'TV generation' journalist ripens into network co-anchor
New York — ''I am a TV creation,'' says Bill Kurtis, new co-anchor of the ''CBS Morning News,'' starting Monday at 7 a.m. He replaces Charles Kuralt, who returns to the ''CBS Evening News'' with ''On The Road'' pieces and continues to anchor ''Sunday Morning.''
I am interviewing Mr. Kurtis in a windowless office deep in the heart of the CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street. Although in shirtsleeves, Mr. Kurtis is the kind of person who always reads dapper. And let me add, precise, incisive , articulate. All of which should make him a pleasant surprise for the national audiences who do not yet know him very well.
''Until about l0 years ago,'' he continues, ''TV news didn't know how to cover news. We just sent people out and they videotaped. We are still learning a new visual language, still learning to combine the visual with the audio. We are perfecting a craft.
''I am the first generation that is totally a television product. We are just now surfacing. Some people might argue that is bad - they yearn for the old days when TV reporters got their training on newspapers and wire services.
''I dispute that. Look, we learned from Cronkite. He set the mold. We're emulating him.''
Bill Kurtis is fresh from nine years of co-anchoring news for WBBM-TV in Chicago, where he won awards for in-depth local, national, and international investigative reportage. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas and a law degree from Washburn University School of Law. Except for the feature stories he occasionally writes for major newspapers, all of his news experience has been on television.
Since 1978 Mr. Kurtis has been involved in an ongoing investigation of the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He has won 11 awards for three news specials on that topic. Will he continue pursuing this on the morning news?
''In about a week I will be airing what may be the definitive story on Agent Orange,'' he says, and his eyes light up in expectation of an attention-getting piece in his premiere week.
Will the new morning news, under the aegis of a new producer and new news president, become more like the other morning news shows?
''Well,'' he says in a carefully modulated middle-American accent, '' 'Good Morning America' is diminishing its news coverage, going heavier every day on features. 'Today' is trying to compete and moving much more into features.
''We don't expect to be Number One - I don't believe that a hard news broadcast in the morning can expect to be in the top spot. But we can be competetive. We feel there is a significant portion of the audience that would watch interesting news. Not a boring recitation of international stories which nobody in Topeka cares about, but relevant, breaking news, issue debates, newsmaker interviews. ''The bottom line for me is to establish a reputation that if anything happens overnight, people will turn to us first for the information. They may turn to the other stations for Julia Child or Burt Reynolds, but they will be with us for the real news at the top of every half hour.''
Mr. Kurtis believes that the national news is tilted towards the attitudes of the Eastern establishment. ''I think I bring Midwest freshness,'' he says.
A widower, with two children, Mr. Kurtis has been finding it difficult to locate a town house to rent or buy in New York. He is as astounded at the concentration on security as he is at the high prices.
''There is no doubt that crime is the number one issue in America today. Every apartment or house that I look at in New York has an elaborate security system. The first thing the agent says usually concerns the security.
''Yes, crime is first, then inflation and unemployment - those are the issues I feel we can concentrate on.''
He believes that TV is replacing the evening newspaper and therefore owes even greater accountability to its audiences. ''We have a special responsibility because the emotional impact of what we show on air is so great. I have a gut feeling that, although a newspaper can say to its readers who disagree 'Write a letter for our editorial page,' I don't think TV news can give that answer. We are a linear information source, and some stories can have such impact that you've got to put on the other side immediately in order to be fair.''
One of the things he seems to be most proud of is that his local Chicago news show ''killed 'happy talk' news there. The other stations were forced to compete with us for real news rather than engage in silly chitchat.''
Mr. Kurtis is responsible for a Chicago-based documentary that looked at independent investigative organizations and came up with disputably damaging information about a ''20/20'' investigation. He believes there is a dangerous trend toward journalistic entrapment, undercover reporting, misrepresentation, ambush reporting.
''Investigative reporting has turned into a growth industry since Watergate. We must stop and take a look. Where does the dishonesty and distortion stop?''
What would Bill Kurtis consider success in his new assignment?
No hesitation at all. ''I would consider the 'CBS Morning News' a success if Arthur Gelb (deputy managing editor) of the New York Times got up in the morning and wanted to watch the morning news on CBS.''