Norah O’Donnell’s ambitious debut

July 23, 2019
CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell. Photo by Michele Crowe/CBS

Last Monday, when Norah O’Donnell, the new anchor of CBS Evening News, signed off from her first broadcast, she quoted Edward R. Murrow, whose journalism for CBS inspired generations of reporters. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire,” O’Donnell relayed to viewers, from Murrow. “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”  

Members of the audience may have wondered: Is CBS Evening News a weapon? Responding to this question later, O’Donnell cites another forerunner—Walter Cronkite, who argued that journalism is necessary to make democracy work. “It’s the First Amendment, it’s not like it’s the Eleventh,” she says. “And I so firmly believe that.”

O’Donnell, who is 45, spent 12 years at NBC News and MSNBC before joining CBS as a White House correspondent, in 2011; for the past seven years she co-hosted CBS This Morning. When she started at CBS Evening News, a friend gave her two first editions—Cronkite’s biography and In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, 1938-1961. “It’s actually sitting right here on my desk,” she says, talking by phone from her office. “I’ve had them, and they’re dog-eared.” 

Heading into her first week in the new job, O’Donnell drew upon the example of Murrow’s World War II radio reporting from Europe. “He brought people there, explaining what was really happening on the ground, first hand,” she says. “That’s what journalists do, right? We get as close to a story as we can, either on location or by talking to the people that are involved in the story. And that’s how we illuminate.”

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On Day One, she described President Trump’s recent tweets—in which he told a group of Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places they came from”—as racist, making her the only anchor (so far) on a major network to state it plain. “Four Democratic congresswomen of color have just spoken publicly for the first time about the racist tweets aimed at them by the president of the United States,” she told viewers.

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“The history of those words is very harmful to people of color, minorities, and others who have experienced bigotry,” O’Donnell says. “It is a historically racist trope. And so, when we were writing the show, we said, ‘They are racist tweets, let’s call them what they are.’” Trump has tried to bat away that characterization, even as white supremacists accept it; O’Donnell recognizes that her audience is comprised of people from across a broad political spectrum. “I don’t offer opinions,” she says. “I ask questions based on facts. And facts exist in this world.”

Later in the week, in full Murrow mode, O’Donnell aired an interview with Kevin McAleenan, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, from America’s largest migrant holding facility, in McAllen, Texas. During the broadcast, McAleenan told O’Donnell that privacy rights of detainees have always taken precedence over press access. “Now, in this crisis scenario, we’ve gotten a new ruling,” he said. “I made the decision to take the risk in bringing cameras in to be transparent about what we’re facing and to show that to the American people, and make sure that our Congress knows what we need to help us address this crisis.”

O’Donnell showed images of 300 unaccompanied children, including infants. Sitting across a chain-link fence from Angelina Estrada, a journalist from Venezuela, and her 2-year-old son Martin, O’Donnell learned that Estrada had fled her home after being threatened by her government. Making their way through a jungle, a 2,000-mile trek, and a border crossing in Reynosa, Mexico, mother and son eventually entered the United States, dodging gunfire. “You traveled alone with your son?” O’Donnell asked. “Sola,” Estrada responded. Alone. Her face and O’Donnell’s crumpled for a moment. “Are you getting warm food?” O’Donnell asked. Yes, and there were diapers for Martin. But the two were sleeping on mats on the floor.

O’Donnell questioned McAleenan about the framework for family asylum and separation, its revisions, and the way different administrations have chosen to interpret the law. “That’s the power of television that Murrow talked about, and why I quoted him on Monday,” she says. “A  television uses pictures to bring clarity to complex policy issues.” From McAllen, O’Donnell told viewers that there was an obvious conclusion: Congress can easily fix the humanitarian crisis on the southern border. “That’s what our reporting can do,” she tells CJR. “Put the onus on the people that we elect to office.”

O’Donnell has said that she would not have accepted the anchor position if Susan Zirinsky—“Z,” as she’s known around the office—were not the new president of CBS News. “Z is the most inspiring and transformative leader I have ever worked for in my career,” O’Donnell says. Zirinsky ascended to her job after three prominent men in leadership posts at CBS—Leslie Moonves, the chief executive, Charlie Rose, the program host, and Jeff Fager, an executive producer of 60 Minutes—were ousted amid allegations of sexual misconduct; their departures created a desperate need for a new direction, one that prioritized better treatment of female employees. “I had no idea that the culture could be transformed so quickly,” O’Donnell says. “It’s upping everyone’s game.”

As she begins a long stretch of 2020 campaign coverage, O’Donnell says that an army of CBS political reporters have been deployed. “In the battleground states, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina,” she says, “they are with the candidates, already keeping logs and notes on every event.” O’Donnell, who majored in philosophy at Georgetown, is aiming to apply a honed sense of skepticism to her show. “I believe in objectivism,” she said. “I think Americans are hungry for and craving an independent fact-based newscast.”

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.