Obama interview a big ‘get’ for Kroft

NEW YORK — The first time Steve Kroft went to Barack Obama’s house to interview him two weeks before his presidential campaign kickoff, Obama’s daughter Sasha answered the door.

Don’t expect that to ever happen again. Life has changed dramatically for the Obama family, as Kroft learned Friday in Chicago when he conducted the first postelection television interview with Obama. It was for Sunday’s “60 Minutes” on CBS.

The interview was a major coup for Kroft, who’s marking his 20th year with the CBS News program in the middle of the year’s biggest stories — the presidential campaign and the economic crisis.

Kroft was backstage with Obama when the Democrat accepted his party’s nomination for president, and met him at other points in the campaign. This week’s interview was his sixth, starting with that midwinter 2007 story where Obama took Kroft on a tour of the Chicago projects where he’d worked as a community organizer.

“That was particularly successful for them in getting their campaign going and having a lot of people see him talking,” Kroft said. “The fact that we’ve been there at every critical point is important. We have been tough but fair. After having interviewed someone six times, you build a rapport with him.”

Kroft sought an interview for last week’s show but was told it was too soon.

Instead, he spoke with the campaign’s bleary-eyed top four advisers after 1 a.m. CST on Election Night, an hour chosen by them because they wanted to rest the following few days. Adviser Robert Gibbs barely had a voice. The story helped “60 Minutes” revisit an old haunt: first place in the week’s Nielsen Media Research ratings for the first time in nearly five years.

Linda Douglass, a former television journalist who was a spokeswoman for Obama’s campaign, said she wasn’t a part of the decision to give Kroft the first television interview. But she said Obama feels like Kroft asks intelligent questions that allow him to get a message across.

“It’s an old-fashioned professional relationship with a lot of mutual respect — not one of those interviews where you regard the interviewer warily but not one of those interviews where you know you are going to be thrown softballs,” Douglass said.

Before he left, Kroft was taking suggestions for questions from around “60 Minutes.” He said he wanted to strike a balance between making news and probing the human side about how Obama’s life had changed.

“I’m interested to see if he’s going to be different,” he said. “I thought he was different when he made his (election night) speech in Grant Park. I thought it was an attempt to be presidential. He didn’t jaunt out onto the stage. It was much less like a campaign event, and much more like an address.”

The Obama interview was his seventh story already this fall season on “60 Minutes.” Six of them have led the broadcast. Kroft has been responsible for two of the six duPont awards won by the show since he joined the program, and three of the 13 Peabody Awards. His office is cluttered with Emmys, too.

It was only since Mike Wallace’s semiretirement a few years ago that Kroft, 63, said he no longer felt like the “young guy” at “60 Minutes.”

“He’s the lead player now,” said Jeff Fager, the show’s executive producer. “He’s the first one you see as the broadcast opens. He’s the senior veteran of our full-time correspondents. Week after week, especially this fall, he keeps churning out extraordinary stories.”

Fager said Kroft often gravitates to the high-degree-of-difficulty stories. When the financial crisis hit, Kroft volunteered to do not one, but two stories on credit default swaps. He considers them some of his best stories because he had to do a lot of studying to learn how to explain complicated ideas to a television audience.

Kroft’s most recent Peabody, in 2003, was for a story about conflicts of interest among the government and military contractors. He’s reported on Pakistan’s instability, the smuggling of nuclear materials out of Russia, and was the first American journalist given access to the contamination nuclear facility in Chernobyl.

Kroft credits Fager with making the broadcast more responsive to current news stories, something viewers expect during a busy news period.

It’s also important for a “60 Minutes” correspondent to show versatility and, to that end, Kroft has a story on LeBron James coming up next month.

Kroft said he, Lesley Stahl and Morley Safer felt a responsibility for maintaining the quality of the show as it has made the transition into a new era with correspondents like Scott Pelley and part-timers Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric. That job became tougher following the Nov. 9, 2006, death of fellow correspondent Ed Bradley.

“I felt like I had to work harder,” Kroft said. “I felt like it was important, that it was an incredibly difficult loss to make up. It made me more interested in pursuing big stories that I thought the show should be pursuing. Ed did a lot of that and we all had to pick up a little bit of that.”

Given cutbacks at broadcast news divisions, “60 Minutes” often feels as much of an island on TV as it was when it started four decades ago.

“Your main competition has always been the people down the hall,” Kroft said.

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