Bill Plante
CBS Correspondent and Reporter (Ret.)

CBS Correspondent Bill Plante Reflects on 52 Years

by Garrett Thomas, Communications Specialist

It’s the voice. Smooth and assured. The words carry with them a sense of calm firmness. It radiates integrity. It’s what you imagine it should be, irrevocably tied to ideals at the foundation of journalism. Through it, ring echos of the Civil Rights Movement with its indefatigable forward progress, the fall of Saigon and the tragedies that preceded it. It’s a voice born out of duty and ethics. At the same time, iconic and everyman. Sharing in our joys but outwardly unphased when called to speak of our chaos and aggression— and yet, just now, audibly strained when memories rise to the surface. The strain does nothing to dampen the effect.

It’s a trustworthy voice.

“You go to a war, and you see what it does to the population. Not just those who are fighting the war, but the people who have to live in it. And it’s heartbreaking. War is not glamorous; it’s really, really, tough stuff.” ... then the pause.

The momentary pause on the other end of my phone, barely noticeable, speaks volumes about what he has witnessed. A slight waver that breaks through the assuring cadence—it’s the sound, or lack of sound, perhaps made when memory connects emotion unexpectedly.

It’s not something I expected to hear from the man on the other end of the line. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, he is a veteran in his field with a career that has woven a path through, undeniably, some of the most noteworthy moments in our history—both tragic and triumphant in equal measure. It’s his voice that has carried history in the making into homes around the nation. To not expect this to have a personal impact is a testament to the iconic voice, crafted throughout his career, for the very purpose of masking that impact.

I am speaking with the reporter who cut his teeth in 1964, covering defining moments during the Civil Rights Movement—even interviewing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Frater Bill Plante, a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, a Teke from the Epsilon-Kappa chapter and a 52-year veteran journalist and correspondent for CBS News—recently retired.

If you don’t recognize the name, you are sure to recognize the voice.

 “The human aspect is what makes news really interesting. It’s what happens to people, even more so than events."

Breaking my reverie, Plante confides, “The human aspect is what makes news really interesting. It’s what happens to people, even more so than events. That’s the heart of it I think.”

I must say I agree.

As we began our conversation, we covered the basics, graduation from Loyola, a law school stint that didn’t suit him, a new career in radio and eventually a position with a Milwaukee television station. Within a few years, he applied for a fellowship offered by CBS that included a year’s sabbatical at Columbia. As CBS was the sponsor of this fellowship, he had regular opportunities to meet with their representatives while studying political science at the university and by 1964, had talked his way into a job at CBS.

“I was pretty green around the edges. Having had three and a half years of local television and not much other to qualify myself,” he chuckles, “so I was very lucky. I skipped the process by which most people in news spend a number of years working for smaller journalism operations.”

Plante had been at CBS exactly two weeks when he received an assignment to Philadelphia, Mississippi—three civil rights workers were missing and presumed dead. In February 1965, while assigned to the South, he interviewed the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma to Montgomery march. The world was changing, civil rights took center stage and Frater Plante told their story.

After a time, Plante received news of a transfer.

“My boss said, ‘Listen Plante, we’re going to send you to Chicago,’ ” shares Plante, a Chicago native, who found this to be encouraging news.

He continues the story with a laugh, saying, “I said oh great. And he said, ‘You’re from somewhere out there, aren’t you?’ I said well, yes sir. And he said ‘well didn’t you work in Milwaukee, Minnesota?’ ”

I can almost see Plante’s grin as he recalls the story. After an amused pause, he continues, “And I said ... Yes sir. He was a true Easterner. He didn’t know anything about the Midwest.”

He would spend the next 11 years based in Chicago, though many of those years he would be overseas on assignment, including four tours in Vietnam of six to eight months each.

“In ’75, when the North Vietnamese were starting their offensive to the south, it was pretty clear that they were going to march all the way to Saigon. I put my hand up and said I want to be there because I’d invested already a lot of time in the country. I liked the country and I liked the people. I wanted to be there at the end,” he explained.

If asked about the most consequential stories of his career, he will without hesitation say “the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement ... I was a participant. I am very happy to have been able to be there.”

The human aspect is what makes news really interesting. It rings true, and we connect to it. Sharing his thoughts on covering the war, on what events made an impact on him, I see why it is that even a veteran reporter such as Plante may take a moment to pause.

Yet he comes back to the people, a trait indicative of traditional journalistic integrity. “I’ve always tried to be tuned in to what the events mean to the people around them.”

As a reporter who spent his life sharing the stories of others, one wonders what toll his own family life paid. He admits that it’s not easy. “I was basically on call any time, any kind of emergency. They wanted a story, you got a call in the middle of the night, and off you went. It isn’t very conducive to family life. And that’s not a joke—it really isn’t.”

His example comes prior to the move to Chicago and while based in New York, in the form of a conversation with his supervisor when asked to begin his first tour in Vietnam.

“[He said] ‘Listen Plante, I’d like you to go to Vietnam.’ I’d been there [CBS] for like three months; this was October. And I said, well I-I’m ge-getting married in January. He looked at me ... without a trace of irony and said, ‘What the f*** would you want to do that for?’ He wasn’t kidding; he was totally serious.”

In between tours in Vietnam, he began covering politics—a topic he loves and once the war ended, one that would become his primary focus for the rest of his career. In a strange turn of events, his stint as a White House correspondent would place him in Washington, D.C., when a Teke moved into the Oval Office. In 1981, Frater Ronald Reagan took office and Frater Bill Plante was there to cover it.

Ever the professional, he admits that their shared bond through TKE never came up. Even so, Plante remained a CBS White House correspondent for the next 35 years, retiring from the role in 2016. According to CBSNews.com, he covered all Reagan activities, including the historic summit meeting in Moscow with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Following Reagan, he became a White House staple, reporting throughout the terms of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and even sitting for a rare interview with Obama in 2015 as he again found himself in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march.

"Yes, you can communicate rapidly and widely, but are you communicating what you think or what you observed or what you know?"

As our nation’s leaders changed, so too have the technology and strategies used to cover it. Plante has been there every step of the way.

“I’ve always been an early adopter; I love technology,” confirmed Plante. “The important thing is to learn how to use the news to its best potential and responsibly.”

Focus on integrity is his advice to new journalists. Also cautioning to be wary of the pitfalls with sharing opinions and not facts because “then your own opinion is what people see and you can’t really be trusted to be objective.”

“Nobody is truly objective, but you gotta be fair,” says Plante. “You want to try to give them all the facts if you can.”

Plante’s not the only one to notice that social media has changed the landscape of journalism, but his in-depth understanding of the field, coupled with a legacy of reporting that spans decades, lends his opinion credence.

According to Plante, many new reporters feel a lot of pressure to be out there on social media letting people know they’re on the story or putting the information out there before anyone else does—a trend he doesn’t oppose but acknowledges as a double-edged sword.

“The mistake that so many people make is to interject their own opinions, particularly a little bit of snark, into a tweet for example, when you are covering a story.”

He clarifies, “Yes, you can communicate rapidly and widely, but are you communicating what you think or what you observed or what you know? If it’s what you think, then your integrity as a reporter is damaged I think.”

As we finish our interview and exchange final words, I am struck by the turn of events that created this opportunity. An “Oh! He’s a Teke?” moment upon seeing his retirement announced in an old article. A few feelers placed on social media, emails to likely TKE alumni, a well-placed phone call to an old friend and suddenly I am speaking with a legend. The fact that this interview happened stands as proof of the lifelong ties created when joining Tau Kappa Epsilon.

And as Bill gives his final thoughts on the virtues of good reporting, on responsibility to others, on integrity, on embracing the future but being cautious of its pitfalls, I find it difficult not to see journalistic integrity as his mission, as I am reminded of the mission of Tau Kappa Epsilon—to aid men in their mental, moral and social development for life.

Bill Plante’s voice, heard by millions around the world, hasn’t just been reporting the facts—it’s been aiding in the development of a nation. He’s shared the stories of those fighting for their fundamental civil rights, found the human story in inhumane events of war and asked hard questions to powerful people because they needed to be asked. That’s a mission we can all support and a legacy of which we can all be proud.

“I would hope that what I did was able to enlighten or explain so that people could understand, clearly.”

Spoken with the voice of a true journalist.