The Media Today

Norah O’Donnell’s promising start

July 16, 2019

Yesterday, the news cycle threw a test at Norah O’Donnell as she anchored her first broadcast as host of CBS Evening News. President Trump’s racist tweets about four Congresswomen of color remained a top story yesterday: Trump said the Congresswomen hated America and called one of them, Ilhan Omar, an Al Qaeda sympathizer. Later, Omar and her targeted colleagues responded with a press conference; “This is the agenda of white nationalists,” Omar said. Many major news organizations—including CBSavoided calling Trump’s tweets racist, instead leaning on tortured euphemisms such as “racially charged.” Would O’Donnell punt, too?

As she started talking, an on-screen graphic referred to a “racial firestorm.” It did not bode well. Less than 10 seconds later, however, O’Donnell did clearly and directly use the R-word. She then briefly trained attention on the continued silence of senior Republican lawmakers before tossing to Weijia Jiang, a CBS White House correspondent. Jiang said “racist,” too.

ICYMI: Just say ‘racist’

It was a strong start. Next, a report by Major Garrett on Trump’s history of “controversial racial comments” (less strong) touched on the president’s equivocation following the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, in 2017; leading out of that, O’Donnell offered an update in the case of James Fields, Jr., who killed Heather Heyer with his car that day and who was just sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison. The rest followed a similar pattern: O’Donnell passed from the issues commanding the nation’s attention—the ICE raids, Jeffrey Epstein, blackouts in New York—to important stories lower in the news cycle’s churn, including protests in Puerto Rico and the murders of an American scientist in Greece and a civil-rights activist in Louisiana. O’Donnell teased coming interviews with Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy ahead of Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the moon landings, then ran a segment on the forgotten “women of NASA” who were critical to the mission’s success. The space focus was a none-too-subtle nod to Walter Cronkite, the most illustrious of O’Donnell’s Evening News predecessors, who anchored the landings in 1969. O’Donnell quoted another news legend, Edward R. Murrow, at length to close out the broadcast.

There’s more at stake in O’Donnell’s move from CBS This Morning to the evening slot than in a routine network reshuffle. O’Donnell is only the fourth woman ever to solo anchor a nightly newscast, following Katie Couric, also of CBS; Diane Sawyer, of ABC; and Judy Woodruff, of PBS. That’s important for representation, but also for CBS. Since the height of #MeToo in 2017, sexual-abuse scandals prompted the firings of star anchor Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager, and chairman and CEO Les Moonves; cascading allegations against Moonves led to reports of a toxic, misogynistic culture at the network. In recent months, the news division has seen something of a turnaround under the direction of Susan Zirinsky, its new president; O’Donnell has said that she would not have taken the Evening News gig if Zirinsky weren’t in charge.

Both Zirinsky and O’Donnell have stressed the need to restore viewers’ trust with serious reporting. To that end, O’Donnell, a former White House and Congressional correspondent, will move the Evening News from New York to DC in the fall. The early reviews, on the trust front, seem positive. In yesterday’s debut, O’Donnell “didn’t rely on any attention-grabbing tricks to carry the day,” Brian Steinberg writes for Variety. It was “a no-nonsense newscast that was packed with information and left little time for gimmicks.”

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This being television, the thirst for ratings looms large, too. As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote last week, for all O’Donnell’s talk of trust, “Network honchos would probably settle for something less lofty: getting the Tiffany Network, as it once was known, out of the ratings cellar for its evening news broadcasts.” CBS Evening News has long lagged rival shows: currently, it averages 6 million viewers a night, whereas the nightly newscasts on ABC and NBC both boast more than 8 million viewers on average. These are important figures. The network newscasts all perform much better than prime-time news shows on cable.

O’Donnell portrays her show as a counterweight to cable’s ever-louder opinionating. “If you want affirmation, you can turn on a cable channel,” she told the LA Times’s Stephen Battaglio. “If you want information, turn on the CBS Evening News.” In the Trump era, this sort of straight-down-the-middle, view-from-nowhere approach feels tired, rooted in old notions of objectivity that too often are a fig leaf for the obscene. Last night, however, O’Donnell proved there’s room for the word “racist” in her conception of facts-first journalism, and room for stories from across America that some national outlets have overlooked. Already, that sets her apart.

Below, more on Norah O’Donnell and CBS:

  • Looking forward: Earlier this month, O’Donnell previewed her time in the Evening News anchor chair in an interview with The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung. O’Donnell said the hardest interview she’s ever done was with Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback. That might change one day: O’Donnell’s current top interview target is Kim Jong Un.
  • Tumbling down: Variety’s Steinberg writes that Zirinsky and O’Donnell plan to revamp the Evening News for the digital era: it will appear each weekday evening on CBSN, the network’s news-streaming hub, and important stories will be distributed via social media. “Quite frankly, the walls of Jericho are coming down when it comes to digital,” Zirinsky says.
  • Watch this space: Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off in Apollo 11. This morning, CBS News will replay Cronkite’s coverage of the launch in real time. Tonight, O’Donnell, like Cronkite before her, will anchor live from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. O’Donnell is also hosting “Man on the Moon,” a CBS News special that will air at 10pm Eastern.

Other notable stories:

  • Last month, Twitter announced a bold new policy: when tweets by prominent public figures breach its abuse rules, they’ll be left up (in the public interest, Twitter says), but they’ll be down-ranked by the platform’s algorithm and users will have to click past a warning screen to see them. Trump’s racist tweets attacking Omar et al show no such label. Yesterday, Twitter told CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan that the tweets didn’t violate any rules—“a conclusion,” O’Sullivan noted, “apparently contradicted by Twitter’s written policies.”
  • In Puerto Rico, protesters demanded the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, the territory’s governor, following the arrests of high-profile former officials on corruption charges and the leak, on Saturday, of derogatory private chat messages between Rosselló and aides. Later, police used tear gas and pepper spray on demonstrators. Per El Nuevo Día, the leaked messages detailed efforts to manipulate media coverage—including through a “troll network”—and contained offensive remarks about journalists including Benjamin Torres Gotay, of El Nuevo Día, and David Begnaud, of CBS News.
  • Recently, the BBC brokered access for a foreign correspondent inside Iran; in return, the broadcaster agreed not to share its reporting with its Persian-language channel, BBC Persian, Yashar Ali reports for HuffPost. “The agreement represents a capitulation to a government that has been hostile to press freedom,” Ali writes. On that score, Iranian state television has been showing Gando, an over-the-top procedural drama “based on a real case.” In reality, the show seeks to justify the detention of Jason Rezaian, a Post reporter previously imprisoned in Tehran, and smear him as a spy. The AP has more.
  • For CJR, Megan Frye charts the backlash to a Times story about gang territory in Honduras that, critics say, imperiled sources by using too many identifying details. The Times says its subjects consented, but the criticism of the piece speaks to a broader problem: that journalists’ efforts to be credible can lead to risk for the people in their stories.
  • Staffers for Bernie Sanders say too much coverage of their candidate is negative or dismissive, Politico’s Michael Calderone writes. “Even though he’s consistently near the top in the polls, Sanders’ staff thinks pundits write off his chances. And they’re unusually vocal in calling out coverage they dislike on Twitter and on the media channels they’ve created in-house, fueling frustration once again among the senator’s supporters about whether he’s getting a fair shot at the White House.”
  • A scoop for CNN: Marshall Cohen, Kay Guerrero, and Arturo Torres obtained surveillance documents showing that in 2016, Julian Assange turned Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he was then in exile, into a “command center” to influence the US presidential election, and took a number of “suspicious” deliveries, possibly of hacked materials.
  • Also in the UK, Arron Banks, a controversial political donor and self-proclaimed “bad boy of Brexit,” is suing Carole Cadwalladr, the reporter who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, over a TED talk in which Cadwalladr said Banks was offered money by Russia. Yesterday, Cadwalladr countersued for harassment; Banks’s libel case is the culmination of a campaign that has included trolling and threats of violence, her lawyers said.
  • Clayton Morris, a former Fox & Friends host, and his wife and business partner Natali Morris, a former MSNBC anchor, have relocated to Portugal amid allegations that Clayton Morris defrauded investors in Indiana real estate, the Indianapolis Star’s Tony Cook and Tim Evans report. He denies wrongdoing.
  • And the Post’s Gillian Brockell looks back at the paper’s role in “aiding and abetting” a deadly race riot in DC 100 years ago. A Post front page calling for service men to mobilize and “clean-up” has since been dubbed “highly provocative and shamefully irresponsible.”

ICYMI: Explaining a Novel to Pakistani Intelligence

Correction: Norah O’Donnell closed out the CBS Evening News last night with a quote from Edward R. Murrow, not from Walter Cronkite, as previously stated. When Judy Woodruff, of PBS, is included, O’Donnell is the fourth woman to solo anchor a nightly newscast, not the third, as previously stated. The post has been updated.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.