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Working in a War Zone With Bob Simon, the Humble CBS Newsman

Robin Marchant / Getty Images

Much has been made of the “irony” of Bob Simon’s death, the fact that his incredible life and career came to an end as a result of a car crash in Manhattan on Wednesday, rather than a hail of bullets in a war zone. Bob had seen his share of gunfire, and faced some of the most frightening moments a journalist can face, but he understood life was filled with random happenstance.

People who knew him have been recalling a man with “curiosity, generosity, courage, humility and humor,” as Columbia journalism professor Betsy West put it. "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager called him a “reporter’s reporter ... driven by a natural curiosity.” Producer Wayne Nelson thanked Bob “for making the world a better place.”

These are all code for the fact that Bob was not a media commodity. He was a genuine human being who cared about the world.

In the summer of 2003, I had the privilege of working with Bob on one of the stories he came to be known for, the first interview with the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. On the way back from filming in Sadr City, as we drove by an abandoned building on a main road in Baghdad, Bob yelled to the driver to stop. Our van pulled over. Bob emerged from the vehicle, uncharacteristically quiet, and stared for a moment at the building. He turned to me and said this was the Mukhabarat Headquarters, the Iraqi intelligence bureau that doubled as a brutal prison for enemies of the state.

As we explored the empty prison, we came upon a row of open cell doors. Bob said he was pretty sure he'd found the room where he was taken after his team was captured sneaking into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia during the 1991 U.S. invasion. He wanted to sit and meditate there, in the chamber where for weeks he'd been held in solitary confinement. He also found the interrogation room, where we saw a rusty hook hung from the ceiling—a reminder of the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bob was quiet the whole time, sort of in a trance. I mustered the courage to ask whether he wanted us to roll tape, to capture this moment. He did not hesitate with his answer: No. I persisted, suggesting he might want to document this experience, if only for his daughter and future grandchildren. No.

Last week, as the media world wrung its hands over Brian Williams’ apparent hyperbolic war stories from Iraq, I thought back on that quiet experience with Bob. Here was a man who had seen more combat than many professional soldiers, having covered countless battle zones: Vietnam, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, wars in Israel, Lebanon, Grenada, Bosnia, Somalia. But Bob was more comfortable telling jokes than recounting war stories. His dignified humility made him a superior journalist.

Bob approached his stories with genuine curiosity and his story subjects with genuine respect. When we were invited to Turkmenistan in 2004 and granted an exclusive interview with the country’s notorious dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, the leader’s handlers insisted on carting us around the country for a week to show us how “happy” their citizens were with their wonderful leader. Many correspondents would have seen a weeklong dog-and-pony show as beneath their dignity, and would have ditched the story on day one. But Bob knew he had to put up with this bald-faced public relations tour to finally get the interview with the dictator.

They had us meet a farmer who supposedly owned two Mercedes Benzes, all from plowing a small, dusty field. They made us sit down with local leaders, who often glanced nervously at our burly minder before reciting rehearsed accolades about their “revered dear leader.” They had us break bread in the homes of peasants, who served us camel's hump fat and camel milk. We both came down with wicked dysentery, but we also came away with a powerful story about a part of the world journalists rarely trekked.

A couple years ago, when a group of young journalists I was working with went to Uganda to report on its shortage of medical morphine, Bob agreed to collaborate on a piece for "CBS Sunday Morning." It’s not uncommon in network news for busy correspondents to read someone’s script, inject their face into a story, and take credit for it. But Bob insisted that the journalists be front-and-center, shown walking through the villages in Uganda and witnessing the suffering that so many sick people there must endure without painkillers.

One of the young reporters, Emily Jackson, told me, "It was a huge deal having CBS agree to publish our work in the first place, but the fact that Bob Simon was willing to participate in the project and give us credit for the reporting took this honor to the next level.” Bob was honest with the audience that he was just coming in to do a single interview with a human rights expert. The credit, he left to the frontline reporters.

We like to talk about intelligence and courage as key traits for success in journalism. Bob’s life and career prove that none of that matters without humility.

During a reporting trip in South Korea in 2003, a soldier took us to the Demilitarized Zone, along the North Korean border, and brought us into a small blue building called the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room. The soldier showed us the table where negotiators from the North and South would meet, and he recounted how soldiers from the North sometimes snuck in to saw an inch or two off the chairs' legs on the South side, to gain a physical advantage when they sat down for discussions. Our minder warned us not to walk out the northern door, lest we become prisoners of North Korea.

Bob started walking towards the door, and the soldier got visibly agitated. Putting his foot firmly on the ground on the northern side of the room, Bob said, “There. I’ve been to North Korea.” We laughed. He continued: “Now I can say I’ve been somewhere Morley Safer hasn’t been!”

That’s about as boastful as Bob got.

This article has been updated.