Christopher Isham didn’t graduate from St. John’s College, but the analytical skills he learned here in the early 1970s have served him throughout his career in broadcast news. Now the vice president and Washington bureau chief for CBS News, he was chief of investigative projects for ABC News in New York until 2007. He joined ABC as an associate producer in 1978, after two years in the documentary unit at NBC, which was his first job after graduating from Yale University. His two years at St. John’s interrupted his time at Yale, where he returned to finish school only because he had more credits toward graduation there than he did in Santa Fe.
He loved it at St. John’s, but it didn’t make practical sense to his family for him to stay in college longer. But it was St. John’s that had the lasting effect. “What has lasted me over the years is having interacted directly with texts and being forced to analyze texts on their own basis—and using my own mind to do that, rather than depending on the analysis of others,” Isham said. “Too much of education in this country is derivative, dependent on second- and third-party texts. You’re relying on the interpretation of professors and often you’re not even reading original texts. Most of my career I did investigative reporting, and one of the reasons I was attracted to the field was the ability to go deeper. That’s something that, unquestionably, was cultivated at St. John’s.”
Isham, who organized the first major network interview with Osama Bin Laden in 1998, has broken dozens of major stories with the help of news teams, including insurance fraud after Hurricane Katrina and the secret tapes of Saddam Hussein. The television news landscape has changed tremendously since he entered the industry. Forty years ago, more than 75 percent of Americans got their nightly news from just three networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC. Cable news pundits, Internet blogs, and 24-hour news cycles weren’t yet specks on the horizon.
“The share of audience has obviously come way down for the networks, but that said there are still more than 20 million people watching one of the three network newscasts every night,” Isham said. “CBS has six million people watching our show every night, so we still have very sizable audiences. I think there remains an audience for the kind of news that we do, which is objective and solid and credible. You can see, particularly when there’s a crisis, and our ratings go way up, that people still look to us.”
One of the issues with so many news sources competing for audiences is that in the rush to get information to the public, mistakes can be made. Journalists have a responsibility to get it right, and it helps to know that network news broadcasts still adhere to standard journalistic ethics, such as fact-checking stories and vetting sources—ethical standards that are not always followed by every modern journalist.
“We’ve made mistakes, too,” he said. “Nobody’s faultless. But when you have a major story, like the Boston Marathon bombing or the school shootings in Connecticut, there’s enormous public interest and we have a responsibility to get it right—not to feed stereotypes or put out misinformation. Irresponsible journalism has a detrimental effect. Putting bad information out there and misleading people degrades the credibility of what we do.”
One of the ways to ensure a future of credible, well-researched news is to demand more journalists and industry professionals have a foundation in the kind of broad and deep liberal education offered at St. John’s College, where discussion-based seminars encourage direct participation and individual analysis.
“The skills that are important in my business have very little to do with going out and shooting videotape. Anyone can learn how to do that,” said Isham. “The skills you need have everything to do with how you perceive events and how you analyze events, how you analyze what people are saying, and the issues of the day.”