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On the Justice Beat

IUP alumna and CBS News correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis covers the Department of Justice in Washington. Her voice is regularly heard around the world; her face is seen by television viewers and web watchers. She has interviewed the famous and infamous and was in a Virginia courtroom last spring to hear in person the response of Zacarias Moussaoui to the verdict in his trial. (“You’ll never get my blood, God curse you all,” he said, according to her report.)

Stephanie Lambidakis

Lambidakis moves in the rarefied world of TV and radio news, a world in which Bob Schieffer and Katie Couric are her colleagues. (In truth, she and Couric are colleagues for the second time, having worked together at CNN more than two decades ago.)

Her job must be glamorous, one thinks, and she must have a big office. That would be wrong. Although her office at the Justice Department isn’t small, she must share it with counterparts from Fox News, ABC, and Reuters. It’s a cozy arrangement—a little too cozy when everyone in the room is sniffing at the same story.

Lambidakis

Near her desk, Lambidakis has a tiny recording booth with a microphone. She not only uses this soundproof area to record radio reports and voiceovers but sometimes repairs there to talk privately on the telephone. In a corner near the door are boxes she has filled with her files from the Moussaoui trial. (All twelve hundred exhibits admitted into evidence, she said, are available on the website of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia.)

“The public was well served in seeing the evidence that had been accumulated for the trial,” she said. “The testimony exposed the fact that the FBI knew much more about al-Qaeda’s desire to use airplanes as weapons. It revealed in shocking detail how, after the attacks, agents bitterly accused superiors of gross negligence.

Stuffed with people, papers, and technology, the office nonetheless possesses one immutable characteristic: security. Tucked away in the Robert F. Kennedy Building, the room and its occupants are enfolded in an elaborate system that also guards the office of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales four floors above. The Office of Public Affairs is next door. The building itself, completed in 1935, is elegantly accented with Art Deco and Greek ornamentation. On Robert Kennedy’s birthday in 2001, it was dedicated by President George Bush in memory of the sixty-fourth attorney general.

Lambidakis likes the other beat reporters in the office. Good thing, since most of her working hours are spent shoulder to shoulder with them, awaiting official briefings, digging for information, and checking sources. Terrorism is a top priority, and her beat covers an A-Z list of law enforcement, including the FBI, ATF, DEA, and the agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella.

Her own official headquarters is less than two miles to the northwest, in a rather more modest brick building that houses the CBS News Washington Bureau. It is from here that Face the Nation is broadcast each Sunday. (The pillars on the studio set look like sandstone but feel like papier-mâché.).

Stephanie Lambidakis

In reality, Lambidakis carries her office with her wherever she goes, in the form of a wireless BlackBerry that facilitates e-mail anytime, anywhere. With the device, no ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals can fail to find her. (“I have to be careful not to look at the BlackBerry while I’m driving,” she said.)

Lambidakis grew up in suburban Maryland, not far from where she lives today with her attorney husband and seven-year-old daughter. “I didn’t want to stay home and go to college,” she said. “I had a traditional Greek father. I wanted independence. My then-boyfriend chose IUP, and I started a year after he did. As it turned out, it was a great choice. I loved IUP.”

Lambidakis majored in Political Science, although she remembers with the most clarity history classes with Irwin Marcus. She worked in the WIUP radio and television stations and always had summer jobs back home—first as a legal secretary (“I had good typing skills”) and later with WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington, where she did an internship and worked for two summers.

A few months after her 1981 graduation, Lambidakis started at CNN. “It was when the network was brand new and had about 20,000 or so viewers, most of them in South Dakota or so it seemed,” she said. “Ted Turner was still cobbling together something called Cable TV with little stations around the country. I was hired to fill in during the holidays for a few weeks by Jeremy Levin (the bureau chief, who a few years later was taken hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon). Then, in January, an Air Florida jet crashed into the nearly frozen Potomac, and suddenly I had full employment.

“In those days, we were just a bunch of kids. In fact the big bad networks called us the ‘children’s news network’ and ‘chicken noodle news.’ They laughed at us, wouldn’t share tape, and said we’d never last.”

After CNN, she wrote Good Morning America segments for ABC News for a year. Then, in 1986, she landed at CBS as a part-time writer for the overnight show, America Tonight, with Charlie Rose.

“That show was way ahead of its time in terms of going on the air at that hour,” she said, “and doing the kind of creative stories and interviews that others would later copy.”

After writing for Dan Rather, she filled several editors’ positions at bureau headquarters and in 1994 went to Justice. “I was sent there in a cold, dreary February, because the correspondent, Rita Braver, had become the White House correspondent. I remember feeling really lost, walking around the cavernous building, wondering how you find ‘sources’ and how you find the news.

“About a week later, the biggest spy scandal in American history broke with the arrest of CIA agent Aldrich Ames, so again I was off and running, trying to figure things out on the fly as the new kid on the block.” On the basis of coverage of the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, she won an Emmy as part of a CBS Evening News team.

“Justice,” she said, “has always been a hard beat. But, it’s harder than ever in this environment.” A penchant for secrecy on the part of the Bush administration has been exacerbated by precautions in effect since the midmorning of September 11, 2001. “Really, the whole first year, we thought there would be another attack,” Lambidakis said.

On that late-summer day, she had been driving in from home, her car radio tuned to WTOP, Washington’s all-news station and a CBS affiliate. She heard something about a commuter plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers.

“I called [CBS News correspondent] Jim Stewart at the Justice Department. He said I needed to get down there as soon as possible. When I finally made it, my building and all the buildings around it were emptying out. Hundreds of people were trying to run and look up at the same time. I ran into my building. But our fabulous bureau chief, Janet Leissner, who always worries about our safety and well-being, ordered me to leave.”

In the months and years that have followed, Lambidakis has covered anthrax attacks; the Shoe Bomber (Richard Reid); John Walker Lindh, known as the American Taliban fighter; and many other terror-related stories. But she has also tracked the West Coast case of steroid abuse against Barry Bonds’s personal trainer; former vice presidential Chief of Staff Lewis Libby’s not-guilty plea in the CIA leak investigation; the arrest of former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow, one of several corporate scandals; and John Hinckley’s bid for greater freedom from the mental hospital that has been his home since he tried to kill President Ronald Reagan.

“It takes a long time to develop sources, especially with the FBI and other law enforcement,” Lambidakis said. “You also have to develop a lot of legal knowledge.  Twelve years later, and I’m still learning. If I have a question, say, about the rights of detainees, I can always call [CBS News legal analyst] Andrew Cohen or Georgetown Law School.”

“It’s difficult,” she said, “to boil down complex issues into thirty seconds of air time.”

When a court ruling or indictment is issued, there may be hundreds of pages to digest and to interpret—on air. “You find yourself reading, writing, and talking at the same time,” Lambidakis said. “But sometimes the driest legal filing will have the most interesting information. A good detail makes the best story.”

While covering stories, Lambidakis often encounters two other IUP alumni in the TV news business: John Bodnar ’83, a CNN cameraman, and John Wallace ’82, who has a similar job with Fox.

Since the advent of cable news a quarter-century ago, Lambidakis said, broadcast journalists have to “work all the time now.” Three years after the birth of her daughter, she herself reassessed priorities. The result was that for the past four years, she has shared a job with another CBS News producer. (She knows of three other job-sharing parents at the bureau; one, in fact, is a father.)

Job sharing means Lambidakis goes to the Justice Department only three days a week. The BlackBerry, however, is always close at hand. Stephanie Lambidakis is never not working for CBS News.