Longtime CBS News reporter Randall Pinkston wanted to be a disc jockey and had an interest in law but was pushed into journalism by mentors who saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself.
For 20 years, the award-winning reporter has covered many major events for CBS News, and he recently moved to CBS Newspath, which provides content to CBS affiliates and foreign media clients. Journalism has held sway for the student of history who listened to radio news as a child and would run to an atlas to look up a country that was being reported on.
“I was curious about the world, where things were and how things work, and the news allowed me to feed my curiosity on a daily basis about a whole range of topics,” Pinkston says.
The Mississippi native, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Millsaps College and a J.D. from the University of Connecticut Law School, came up in an era where news stations took a position on issues, such as supporting segregation, and refused to even cover African-Americans in the state.
“I knew something about fairness and accuracy because I saw so much that was unfair and inaccurate,” says Pinkston, who has always sought to stay true to the essence of journalism—finding a story, telling the truth and making it clear.
Pinkston recently spoke with Diverse about his career and the state of journalism.
DI: Of what coverage are you most proud?
RP: I was the first CBS correspondent to reach Tora Bora, Afghanistan, during the bombing campaign when the search was hot and heavy for Osama Bin Laden. There was one day in particular when one of the militia commanders unilaterally declared a cease-fire, and many of us think that’s when Osama slipped through the crack … . I was also proud to cover President George (H.W.) Bush’s last two years in office, which included the time when the Soviet Union collapsed, when Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court and when Bush had his famous stomach flu problem in Japan. I interviewed a survivor of a lynching, James Cameron. In the 1930s (in Indiana), Cameron (a teenager) was one of four Black men involved in a robbery that turned into a homicide. He showed us the jail cells where they were held, told us how they were dragged out and took us to the tree where they were hung. Then he told us about the moment they placed him under that tree, put a rope around his neck to hang him, and, just as they were about to string him up, someone shouted out he didn’t do it, and they cut him down. He served time in prison and survived to tell the story. It was definitely one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever done.
DI: In newspapers there has been a significant loss of journalists of color; last hired, first fired. Is it the same in broadcast?
RP: Compared to when I entered this business, on air and off air there are many more people of color in all facets of broadcast journalism. Lately there has been a decrease across the board. Part of that, obviously, is because of new media and companies looking for ways to make money so people are laid off and fewer people are hired. The other aspect of lower diversity numbers has to do with hiring decisions. The people who make the hiring decisions do not seem to be as concerned about diversity as they used to be when there was none. These days you can turn on your television almost anywhere in America and you can see someone of color on at least one of the channels. So, it’s no longer a big deal in the minds of newer managers.
DI: If we’re in a low point for diversity in management, does that mean communities of color are not being covered as well?
RP: I don’t find any difficulty in learning about communities I’m curious about. I just go to the Web. More than ever, broadcast news operations are driven by the imperative to have as many viewers as they can so that they can enhance their ad revenues. If that means covering what they think will get viewers and it doesn’t include people of color, they’ll do that. If it means covering people of color, they’ll do that. Anecdotally, I think there’s too much emphasis on crime. It’s a lot easier (for local news stations) to shoot those stories in low-income communities, which may be communities of color. The stereotypes unfortunately are perpetuated.
DI: Is there anything you’d like to add about the state of news media?
RP: I am very excited about this generation of young journalists. For several years I’ve had some involvement with interns who come through CBS News. I have been a guest lecturer at schools of journalism. I’m thrilled to see the curiosity, the commitment and the dedication of young people to trying to tell the story. I’m also happy to see that they are making their own way. If someone doesn’t hire them for a job or if they have a job and it’s not working for them, they’ll go out and do their own independent projects.
DI: What’s next for you? What are your long-term goals?
RP: I would like to write a few books. I grew up in Mississippi at an interesting time. I want to write something about the South from a different perspective, not just the stereotype ‘You’re from Mississippi, it’s horrible.’ It was not all bad. There are some stories that haven’t been told.