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Facetime: Dateline's Shane Bishop '86
Shane Bishop leads from behind the lens at "Dateline"
Interview by Courtney Brockman
When Shane Bishop ’86 walked to his professor’s office as a journalism student at UM, he was certain his instructor had called him in to say his reporting career was over before it had begun. Instead, what radio-TV Professor Joe Durso Jr., who came to UM from CBS Radio in Chicago, told him was surprising.
“Joe sat me down and said the words that changed my life: ‘You’re good at this. It’s not going to be long before you’re telling people far older than you what to do, and I’m going to help you get there,” Bishop said.
Durso died in 1998, but not before he saw the kid from Conrad, Montana, work his way from local reporter to producer for NBC’s newsmagazine program “Dateline
Today, Bishop looks back on a 25-year career with “Dateline” and a series of award-winning reporting on major events from natural disasters to human tragedies.
While working on an upcoming “Dateline” episode in Montana with correspondent Keith Morrison, he revealed to the Montanan his storytelling process, the kind of stories that captivate an audience and the power of good journalism.
What have you taken away from the significant historical moments you’ve covered?
I’ve worked on nearly every major news story in America since the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 – the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, 9/11, hurricanes, tornados and mass shootings. Covering tragedies and murder cases, you learn how quickly life can change and why “I love you” and “I’m sorry” are the most important words you can say.
What is the weirdest place you’ve been while covering a story?
I’ve been everywhere from Athens to Attu to Augusta, Montana. I’ve slept in my car, on the floor, in airports, in a tent at base camp in Denali and some fancy hotels. I feel privileged to have met all those I’ve met and told their stories.
What makes a “Dateline” story different than a typical news story?
What I’m looking for as a producer is good characters, conflict and a larger issue to explore. You can tell any story in 15 seconds. For example: In 2007, a Darby woman shot and killed her husband. She’d spent the previous two years setting up his mistress to take the fall for the murder.
But at “Dateline” we tell the story through the eyes of the people who experienced it. I want the people who lived it. In the story we’re working on down in the Bitterroot, I want to hear what it feels like to be the son of the victim and the son of the killer. I want to hear the thought processes of the EMTs, cops and prosecutors. I want to know what was going on in the house before the trigger was pulled. And, in an hour or two-hour program, we have the time to let the story unfold in a compelling way.
How willing are people to talk to you about a tragedy?
As a journalist, my job is to get people to trust and talk to me. I’m a big believer in acknowledging people and validating their pain and their experience, because I think there’s value in it. People do feel better if they talk about things.
I generally FedEx victims’ families a letter, and I offer to meet with them. I’m going to come to their living room and talk to them about it. I think the key is empathy and listening. Nobody can understand what those people go through, but we really try hard to convey what they are feeling. It’s part journalist, part therapist. It’s a strange job description.
How do the reporters prepare?
I’m working on three to five stories at once, and Keith Morrison’s working on 15 or 20. For each story, I book the characters and do all the research. I write all the questions for the reporter and give them a bunch of the background three or four days ahead of time. Correspondents like Keith can download information quickly. He likes to have a conversation with people. Our interviews last one to three hours.
What is it like to work with “Dateline” correspondents?
Keith is from Saskatchewan, so we call ourselves “Sons of the Prairie.” He’s genuinely one of the kindest human beings and best writers on earth (in addition to being a cultural phenomenon and genuine rock star). I also work a lot with Josh Mankiewicz, who I’ve known for 30 years and is another mensch. One of the highlights of my career was producing for Tom Brokaw, and we talked hay prices and Montana politics. I loved that.
What does a typical day on deadline look like for you?
Most of the time I’m working from home (Oregon) chasing stories, preparing for work in the field or writing scripts. But we also edit stories for weeks at a time, so if a report is close to air, I’m very likely in an edit room at 30 Rock in New York.
How do you come up with story ideas?
We have a story editor who has a team and they scour newspapers everywhere. When I’m home, I read or scan about 40 papers a day. I try to find my own stories, so I tend to do a lot of stories in Montana, Idaho and Washington, the overlooked corners of rural America.
Everywhere I go, people say, “Things like this never happen here.” And it’s just not true. Crime happens everywhere, because problems with love or money are universal.
What’s your favorite story from Montana?
Keith and I did a story on Barry Beach in about 2008. He was a young man from Poplar doing life without parole for the 1984 murder of the class valedictorian. A group called Centurion Ministries got in touch with me and said, “You’re from Montana, and this is a case you should look at.”
Nothing about the conviction smelled right. Beach had traveled to Louisiana to visit a family member. At the time, there were some murders in Baton Rouge, and Beach found himself in custody in a truancy case with his sister. Within a couple of hours, he had confessed to two murders at Baton Rouge and one in Montana.
The problem? Beach wasn’t even in Baton Rouge when the murders were committed. But because he’d also confessed to the valedictorian’s murder in Poplar, authorities in Louisiana sent him back home to face murder charges in Roosevelt County. None of the physical evidence at the scene matched him, but he was convicted. After our report on his case and through a lot of work by Centurion, Beach was granted a new trial and released. Then the Montana Supreme Court reversed that decision and put him back in the state prison for two years. There were loud calls for the governor to grant him clemency, but first the legislature had to change the law to give the governor that power. The new law was passed, the governor gave Beach clemency, and he’s been out since 2017.
Through my work with Innocence Projects nationwide and Centurion Ministries, I’ve played at least some role in the release of six wrongly convicted men and women.
What role does journalism play in cases like these?
Real journalism matters. The truth is the truth, and you need people asking questions to get at the truth. We don’t slant things, we don’t care what your politics are. We want you to tell your story.I’ve been at NBC so long, seen so many historic events and been a part of covering so many things, and I’ve never seen anybody there do anything other than try to tell the truth, hold the standards high and treat people with compassion. I’m really proud of that.
Looking back from a career as a “Dateline” producer, what would tell yourself as a student in the J-School?
A friend of mine, Charles Conrad, had already made his way to New York when I was in college. He told me, “Don’t think anybody’s smarter than you just because they are from New York.” It was a message I needed. You can come from a town like Conrad and play in the big leagues. I think that’s the most important thing for kids in Montana to hear – that you can do anything you want. Be kind, be humble, but never sell yourself short.