Friday Night Dialogues: Rita Braver of CBS Sunday Morning

COURTESY PHOTO | Rita Braver.

COURTESY PHOTO | Rita Braver.

For decades, Rita Braver has covered the news — quite a bit of it. She started out in the trenches, working as a beat correspondent for CBS News back in 1972 and moved on to covering stories about law, politics and the White House as her regular bread and butter.

The winner of five Emmys, since 1998 she has been a senior correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, the network’s weekend magazine show, where she has the opportunity to do many  great pieces about the intriguing people, places and things that interest her.

On July 28 at 7 p.m., Ms. Braver will speak at Friday Night Dialogues at the Shelter Island Library. She will be interviewed by her friend (and library trustee) Judith Hole, a 50-year veteran of CBS news who has spent the last 16 years at CBS Sunday morning and produced many of Ms. Braver’s stories.

While the conversation will no doubt touch on Ms. Braver’s long career covering politics, foreign affairs and the arts (with details on the highlights and perhaps the low-lights along the way), also likely to come up is the way in which journalism has changed since she first entered the business.

In a recent phone interview with the Reporter, Ms. Braver shared her thoughts on that topic.

“I get a lot of questions from younger people, which is ‘how can I get a job like yours?’ I tell them that there really aren’t jobs like mine anymore,” Ms. Braver said. “People tend to hop from network to network, not that I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, but CBS made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“But the nature of how journalism works is changing,” she added. “People who are purely correspondents … our days are numbered.”

Today, she notes, in addition to reporting the news, correspondents are expected to shoot their own video, produce their own segments and handle logistics that in the past, would have been the responsibility of a producer or other crew member.

“Oh …. and if you’re a woman, you also have to look really good,” she added. “The other part is that you’re on the clock 24 hours a day. For campaign coverage, you used to be on the bus and have some down time. But no more.

“Now with a 24-hour news cycle and the online presence, you get it out there as fast as you can.”

Technology has also changed the way in which news is gathered and Ms. Braver points out there are now fewer foreign bureaus with full production staffs. That’s because with so many cellphones in the world, networks rely on citizen journalists to provide footage that used to be the purview of network cameramen and camerawomen.

Though much has changed during her long career, Ms. Braver isn’t entirely discouraging of young reporters — though she does offer her advice with a big grain of salt.

“One thing I tell young people is, don’t do it unless you can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said, “it’s so demanding.”

Fortunately for Ms. Braver, CBS Sunday Morning is a great place for a correspondent to land, and on the show, she is given great freedom in deciding what topics to cover.

“It’s what you are interested in and what you think people will be interested in,” she explained of how segments are chosen. “One of the great things is we are our own audience. The people who work for the show are like the ones who watch it.”

From cultural perspective, it can also be highly educational, particularly for younger generations.

“Early on, I was doing a piece on Smokey Robinson and one of the young interns at the desk said ‘who’s he?’ I said I’m sorry, but your parents have failed you … watch the show and find out,” Ms. Braver said. “I love the program because I learn things from watching it.”

In the last two years, Ms. Braver has done two Sunday Morning segments with an East End connection — one was a story on Jackson Pollock, which Ms. Braver and her producer shot at Pollock’s house and studio in East Hampton.

“We also did a story on the very serious topic of assisted dying,” she said. “One of the people we spoke to lived in the Springs. Her husband had ALS, and decided he didn’t want to live.

“That was a very spiritual story.”

Though in her job, Ms. Braver has gotten to interview rock stars and movie stars, Supreme Court justices and princes, CBS Sunday Morning is also about finding the quiet heroes with powerful stories.

One segment that Ms. Braver says she’ll always remember centered around adoption and a young man who, by the time he was 17, had been abandoned by his mother and his grandparents.

“He lived in a group home and was soon turning 18, and he had created an advertisement asking if anyone would like to adopt him,” Ms. Braver said. “It was heartbreaking and he was very sweet. I said, ‘This is hard to ask, but at 17, do you think there’s a chance someone would adopt you?’”

“He said, ‘I have a little sister who’s 9, and she wouldn’t do it unless I did. I want her adopted,’” Ms. Braver recalled. “I always felt like he was one of the best heroes I ever met.”

Though at Sunday Morning, Ms. Braver is in a position to cover stories that tend to be far less political than those in her previous job, she is still concerned about efforts to discredit the legitimacy of the press these days.

“I had lunch with a young producer in the spring, she asked me if I could remember a time like this,” Ms. Braver said. “I think she thought I would say no, but I certainly do.”

That time was during the Nixon administration when she recalled that vice president Spiro Agnew was the president’s “professional attack dog” (her words).

“A speech that Agnew gave made Trump sound like he was easy on the press,” Ms. Braver said. “We’ve been through this before. The great thing about Americans is eventually the truth prevails. I have faith in the people who live in this country. With the idea of fake news organizations and politicians intentionally spreading false stories, you just have to try harder.

“The Washington Post has adopted a motto, which is ‘democracy dies in darkness,’” she said. “Some people think it’s old fashioned, but it’s true. It’s important for us not go on a diatribe or try to prove someone to be a bad president, but to report the facts accurately.

“We have to do our job.”

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