The Public Eye Chat With ... Richard Roth (Pt I)

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News London Correspondent Richard Roth.

Matthew Felling: You've been a reporter stateside and you've covered a number of cities around the world. Are there any traits – personally or professionally – that differentiate foreign correspondents?

Richard Roth: The skill set is probably the same. But like calluses, our skills have developed over time in different ways. Perhaps by working overseas, some of us may have acquired a greater tolerance for ambiguity in unusual cultural situations. Anybody who is a successful foreign correspondent has gotten over the unease that accompanies total ignorance of a specific foreign language.

I remember in my early days working overseas … I don't remember what country I was in, but I was working with a very experienced producer who – in the days before cell phones – was trying to make a phone call to New York and reverse the charges. He was trying to call New York and couldn't get a translator, so he was shouting into the phone 'Collect, collect, collect!' Until finally the operator got the idea, New York paid for the call and we were able to file on the phone.

Inquisitiveness, doggedness, a certain tolerance for ambiguity and, probably in these days, more frequently the ability to sleep in very uncomfortable places are what's required to be a good foreign correspondent that's not as often required of a domestic correspondent.

In our particular business, the clock works for us, at least in this part of the world. In London you're five hours ahead, and that gives you more time to work on a story. Every time I've moved back to the states, I've felt awfully rushed coming up against an evening deadline. The "Evening News" comes on at 6:30 there, but it's not until 11:30 here.

Matthew Felling: So the time difference improves your work, you think?

Richard Roth: You get a little more time to think, a little more time to craft, a little more time to gather information – and frequently a little less time to sleep.

Matthew Felling: Aside from shouting into pay phones, are there other issues of acclimation that you have to deal with?

Richard Roth: One of the pleasures of reporting overseas is that in many stories, there's less pack journalism. Or there used to be; now it exists everywhere. But working overseas gave me a greater degree of independence than I would've had in the states. When I went to Moscow long ago, the entire CBS News bureau in Moscow was a correspondent, a translator, a secretary and an office manager – that was one person. There was also a driver, but that was it. There were only a handful of foreign correspondents in Moscow in those days, a very small press corps indeed.

The closest I came to traveling in a press pack was in Rome, when I was covering the Vatican and was traveling with Pope John Paul II with a sizable group of reporters and cameramen and technicians.

Matthew Felling: Do you cover a religious leader any differently than a political leader?

Richard Roth: It's funny you should ask, because I started covering the Pope back in 1981. And I'd only been there a few weeks when my foreign editor called and told me that martial law had just been declared in Poland and he said "Who's the most famous Pole in Rome?" He woke me up to ask me this. I said "Peter, I've only been here a short time. I don't really have all my sources down. I don't know." He said "Think, Richard. Who's the most best-known Pole in Rome?" And I stumbled around and he said "Think religion." And then I realized immediately that he meant the Pope. And he said "Go find out what he thinks about martial law in Poland."

It just so happened that it was a Sunday, and on Sunday Pope John Paul II would make parish visits. He had a small security detail, but I had just come from Washington where I had covered the Reagan-Bush campaign and I was used to door-stepping people and just shouting at famous people. So that day I stood outside the church where the Pope was making his parish visit, and when he came out I shouted "Your holiness, what do you think of what's happening in Poland?"

The crowd of parishioners and the Pope's security detail were stunned. I don't think they'd ever had a reporter shout a question at the Pope, let alone a question in English to the Polish Pope in Rome. And in fact, he stopped and talked to me for a moment. He expressed his sorrow at what was happening in Poland. I thanked him, and I rushed off and I [filed the story].

But I tried the same approach a few days later in an audience at the Vatican and he ignored me. I was then told by the security detail that if I tried that again, my Vatican press credentials would be pulled. So I realized that I had hit the limit of dealing with a religious figure of that stature as if he were a politician.

All of us covered that Pope as a – 'politician' would be the wrong word, but we covered him more as a public figure than as a religious figure. Sure, religion played a part in every story I filed about him, but it was very clear in covering him that there was an important social message and an important political statement that was implicit in most of what he said.

Matthew Felling: Objectivity isn't valued quite as much in England. Do you see any value in that approach, and does that environment affect your reporting?

Richard Roth: It doesn't affect us as far as what we put out as a final product, but it is interesting in terms of what goes into the mix of what we see and hear and read here. You can call it a lack of objectivity, but it's clear that in most British publications, there is a point of view and you know what the point of view is. You know that The Guardian is going to be left-of-center and probably more oriented toward the labor party point of view. You know The Daily Telegraph is going to be more right-of-center and more oriented – maybe even more sympathetic – to the conservative point of view. So you get a feel that there's a certain honesty in it. But there's also a certain suspicion of what you read, because most of what you see has a spin to it.

It doesn't affect my objectivity, in terms of a story that I write about British politics. But it in some instances it's a bit easier than what we have to do in the states, because there is no pretense about where a newspaper stands.

Tomorrow, Public Eye will continue our conversation with Richard Roth and discuss the recent bomb plots, the political scene in England, and Tony Blair's approach to media management.