CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell on Bezos, Brady, and a woman in the White House
There was Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, and now there is Norah O’Donnell who on July 15 will become the third woman to solo anchor a network evening newscast.
She will make her debut as the anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” taking over a franchise that has been stuck in third place, behind ABC and NBC.
O’Donnell, most recently a cohost of “CBS This Morning,” is making her mark, in part, by moving the evening newscast from its home in New York to Washington this fall. She also wants to reassert “CBS Evening News” as America’s most trusted source of news.
“I firmly believe that Americans are hungry for and craving a trusted source of news,” she said in a phone interview.
O’Donnell, 45, who is known for her political coverage and scoops, spoke with me recently about everything from her first show to whether a woman can be elected president to throwing a football with Tom Brady.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q. In this age of fake news, how do you become a more trusted source of news?
O’Donnell: It’s already in the tradition of CBS. We have the finest reporters and correspondents. So the issue of false news is not one that presents itself at CBS News. But I sympathize with our audience because I am also a consumer of the news. There are so many pieces of information that are flying at us during the day — headlines and our alerts on our phones.
We can add context, depth, clarity, analysis on the evening news. Our viewers want to know that we spent our day looking at the headlines and what happened, and then explaining why it happened.
Q. You’re planning to air an interview with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy, who were together recently in Boston at the John F. Kennedy library for a space summit. Why did you want them on your first show?
O’Donnell: It just so happens it’s the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. It really was one of the finest if not the finest moment in CBS News special event coverage. With 46 hours of wall-to-wall coverage anchored by Walter Cronkite, the Apollo 11 landing was watched by 500 million people worldwide.
For that brief time of watching the two astronauts walk on the moon, America was one and united. So we geared up for coverage to mark this occasion and will broadcast live from the Kennedy Space Center. One of those stories I wanted to do was to tie together the past and future. It was President Kennedy who first famously proposed that America should put a man on the moon.
It’s the most extraordinary interview. Here’s Caroline Kennedy, who was 11 years old when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. Jeff Bezos was five years old, and he told us in this interview that he remembers watching it with his grandparents and that it was a symbol of achieving the impossible. What I didn’t realize is that the Apollo 11 landing sparked this lifelong obsession by Jeff Bezos in space exploration.
We think of Jeff Bezos as Mr. Amazon, and it turns out his real passion is about space. Bezos talked about how in the future someday, all heavy industry will be on the moon, and that Earth will be residential, because we have to save the planet Earth.
Q. You’ve covered the last six presidential elections and have called the 2020 race “the most consequential presidential election of our lifetime.” Why?
O’Donnell: There’s a reason there are two dozen Democrats running. It’s because not only is there a desire to defeat President Trump, but there’s also a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic party. And that’s what we witnessed in that first debate. That’s the political context.
The other larger context is that democracy is under attack and civility is under attack, and the truth is under attack. This is well documented that the Russian government tried to influence and sway the 2016 election. That’s not my opinion. That’s the judgment of our intelligence agency, and a top intelligence official recently told me that the biggest concern they have about the 2020 election is that now a country like China and Iran may also be trying to do similar misinformation and disinformation of campaigns.
Q. You are the mother of two daughters, and you’ve said, “I believe that the 21st century is going to be the century of women.” Will there be a woman in the White House?
O’Donnell: It’s been a very empowering moment for women right now. It’s quite possible that we will have our first female president if not in 2020, then in the subsequent election. Look, it’s very significant that six women are running for president. We’ve never seen that before.
Q. You are only the third woman to solo anchor the evening news at a major network. What does that mean to you?
O’Donnell: I’m honored, and I stand on the shoulders of the women before me who have done this job. I’ve been chosen for this role because of my background in covering the Congress, White House, and the Pentagon. I’m looking forward to leading this legacy broadcast at CBS. I’m humbled by the responsibility, I really am.
Q. In the post #MeToo era, CBS has gone through leadership changes with the firings of morning cohost Charlie Rose, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager, and CEO Les Moonves. Has the culture at CBS changed?
O’Donnell: It’s a new era. CBS News president Susan Zirinsky is the most transformative, inspiring leader I’ve ever worked for. She came to this role with the credentials of being here at CBS for 45 years. She’s done it all. She knows everybody here, and she’s instituted a culture of inclusion, compassion, and care. Honestly, it’s the best time I’ve ever had in my career to work with somebody like Susan Zirinsky. We’ve turned the corner, and I’m really excited about that.
Q. I couldn’t resist throwing in a question about Gayle King, who remains a cohost on the morning show. You’ve called her “your work BFF.” Still true?
O’Donnell: She is. I still see her in the morning, still texting with her. There is no better friend to have in the world than Gayle. She says that if she had not been a journalist, she would have been a psychologist. Gayle will listen to your problems.
Q. Is there anyone you want to interview but have not?
O’Donnell: At the top of my list is to interview Kim Jong Un.
Q. Have you put in the request?
O’Donnell: Yes, we are working through different channels, but really the hardest interview I’ve ever done is probably with Tom Brady. I’m a Patriots fan. We talked about his TB12 method, and then he asked me to throw a football. Luckily, I didn’t embarrass myself too badly, but probably the most nervous I have ever been in an interview was having to throw a football alongside the greatest of all time.