As John Blackstone tells the story, he and wife Sue were celebrating their anniversary in the wine country. “It was around noon, we were in this gift shop in Healdsburg and two women were raving about what they’d seen on that morning’s edition of CBS’s Sunday Morning,” he recounts. “They couldn’t have said nicer things about the show. They enjoyed every segment, one of which was mine; it was one I was rather proud of.”
So, did the veteran television journalist speak up? Maybe introduce himself? Say that he was party to what they were talking about? Keep in mind, Sunday Morning is one of network television’s longest-running features, watched weekly by over five million viewers. Did Blackstone consider thanking the women for their effusive compliments? “No, I was just proud to be part of the show,” the Canadian-born correspondent says. “I have been with CBS for 29 years, and Sunday Morning has been around for 30 years. Together, we’ve covered a lot of territory.”
If CBS’s Sunday Morning isn’t already on your weekend watching schedule, you might consider reviewing a recent Sunday’s lineup of topics (patience, please, it’s a 90-minute show). First came a discussion of legal restraints vs. common sense featuring examples of both and the author of Life Without Lawyers. Next, the life, loves and flights of Amelia Earhart with clips from the movie Amelia starring Hilary Swank, followed by a brief history of video games and their impact on contemporary society; then a profile of ’50s singer Andy Williams, now 82 and still entertaining; next a piece on why “Nerd Is the New Normal,” by commentator Mo Rocca; a historical look at why our nation’s founders feared banks; reports on the week’s top movie, book, TV show and news story; a jocular jaunt to the national yo-yo championships; and a hidden-camera nature shot, the show’s trademark finale, this time showing bighorn sheep butting heads near Cody, Wyoming.
That’s the good news regarding CBS’s Sunday Morning. The bad news is that in the Bay Area KPIX Channel 5 airs the show at six o’clock on Sunday morning (which is why man invented TiVo and Comcast DVR). We caught up with Blackstone off camera near his Mill Valley home.
Your career has taken you to, among other places, South Africa, Belfast, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Lebanon. Were there any life-threatening incidents along the way? I have this memory from ’82, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. We entered this village in the Baaka Valley that had just been bombed by Israeli jet fighters who claimed they were attacking terrorists. Anyway, after we had walked around the village talking with people, I was sitting in a car writing my script to say in front of the camera. I heard a commotion outside and looked to see what was going on. Suddenly, a gun came against my head and one guy shouted, “American bombs killed my family; now I’m going to kill an American.” My first thought was to show this guy my Canadian passport. But thankfully, people arrived around him and told him we were reporters trying to tell their side of the story, not hurt them—and everything settled down. However, it might not have ended so well today. Reporting from war zones is much more dangerous than when I did it. We were not targets back then. I don’t do that work anymore, not with two daughters.
You’ve been in San Francisco since 1987. What were some of the big stories you covered? Two years after arriving here, Sue and I were in Toronto visiting my mother when I got a call regarding the Loma Prieta earthquake. I turned on the television to see the Marina on fire and the Bay Bridge down—someone incorrectly identified it as the Golden Gate Bridge—so CBS authorized a chartered Learjet to get me back as soon as possible to cover that. Two years later I saw the start of another big story right from my deck in Mill Valley—a huge cloud of smoke across the bay. At the same time the phone rang. It was our on-duty editor, so I just said, “I know, there’s a fire in Oakland, I’m going.” Then, two years after that, I got a call from the Los Angeles bureau saying O. J. Simpson’s wife had been murdered the night before and that I’d better come down to help with the coverage. Then he added a great understatement: “This one might keep us busy for a couple of days.”
Any favorite interviews? Our Sunday Morning interview with Dustin Hoffman was one I enjoyed. He was terrific, great fun. I was very happy to get the story of how he met his wife, who is somewhat younger. I knew I did not want to ask the same questions about films and roles that have been asked hundreds of times before. So I simply said, “How did you meet your wife?” And it opened up the whole story about jazz, playing the piano, and her grandmother predicting that someday she’d see him again. At the end—and I don’t know if television caught it—he was brought to tears [television did].
What have been your other recent Sunday Morning segments? In Las Vegas I just interviewed Teller of Penn and Teller. He’s the one who never speaks, so getting him to talk on TV was a coup. We had to shoot him with his mouth in shadow. It’s about his work with a couple of neuroscientists who say magicians understand human perception better than they do. We also did recent segments on the Disney Family Museum, California’s proposed high-speed rail line, the medical marijuana shops in Oakland and houseboats, or floating homes, in Sausalito, Seattle and Portland.
Is there an overarching message to be gleaned from your work? If there is, let’s put it this way: last year I spent a couple of days at the South Pole with temperatures at minus- 40 degrees. But I loved it partly because early in my career, I spent a week at the North Pole doing a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So I can truthfully say reporting assignments have taken me to the ends of the earth, and to every continent.