CBS's Frank Devine tells his story of telling stories

Frank Devine, middle in red tie, stands with President Barack Obama and journalist Steve Kroft in Kansas after taping an interview for 60 Minutes that aired on Dec. 11, 2011. Mr. Devine was promoted to a senior producer of 60 Minutes on Feb. 11. Also pictured: associate producer Maria Gavrilovic and press secretary Jay Carney, far right. —Aaron Tomlinson photo

Frank Devine, middle in red tie, stands with President Barack Obama and journalist Steve Kroft in Kansas after taping an interview for 60 Minutes that aired on Dec. 11, 2011. Mr. Devine was promoted to a senior producer of 60 Minutes on Feb. 11. Also pictured: associate producer Maria Gavrilovic and press secretary Jay Carney, far right. —Aaron Tomlinson photo

Frank Devine has told a lot of stories over the years.

From early works such as “Governor and Mrs. Clinton” and “Bob Dole of Kansas” to the more recent “Barack Obama” and “Rocky Mountain High,” the longtime Ridgefield resident, who was recently promoted to the position of senior producer of 60 Minutes, has told them all.

Mr. Devine knows telling a story requires a lot of tools — precision, dedication, deliberation, but none are more important than an understanding of the written word.

“Don Hewitt, the creator and producer of 60 Minutes, would say, ‘A word, if it’s the right word, is worth more than a thousand photographs,” said Mr. Devine, who’s worked at CBS News for 33 years, including 25 working closely with correspondent Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes.

“What that told me was that it’s all about the writing — that people listen to television, they’re not necessarily watching it— and that words are the most important for storytelling in any medium, even for TV.

“Don could fix a piece and see things you didn’t see,” he added. “During script supervision, we’d go over our scripts again and again — we did a lot of writing, but that’s how I learned to tell a story.”

Mr. Devine learned a lot early on in his career, working alongside CBS anchors such as Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Mike Wallace, and Harry Reasoner during his eight-year stint as producer of the network’s specialty radio broadcasts.

“Kuralt was the best editor I’ve ever worked with because he would strike out words and the piece would come to life like you’d never dreamed,” said Mr. Devine of one of his earliest mentors — the man who helped him win a pair of Writers Guild awards in the 1980s. “He preached, ‘Tight, simply, clearly’ — I’ll never forget that.”

It was CBS’s vice president of radio, Joe Dembo, who allowed Mr. Devine to take the company’s writers test even though the Notre Dame graduate had majored in theology and had worked only in religious broadcasting.

“I was overwhelmed at first,” he admits. “He sat me in between the TV and the radio newsroom and had assistants bring out giant rolls of script that we’d have to dial down to 75 lines.

“Basically, we were rewriting wire copy for broadcast and, even though he told me I didn’t have the background, it worked out well.”

The cherry on top of the sundae was that Mr. Devine was assigned to cover feature stories instead of news stories, where most producers get their start.

“It was pure luck — a promotion before I even got started,” he said.

Celebrating another promotion last week, Mr. Devine recalled the long list of celebrities, presidents included, that he’s interviewed through his work: funny men such as Woody Allen, P.J. O’Rourke and Jon Stewart; Hollywood stars such as Tom Hanks and Ray Romano; and international personalities such as Robert Hughes, Prince Charles and Jeremy Lin.

However, he’s not star-struck in the slightest and he favors working on pieces “about people who aren’t famous.”

Robert Gardiner, the last heir of Gardiner’s Island off the coast of Long Island, and Rick Curry, the one-armed Jesuit priest who founded the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, were featured in two of Mr. Devine’s career favorites — “The Lord of the Manor” and “Brother Rick Curry.”

“I’ve done a lot those type of stories and I can honestly say those are the stories you remember,” he said. “Gardiner was this odd, fascinating character, whose family history on the island goes back to King Philip’s War” in 1675-1678.

“Curry was fascinating because he was born with one arm and just did so much for the disabled,” he said. “He didn’t let that determine what he could do or who he could become.”

The celebrity list on his résumé is dwarfed by the number of stories he’s done about politicians.

He worked on the campaign trail for George H.W. Bush in 1988, traveling with the press circuit for several months —“something everyone has to do once” — before returning to New York City.

Mr. Devine’s second piece as an associate producer on 60 Minutes was on the Clintons in January 1992 — a year before the governor of Arkansas moved into the White House.

He revisited the family in the 1998 feature “Another Look” as the president faced impeachment stemming from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Besides the Clinton pieces, Mr. Devine cherishes the moment of ringing Barack Obama’s doorbell in 2007, before the senator from Illinois had announced his intent to run for president.

“Obama’s daughter answered the door and welcomed us in,” he said. “He hadn’t announced yet, but in a few weeks he let everyone know.”

The next two and a half years included a dozen stories covering Mr. Obama, his campaign trail and his election, including the president’s and first lady’s first post-election interview with Mr. Kroft on Nov. 16, 2008.

In between the political coverage, Mr. Devine has worked on pieces about credit default — “Wall Street’s Shadow Market” and “Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction,” covering the recent economic recession.

Although that is not as glamorous as meeting celebrities and presidents, he enjoys working on the features “that shouldn’t be on TV.”

“Some of the best stuff I’ve worked on over the last 25 year is the intellectually challenging work — derivatives, credit swaps,” he said. “These are concepts that shouldn’t be anywhere near a prime-time television broadcast, but Steve and I were able to get them approved and on air.

“The key is never talking down to the audience, treating them as bright and as curious as you are,” he said. “We took some chances over the years, but the beauty about researching a piece for 60 Minutes is that you can walk away from it if there isn’t a story to be told.”

Mr. Devine explained that at 60 Minutes there are no pitch meetings where ideas are blurted out and put on a whiteboard.

Instead, a correspondent, such as Mr. Kroft, works with his team of producers to submit a “blue sheet,” which is a simple form that allows the team to claim a story idea as their own.

“Once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much done dealing with management,” Mr. Devine said. “There’s no need to sell the idea or get it approved — they give you enough rope to hang yourself with and trust you to go out there and come back with a really good story.

“Once the package is ready, the administrative staff screens it and that’s where a lot of the editing and revision happens.”

While Mr. Devine was influenced by several of the most prominent media personalities in the last half-century, none impacted his career more than Mr. Kroft, someone he calls “a real perfectionist.”

“We started at the same time together and formed this partnership — this mutual understanding — that’s hard to put into words,” he said.

Mr. Devine will miss working with Mr. Kroft on features stories, as his new position as a senior producer has him in a supervisory role, overseeing the news program’s on-air letters and updates as well as the production of Internet content and special projects.

“I was thrilled when I heard; it’s a honor to be named to a management role,” he said.

As he adjusts to his new position — one he admits is still “in the process of being developed,” Mr. Devine reflects on a career of storytelling that has earned him Peabody and Emmy awards.

“Be curious, be careful and get your facts right,” he said, explaining what’s made his career so successful. “And be ready to rewrite once you think you get it right.”

“The source of all good reporting, of storytelling, is rewording sentences and phrases so it can be clear to the audience,” he said.

He remembers another saying Don Hewitt used to apply to the broadcast.

“Don used to say, ‘Even the people who wrote the Bible knew they were storytelling about people,’” he said. “We don’t do social issues at 60 Minutes, we do people.

“The story is about the people, not the issue,” he said. “You learn a lot about an issue through a person who’s experiencing it firsthand — that way it’s organic, it’s real.”

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