Former CNN Anchor Kept Cool, But Paid The Price Of Success
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are going to spend this hour talking with and about mentors. The Wisdom Watch segment has been a feature of this program since we began. We've spoken with people with different careers, backgrounds, ages, and faiths, who've made differences through their lives and work. Today we'll hear from people who made a difference in our lives.
In a few minutes, we'll hear from the Beauty Shop ladies on their mentors, but first we are joined by one of mine; the veteran journalist Bernard Shaw.
A former marine, Mr. Shaw began his reporting career in Chicago. He reported for CBS News and ABC News, from Congress, the White House and Latin America, before moving to CNN as its principal anchor until he retired in March of 2001. He was famous for literally being cool under fire, as when he reported live from Baghdad in January 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.
Now, we've spoken on this program before, but as we wind down we thought it would be here to hear some words of wisdom from him again.
Welcome back, Bernard Shaw. Thank you for joining us once again.
BERNARD SHAW: Thank you.
MARTIN: When you got started in the business, what did you hope for? Did you have a goal for yourself?
SHAW: I wanted to be the best broadcast journalist I could be, and I wanted to emulate my idol - the first of two idols - Edward R. Murrow, and later, Walter Cronkite, who became a good friend for about 50 years.
MARTIN: When you say emulate, what do you mean? What qualities were you looking for?
SHAW: Strive for the writing abilities these men had, the clarity of thought they had, and their ability to communicate what they were seeing, what they were hearing, what they were witnessing, what they were feeling. And each of them had an opportunity to do that, given the wide venue of stories they covered, especially World War II.
MARTIN: You know, speaking of that - of war - you reported live from Baghdad in January, 1991, as we mentioned, when the U.S. and its allies launched Operation Desert Storm. That coverage is credited with putting CNN on the map and changing the way events are covered on live TV.
I'm just going to play a short clip from your coverage. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHAW: Something is happening outside. Peter Arnett, join me here. Let's describe to our viewers what we're seeing. The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky. Peter?
MARTIN: Being cool under fire, just being - keeping it very calm, and very direct - and I just, you know, wondered what gave you the ability to do that?
SHAW: In all the years of preparing to being anchor, one of the things I strove for was to be able to control my emotions in the midst of hell breaking out. And I personally feel that I passed my stringent test for that in Baghdad. The more intense the news story I cover, the cooler I want to be. The more I ratchet down my emotions, even the tone of voice because people are depending on you for accuracy, dispassionate descriptions of what's happening. And it would be a disservice to the consumers of news - be they readers, listeners or viewers - for me to become emotional and to get carried away.
MARTIN: You know, you're kind of the anti-anchor monster. Because you know, the stereotype of like, an anchor head or anchorman, anchor monster, is somebody who's just really - takes up a lot of room - you know that, right?
SHAW: I understand what you're saying, but to me, more important than how I sound or how I look is how I think, how I write, how I communicate - that's journalism. The other is BS. Using my initials in vain.
MARTIN: (Laughing) If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with award-winning journalist and former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw.
Did you ever feel, as an African-American broadcaster, you had any special duty or responsibility to, you know, present yourself in a certain way, or to stand for something in particular?
SHAW: No. What I strove for was perfection, which was impossible to achieve. If I'm covering a story that's of particular interest to African-Americans, I want to be certain that I cover that story as thoroughly as possible, as I would any other story. And being African-American, I would be the critic most critical of me if I failed to do the best job possible with that story.
MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the things I always noticed about you - because I always would run into you on the, take for example on campaigns - you know, I actually spoke with one of your colleagues, Judy Woodruff, as you know...
SHAW: Ah, Judy, yes.
MARTIN: ...With whom you shared the anchor chair for a number of years at CNN. One of the things she told me was, that one of the things that she always appreciated about you was professionalism. It was that there was never any kind of hint of sexism, or trying to, kind of, you know, play rank with her. Or just - she always felt like, the utmost respect from you. And I have to tell you, that you know, when I would run into you, on the - say, on a campaign trail or on assignments, you know, I always felt the same thing. Which is not the case with some of the - I'll just say it - some of the senior men in the business.
What was your sense of like, working with people like me, who were junior to or coming up behind you?
SHAW: I have a responsibility. As a leader in my profession, I have a responsibility. To what? To share. I've been there. I know what it's like. I know what it means to be Jukered (ph) out of a story. I've had stories stolen from me. I remember as ABC's Latin America correspondent and bureau chief, I would average five trips a year into Cuba to cover various stories. And when ABC finally got a one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro, a man I'd covered for two years - who interviewed him? Who got off a charter jet from New York and strode in to interview him? Barbara Walters. So I've been there. And I was determined never to do that to any colleague. Never to be condescending.
MARTIN: But it's not that you were just not condescending, it's also what you were, which is very supportive and encouraging. You would say things to people like, you know what, you're doing a great job. Or you'd say, you know what, that report was really crisp. And things like that. And I just wondered where that came from?
SHAW: I was a history major in school. That comes from the reality that you are in the next echelon. And those of us who are here have a responsibility to share what's been shared with us. I wasn't born doing this. So many hands, helping hands, are on my shoulders; I can't count them. So I have a responsibility to pass it on. Plus, you're a fellow human being, you know. Everybody listening to this interview will be dead in the fullness of time. The question is, what are we going to do while we're here?
MARTIN: Did you have a mentor?
SHAW: Oh, I had many mentors. They go all the way back to elementary school in Chicago. I could read when I was three years old and in my public school, Carter School on the South Side, this school had an accelerated reading program. It was a very tough program. And Mrs. Robinson was the teacher. And of course, those were the days where there was no air-conditioning and this class always started at 2 o'clock, after lunch. I would go home, two and a half blocks from the school, have lunch, come back. And of course, it's 85 degrees outside, it is hot. And being a little boy I go into this class. The windows are open, but there's no air coming through. So what did I do? I nodded off. And I was awakened with a thunderous slap across my head, and those were in the days when teachers could do that.
MARTIN: (Laughing) Yeah.
SHAW: Of course, you know what would happen to them now. And she towered over me and she said, young man, God has given you a gift and you will not waste it in my classroom.
She was a mentor. My mother and father, they were mentors. There were all kinds of mentors. Too numerous to count.
MARTIN: When did you decide it was time to retire? Or, how did you decide it was time to wrap up that phase of your life?
SHAW: Gnawing at me for years were the untold sacrifices that my wife, Linda - we've been married 40 years - and my daughter Anil and my son Amar made. I will never know the sacrifices they made so that I could do what I did. The countless weeks away from them, the missing of so many precious moments in a child's and a wife's lifetime, experiences. And it began to gnaw at us more, more, more. And I decided it was time to walk off the field when I was approaching my 61st birthday.
MARTIN: Are you glad? Is there a story you wanted to get your hands on?
SHAW: Oh, I'm very glad. I'm very glad.
MARTIN: Is there any story going on now you wish you could get your hands on?
SHAW: No. Occasionally the pulse increases when there are major stories going on, but I quickly get over that. You know, I did my time and I served the cause as much as I could. There are occasionally conversations that come up and people at networks will say, you know, you would be good for this.
But the right vehicle just hasn't happened. And if it were to happen, I would return. I would return, but not full time, not full bore.
I remember, CNN, when I left, they did three separate one-hour tribute programs. One of them was Larry King for an hour. But another one was anchored by Judy Woodruff. And Gwen Ifill was there, Sam Donaldson, Frank Sesno, and a couple other journalists. And they played tapes and Sam Donaldson was making the point about the 1988 presidential debate that I moderated, and I interrupted him; I interjected.
I said, Sam, looking back over my career when I think about all the things that I did, but all the things that I missed within my family because I was out doing - I don't think it was worth it.
His jaw dropped, and he just went apoplectic, and, how can you say that? How can you?
I said, honestly I'm telling you that after 41 years in this business, given what I missed, it was not worth it.
MARTIN: So what's your advice then, for the people coming behind you? What is it - to not grab so hard for the brass ring? What would it be? What's your advice?
SHAW: No, no. That's such a personal judgment call. I would urge anyone - pursue your dreams. Don't let anyone tell you what you cannot do. If you think you can, you will. If you think you can't, you won't.
MARTIN: So final thought would be, what? Would be, lean in as far as you want to lean in? Dream? Do what? What would your final thought - putting together everything you know, and everything you...
SHAW: Pursue your dreams, but know that it will cost you. Success will cost you. Physically and mentally it's going to cost you. And I just pray and hope that you survive.
MARTIN: Bernard Shaw is an award-winning journalist, now retired. He was principal anchor at CNN for more than 20 years, and he was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.
Bernard Shaw, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SHAW: Thank you for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.