Phil Jones · 2002
By Howard Caldwell
When Phil Jones retired from a long career at CBS News last June, network president Andrew Heyward described him as “one of the most distinctive and distinguished journalists in the history of our great Washington bureau.” Quite an accolade for a kid who grew up in Grant County, Indiana, milking cows and driving a tractor to help plant and harvest crops.
Chances are, however, that young Jones was not fully focused on those farm tasks. He had become fascinated with what he was hearing on the family radio set. Inspired by it all, he decided to take to the air, himself, “make believe” style. His studio was in a chicken house storage area with orange crates serving as tables and chairs. One of those tables served as the resting place for a 78-rpm player phonograph. Of course, the station needed to provide its “listeners” with news. Phil supplied that by reading from the daily Fairmount News.
Nearby Fairmount was where he attended high school, not too long after actor James Dean departed to make his mark in Hollywood. Jones himself appeared in some school plays, but when it came time to select a university, the broadcast fever was still the dominant goal. He picked Indiana University after he learned it was expanding its broadcast curriculum. He wanted to focus on news and sports.
Jones’s timing couldn’t have been better. He was named by a newly arrived journalism professor, Dick Yoakam (Hall of Fame member, 1985) to serve with a fellow student as color commentators on a new radio sports network conceived by Yoakam.
The play-by play man was to be a graduate student named Dick Enberg. Enberg went on to a long career in network sports and the IU sports radio network still exists. Meantime, Jones also began doing sports on a news and sports Sunday night program, aired on WTTV. That’s when he seriously began thinking about setting his sights on a television news career.
The first full-time news job for Jones was in Terre Haute at WTHI-TV, channel 10. Facilities were limited, but three experienced members of the news staff made the job meaningful. Within a year, two of them had decided to pursue careers elsewhere and Phil was named news director. Phil also decided it was time to depart, and with Yoakam’s help he would become a reporter at highly regarded, WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. Two things occurred before he reached Minneapolis. The first he calls the “best thing to happen to him in Terre Haute.” He married county employee Pat Powell, who he met while covering the Terre Haute courthouse beat. He also served ten months in France when the Indiana National Guard was activated due to the Berlin Wall Crisis (1961).
Seven years of experience at WCCO was where he developed the skills that would prepare him for the long network career that lay ahead. He started as a general assignment reporter, but gravitated to government and political news. Investigative work included reports on meat packing companies that were not meeting inspection standards, the problem of prostitution on a main street in the city and a trip to Vietnam to report on “Minnesotans in Combat.” Phil was one of the first, if not the first, local reporter to go to Vietnam in 1965. The station won the top Radio-Television News Directors Association award for International New Coverage. Station management was so pleased that Phil returned to Vietnam for another series of reports the following year.
CBS frequently turned to the Minneapolis affiliate for stories that would appear on the network and frequently those stories were handled by Phil. When he expressed an interest in taking another step forward in his career, CBS didn’t hesitate. He was promptly assigned to the Atlanta Bureau. Since the bureau was responsible for news in thirteen southern states and required frequent trips to Central and South America, he and Pat became familiar with being apart. While these assignments came after the critical civil rights encounters, Jones recalls, “It was still in time to feel the emotional struggle and to see the strain it. had put on people of all colors in the south.”
Reporter Jones became CBS Correspondent Jones two years into his network career. What’s the difference? A veteran CBS News producer once described the difference as “being knighted.” Correspondent Jones then was confronted by a new decision. He would be assigned to Southeast Asia for six months alone or a year if he brought his family with him. To his relief and surprise, Pat chose to join him along with nine-year-old Pam and four-year-old Paul.
The Jones family occupied an apartment in Saigon. Phil would mostly be gone for six weeks, then receive a week off and join the family for a week. Pat recalls some terrifying dreams during the six-week stretches. Meanwhile, her husband would win his first Emmy for CBS Evening News for his reports on a secret American air war against North Vietnam being waged from air bases inside Thailand. Combat coverage was frequent. He never was actually pinned down in a firefight, but Jones notes that every day was planned by paying careful attention to the intelligence for a specific area. Travel frequently was by helicopter where he could see bursts of ground fire coming in his direction. After a year, Jones was moved to the Hong Kong bureau where he continued to report from the war zone.
By December, 1972, he was working in the Washington Bureau. He was assigned to cover Gerald Ford after he was picked to succeed Spiro Agnew as vice president. When President Nixon resigned and departed the White House on a copter from the south lawn, Phil was standing not more than 15 feet away. Ford, the new President, was standing even closer with tears in his eyes. Phil was on the job during a number of scandals, including Watergate, “Clintongate,” “Iran-Contragate,” (his terminology) and he found them fascinating but adds, “Contrary to the common perception, I have not viewed them as a reporter’s ‘blood sport.’ Through all these events, I’ve tried to keep one motto in mind: report what you see and what you hear that can be confirmed, but don’t fall into the trap of reporting what you think.”
Later assignments sent him to Capitol Hill and to the prime time broadcast, “48 Hours.” This gave him the opportunity to utilize his interviewing talent in more depth because there was more on-air story time. This six-year period also displayed Jones’ research and preparation talents and his tenacity in obtaining information. His travels took him just about everywhere on this beat. He rode seven hours on a mule through the mountains of northern Thailand to reach a notorious King of Heroin in Burma, he was in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was preparing to come out of prison and was in Moscow doing a story on street crime and vice when the last Communist party congress was held.
Internet commentator Howard Mortman called Phil’s “48 Hours” interview with former Washington, D.C. Mayor, Marion Barry, the “most famous broadcast interview” of all time. Added Mortman: “A year before Barry was arrested at the Vista Hotel, Jones’ piece demolished any doubts we had that Barry was a drug user.” During this period, Jones added five more Emmy’s to his impressive collection.
Phil ]ones logged 32 years of highly regarded reporting for CBS before he decided it was time to retire. He and Pat reside in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where they will observe their 41st wedding anniversary in June. Phil says, “It’s time to catch up on all those sacrifices Pat made for me.” He also has this advice for aspiring journalists: “Broadcast news is a helluva great career, but an absolutely awful business. If you can live with this fact of life … then my advice is … GO FOR IT! You’ll never have more fun!”