Adjunct Professor John Bentley lands in CSI
by Bradley Popkin
John Bentley, Journalist at CBS News and new Adjunct Professor at CSI, talks about his experience in the field including, where he got his start, the pros and cons of being a journalist and how he ended up teaching at CSI. Bentley, the Oklahoma native and Columbia University graduate, had spent years interning at local news stations before landing his first job as a Videotape Editor at a television station in San Antonio, Texas.
The Banner: Can you start off by telling me when and where you were born?
John Bentley: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 27, 1972.
TB: Growing up did you know what you wanted to be?
Bentley: I had no idea. I was literally a generation off of the farm. I always expected I’d stay in Oklahoma. I got lucky, I was working as a lifeguard at a summer camp and a friend of mine there had an internship at a local TV station in the sports department and said it was a lot of fun and really interesting. I was in college at the time and thought that sounds kind of interesting. I never realized you could just walk up to a TV station and ask them to let you work there for free and get college credit for it. I started out as an unpaid intern at the ABC affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ended up getting a degree in Communications from Trinity University in San Antonio. That’s kind of how I got into it Journalism.
TB: What brought you to New York?
Bentley: After I worked in local news for a while in San Antonio, I got a little tired of the grind of local news. There’s a lot of good local news stations out there but there’s a reason why movies like Anchorman get made because there’s a lot to make fun of in local news; sometimes you want to do something different. I wanted to work at the network level; one of the paths to do that is to go to graduate school. Somewhere with a good journalism program in NYC; I ended up at Columbia University and got a Masters Degree in Journalism. From some contacts I made there, they hooked me up with some people at CBS News. I started there right after graduation in 2003 and have been there ever since.
TB: Were you always good at writing? When did you decide on the broadcast aspect over print?
Bentley: I wasn’t always good at writing. It was something I really had to work at. Everybody has to work at it, especially writing for broadcast. It’s a different skill set than writing for a newspaper, blog or website. You write for the ear instead of the eye. You have to write in a way that people can digest easily and can listen and get what you’re saying the first time. Most of the time people watch TV or listen to the radio and they hear it once and have to understand it as opposed to a newspaper, a book or something on the internet where they can go back and say “Did he say how old he was?” or “Did he mention that point already?”. You can go back and read it again.
TB: What was your first job?
Bentley: My first network job was at 48 Hours. The first job I’ve ever had was a part-time Videotape Editor at KSAT-TV; the ABC affiliate in San Antonio, Texas. I was working overnights cutting videotape and then sort of worked my way up from there. It was a few months out of college before I could find anything in the TV industry. All-together I probably had two and half years of local news internships.
TB: Do you have any recommendations for a journalism student on getting their foot in the door?
Bentley: Internships are one of those things that people have a lot of opinions on. I certainly understand that it’s hard to get an internship and it’s hard to spend 20, 30 hours, sometimes 40 hours a week doing something that you’re not getting paid for. I think there are some fairness issues with that and I think the system may need to be reformatted. Having said all that, it’s still the way people get jobs in the media industry. You show people that you’re willing to work for very little, sometimes no money, but hopefully for college credit. Nobody is going to say, “Yeah, do this internship and we’ll give you a job”. What you want is just a chance at that job; a chance that people will remember your hard work and give you a start. For the time being, it’s sort of the way we’re stuck with. Try and do an internship. Try and do something in the field you want to do, make sure that’s what you really want to do. If it’s something that you want to do; talk to the right people, make sure you’re doing good work and make people want to hire you once you get out of college.
TB: Can you list some of the pros and cons of being a journalist for me?
Bentley: It’s a fascinating job. You get to do something different everyday. You get to tell interesting stories. Hopefully for me, the most important thing is you get to change the world for the better. What I mean by that is, you’re always digging for the truth. There’s a lot of people that will cover that up and lie to you. When you tell a story in a way that effects change, even it’s for one person, or for a whole group; that’s what you’re doing it for. The cons are the hours. It’s not a 9-5 job. It can be a job that’s very hard on your family. I travel a lot. All those things are outweighed by a job that I think is very important and is also a lot of fun.
TB: You touched on probably the most important aspect, the time constraints, it’s tough managing that right?
Bentley: Absolutely. This week I got the chance to go fly with NASA down in Texas. How many people get a chance to do that? It’s rewarding, incredibly rewarding. It’s a lot of fun. I’m married, I have two kids. I want to spend as much time with them as I can but I still have a job that I really like and feel is important. I try to balance that and do both. There’s no off switch, you don’t work bankers hours. You’re not always promised weekends off, you’re always on call and that can be tough.
TB: Can you tell me in this new day and age, what is a good way to make a name for yourself and do you feel like blogging is the right way to go?
Bentley: I think blogging is good because if nothing else, even if the only people that read your blog are your parents or your girlfriend, that’s still practicing writing. Like I say, there’s not a lot of born writers out there you just have to work really hard at it. If you’re writing every day, sometimes several times a day, that’s great practice. Twitter is great. Even if there’s only ten people following you, you’re still tweeting and trying to keep things short and to the point, which is the essence of broadcast journalism.
TB: When did you start at CBS News?
Bentley: I started at CBS in May of 2003.
TB: Of your time spent there, you’ve covered John McCain in his race for presidency and spent some time in Kabul, what has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Bentley: I’m really lucky. I’ve been able to do a lot of interesting stuff. Certainly covering the war in Afghanistan; I’ve done four trips over there. It’s really interesting and really important. I’ve covered the Arab Spring in Libya and Tunisia, that was also fascinating stuff. Covering the presidential race was amazing. 2008 of course was a historic year. I was embedded on John McCain’s campaign, also covered President Obama and Hillary Clinton. You felt like you were getting a PhD in Political Science just by being there everyday and watching it close up and right in the same car; the same plane with guys who are making history as you watch it happen. There are other stories that may not receive the international or national attention, that are just as important. I remember I did a story in local news about a kid who was going to make his football team and did, then a few months later (he) ends up passing away in a car crash. I talked to his parents afterward and they said, ‘Nothing made him happier than seeing the story that was done on him on the local news; we’ll always have that as memory of him’. You just never know what ways your work is going to effect somebody.
TB: Can you tell me about how you ended up teaching Broadcast Journalism at CSI?
Bentley: Professor (Chris) Anderson was looking for people. Chris is a great media theorist, an extremely smart guy whose doing really great academic work in journalism but he knows he’s not a practicing journalist. Through mutual friends we met each other and got along, only had two classes so far but seems to have worked out alright. Hopefully it will continue to work out.
TB: Can you see yourself teaching here for years to come based on your schedule?
Bentley: I don’t have a 9-5 job. Hopefully, I’ve worked out with the school; being able to teach in the evening is good for me usually. So far CBS has allowed me to be here on Monday nights. I’d love to keep doing it, I think teaching the next generation of journalists is more important now than ever because we’re going through such a change in how journalism is conducted. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep working here as long as CSI will have me.
TB: So if the phone rings in the middle of class and you’re called to jump in your bat mobile are you going to have to fly away to Europe or some other…
Bentley: Yeah, that doesn’t excuse you from doing the homework though. That happens; it has a potential to happen. I’ve gotten calls in the middle of the night. I keep a bag at my office and in my car of clothes and a passport. I keep that stuff on me at all times. It doesn’t happen regularly but it does happen. Working for CBS News, I’m one of the people that they want to get there as soon as possible. That’s always a reality.