fall of storytelling in news reporting

CBS News

Covering war zones as a journalist can be exciting.  It’s certainly risky.  But it’s only by going to those war-torn areas and spending time with the people on the ground that a journalist can get the multi-dimensional story. 

Jeff Newton, a producer at the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, has worked for more than a decade with Correspondent Lara Logan.  He’s won piles of awards and could probably land a very good job that doesn’t require him to risk his life, yet he keeps going back to the front lines. 

Newton stopped by WHQR's studio on his way to the Veterans Recognition Ceremony, part of the North Carolina 4th of July Festival in Southport, where he would serve as the keynote speaker. 

The decline of storytelling and the rise of the blogger and the pundit are part of what keep Newton committed to his very dangerous job.  During his years as a journalist, Newton has survived Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.  He’s been shot by American forces in Iraq. 

“And I was bleeding really bad, but I happened to have a medic.  He was young.  He was like 19 or 20 and he yelled for the medic and I kind of stopped him and I said, ‘but you’re the medic.’  And he was like ‘yeah, yeah, you’re right.’”  

He’s hiked through central African jungles with the Ugandan military. 

“On foot.  For six days.  That was tricky.” 

The soldiers he was with seemed to Newton to all be about 23 years old.

“And I’m 45.   Eight or nine hours a day of hiking in the humidity of the jungle… so it was a good test to see if I’m still up for doing this kind of work.”

He was in Egypt when his friend and colleague, Lara Logan, was brutally assaulted in Tahrir Square by a mob of more than 200 men.  It was early 2011 -- the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down. 

“These things happen to your friends.” 

But the physical trials and the very real possibility that he might not return from an assignment haven’t done much to alter Newton’s willingness to head straight into war zones.  Reporters are relentlessly searching for stories that embody the great literary themes, says Newton. 

“Man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature.  And I always found that in war zones all those themes seem to be in the same place.  You always see the worst of man, the best of man… there doesn’t seem to be anything when you’re there that seems more important for humanity’s sake than to observe and write and report about the things that are affecting people everyday when it comes to losing their lives, losing their homes, losing their health, losing their loved ones.” 

It makes it hard to come back and cover city council meetings. 

Getting the story – the real story as it happens in the field – without spin, pundits, or political agendas is likely part of what has propelled Newton from what he claims was a marginal career as a high school student to being an award-winning journalist.  And the risks that he takes?

“It’s like asking a race car driver to worry about crashing his car.  He doesn’t really think about crashing his car.  He thinks about winning a race.  And when I’m in a war zone, I don’t think about getting shot or blown up.  I think about mitigating my risk so that I can work.” 

He bristles at the suggestion that it’s adrenaline that drives him.  That, he says, is just cowboy journalism. When he feels adrenaline, he knows something has gone wrong.  But the biggest source of stress for Newton isn’t the fear of being shot or blown up. 

“As strange as it sounds, if you’re in a really bad fire fight on the border of Pakistan – and the Taliban’s attacking you – normally the first thing you think about is AM I ROLLING?? Because in the end,  if you miss it, then you’ve put you and your life and everybody else’s life at risk for nothing and you’re then going to have to stay longer to get that moment again.”

And formulating opinions about what he covers is not part of his code. 

“Sure, deep down I get enraged. But I have to check myself when I get enraged because I think that -- again -- I’m walking away from what my job is.” 

With rampant budget cuts, more newsrooms are bringing in pundits, consultants, so-called experts.  But that method doesn’t capture the nuances of a story, says Newton.

“We say there’s this guy and he’s in Afghanistan and here’s what he’s doing in this village.  Now that guy could be doing something in that village that has to do with all the things that everybody’s talking about in Washington.  But instead of letting a bunch of pundits talk about it on a station and giving their opinion on it, we’ll invest the money and take you there and let you see that guy and what he’s doing in that village.”

Newton says he has a great deal of trust in the ability of the American people to see things as they are…

" … if you just show them what they are…” 

All stories are about people, says Newton.  And the more removed you get from the people, the less understanding you have of the story.

At the end of the day, those experiences on the battlefield keep Jeff Newton in touch with what’s important. 

“It makes me more sensitive to making sure I make my family and friends know how much I love them in that moment. Because you start to realize, more so than maybe when you’re younger, that your moment could be gone in an instant.  You don’t want to leave something on the table having been unsaid.” 

Listen here.