In 1970, Linda Mason, then a writer in the CBS News division, applied for a producing job. But instead of a promotion, she got advice. "Women can't be producers," her boss said.
On Monday, Mason, who has made a career at CBS of breaking barriers and steadily moving up the producing ranks, was named senior vice president, standards and practices - or the person to whom all CBS News producers report.
Her promotion, a direct response to a scathing 224-page report that led to the firing of four senior producers and executives, is the first step in trying to re- orient the ethical compass of CBS News in the wake of a now-infamous Sept. 8 story about the military career of George W. Bush. With sinking ratings, an anchorman about to retire and four months of confusion, CBS News cannot afford to be wrong in placing its trust in the 61-year-old newsroom executive.
"I think being the first woman or the only woman sensitized me to what it's like to be different or to be an outsider," she says. "It took me a long time to have confidence, because I was constantly in a world with men. I wasn't a feminist, and I didn't do this to be with men, but I learned how to trust myself ... and to have confidence in my gut, in my sense about what is right and wrong."
The ability of CBS News to regain credibility depends heavily on those journalistic instincts, and it was clear yesterday in talking to management and newsroom troops how much they are counting on her to help fix what's wrong on West 57th Street.
"Linda Mason had to be really smart and really tough and really talented to come up in this business at a time when a woman's place was in the secretarial pool," CBS President Andrew Heyward wrote in an e-mail to The Sun yesterday.
"But she's not just smart and tough and talented: She also loves journalism and cares passionately about the core values that represent CBS News at its best. Like [CBS Chairman] Leslie [Moonves], I have every confidence that this institution will be all the stronger for having Linda Mason in this key role."
Mason's personal history suggests a commitment to journalism; she started on her first professional newspaper job while in high school in Middletown, N.Y., and has been working steadily in the news business since - even while an undergraduate at Brown (Class of 1964) and a graduate student in filmmaking at Syracuse.
"I was the editor of my high school paper, and decided I needed to know how a real newspaper worked," she said. "So, I got myself a job on the woman's page of the Middletown Times Herald-Record, and I taught myself to type in two weeks. You know, Typing Made Simple, I did two letters a day," she said, laughing at the memory of that typing textbook.
Mason, now married with two grown daughters, recalled her first byline with an unmistakable note of pride in her voice: "It was a profile of the captain of the Salvation Army in Middletown. It was fantastic experience."
In college, she worked at the Providence Journal, and fresh out of Syracuse, she landed a job at CBS Radio in New York - 38 years ago.
Her first major breakthrough came in 1971 when she became the first female field producer on The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, the premier news program on television at the time.
"She was tough and she was willing to go the extra mile to get a story," said Sandy Socolow, the now-retired executive producer who brought her aboard Cronkite's famous broadcast team. "She was thoroughly professional under pressure, and she fit in just perfectly."
Mason went on to become senior producer for the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather (1980-1986), executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning (1987-1992) and vice president of public affairs from 1992 until her promotion Monday. In the latter role, she wrote a report on what went wrong election night 2000 when CBS, along with the other network and cable channels, made so many mistakes in their reporting on the vote in Florida that Rather told viewers: "If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you."
In 2004, Mason was put in charge of election night coverage. "We'd rather be last and right than first and wrong," she told The Sun the day before the vote. That night, CBS got it right, showing caution before calling any state for Bush or John Kerry.
"It's pretty commonly held around CBS News that Linda's a person with a deep understanding of news standards and what constitutes good journalism. Whenever it hits the fan in terms of journalistic ethics, you always turn to Linda," said CBS White House correspondent John Roberts, the leading candidate to replace Rather when he steps down as anchor of the CBS Evening News on March 9.
Mason, winner of 13 Emmy and two Peabody awards, said yesterday that there is no fast fix for the damage done to CBS News by the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.
"Where we go from here in terms of regaining the public trust? We do that story by story, day by day," she said. "So, it's going to be a gradual process, but a steady beat. The new standards position that's been announced is going to be much tougher on vetting pieces."
Mason's first concrete order of business involves her and Heyward revising the CBS book of news standards with input from staff. The two executives "are going to visit every bureau and broadcast to talk about these standards," she said.
But changing a book of rules is not going to be nearly enough, she acknowledged: "If you're just blindly following rules on what to do, you're missing the point. The point is that we want to be transparent to the viewers. We want to be fair, we want to be accurate, and we show them how we do things, which is why we released this entire painful report. It's a roadmap of what not to do."
While some news reports compared her new position to that of a newspaper ombudsman or public editor, Mason pointedly disagreed: "I'm not sure what an ombudsman does. I think they take complaints from the public and critique the newspaper. That's different than this. This is working internally to make sure that our pieces are fair and accurate - sharing a philosophy of doing things."
Socolow said the philosophy that Mason brings to her task is one formed under legendary CBS President Dick Salant in what most critics rightly remember as the "golden days" of the network. He believes that makes her the right kind of person for the job.
"There was some pressure in those days with feminism to bring more women into positions on and off camera, but I felt we didn't have to compromise standards one bit with Linda Mason," Socolow said yesterday. "She's the kind of journalist who makes you proud to have been the one who hired her."