CBS’ Norah O’Donnell on Parkland, ‘painful’ Charlie Rose accusations

It’s breakfast time, and as usual, Norah O’Donnell is up, bright and early, talking about the pressing issues of the day and how they impact us as a people.

What is unusual is that O’Donnell’s having breakfast at a restaurant without cameras or TV-ready makeup, and not on the “CBS This Morning” set in New York, where five days a week she helps viewers wake up to what’s happening in their world.

“I get in at 5 a.m.,” says O’Donnell, over eggs and coffee at Harry and the Natives, an eclectic Hobe Sound eatery.

The veteran journalist, who cut her teeth covering politics, joined the network in 2011 as its chief White House correspondent and has reported for CBS Evening News, Face The Nation and 60 Minutes. Is it weird to be out in the world at a time when she’s usually at work?

“Kind of!” she says, laughing.

While Florida’s constant status as “a battleground state has meant I’ve taken frequent trips to the Sunshine State” for business, this particular trip was for pleasure. “I was here for an event last year and said to my husband, ‘Let’s try to get here every (winter),’” she says, marveling in the pleasure Floridians take for granted of eating outside when the rest of the world is in parkas.

O’Donnell took a break from her vacation to chat about the importance of the student activism happening nearby in Parkland, which ground-breaking journalist inspired her to go into the business, and the #MeToo movement, which got personal for her when friend and former co-anchor Charlie Rose was accused of ongoing sexual harassment last year.

Question: So you grew up all over the world because your father was in the military, but where did you spend most of your upbringing?

Answer: San Antonio, Texas. My dad served for 30 years. One of my first jobs was with NBC News, and I noticed you get a lot of Army brats in reporting, because they’re fascinated with the world. Also they’re able to talk to anybody, from the President of the United States to someone in Las Vegas with a bullet lodged in their spine.

Q: What does that experience teach you that translates to being a good reporter?

A: Empathy, certainly, and an understanding of different walks of life. My background is in political reporting, at the White House and the Pentagon, but I learned you need a different set of skills when I was on the set with Gayle and Charlie. (Early on), Serena Williams came on, and she had just won the U.S. Open, and I was gobsmacked at how awesome she was. I didn’t know what to ask her. I came up with ‘What does it mean to be a role model?” There was a producer in my ear, who said “That’s a dumb question!’”

Q: Ouch.

A: (Laughing) There’s a learning curve to that kind of interview. I was skilled in the art of the tough question, not conversation. Our show is about real conversation, because it’s not just you asking the questions (but) the other co-hosts as well. It’s bound to be a different kind of discussion. We have such great chemistry.

Q: I read that you knew you wanted to be a reporter since you were a kid. How old were you?

A: I was 10. We lived in Yongsan Garrison in South Korea. My dad was stationed there at the military base, so what happened in the world mattered to me because it affected my family. I saw Barbara Walters on TV, and I identified with her. We naturally identify with people who look like us, so I felt that way with her, and any woman on television. She had such power and influence and stature, so I aspired to be a journalist. She was a role model. For people to see diversity is important.

Q: Have you given any thought to being a role model yourself?

A: I have! I take journalism seriously. It’s the life blood of democracy, as is an informed electorate. We’re trying to provide a service. Good journalism is a service…(I want) young journalists to know that it’s not about our opinions. In order to do our job well, it has to be built on trust and respect. I interviewed Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot, and who is a Republican, and I interviewed Vice President Joe Biden, who is a Democrat. I’m proud of the fact that both Democrats and Republicans trust me to tell their stories. That’s about integrity. I try to practice that as a journalist.

Q: What else do you want young journalists to know?

A: That the quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships. I don’t like email interviews if I can help it. You have to be able to pick up the phone and talk to people. When I interviewed Vice President Biden (in the interview where he revealed that he was not running for the presidency in 2016), I had been working on that for years. I knew I had integrity and he trusted me.

Q: I’ve noticed that unlike a lot of anchors, you actually get out still and report on stories. Is that an integral part of your job?

A: They’ve sent me out into the field, to Newtown, Connecticut (site of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings) and to the Las Vegas shootings. You can’t be a reporter sitting inside Studio 57. I went to South Korea, the most dangerous place in the world right now, to talk to new president Moon Jae-in (becoming the first American journalist to do so.) Korea is the most important story right now. It will define President Trump’s presidency.

Q: What do you think are the other big, defining moments happening right now?

A: What’s happening at Marjory Stoneman Douglas after the shooting. When it happened, Gayle said to me ‘This feels different that the other ones” and I said “That sounds right.” The worst thing that can happen in a democracy is cynicism, so it’s the most inspiring thing to see these Florida students, who think that their voices matter. They do matter. Anyone worried about the future of this country needs to look at these students. It’s amazing that they’re addressing leaders on Capital Hill, sustaining attacks on their credibility on social media.

Q: Obviously, the #MeToo movement, encouraging women to talk about sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, is also an overwhelmingly important issue, something that’s hit close to home for you.

A: The whole Charlie thing was incredibly painful, to learn that about a colleague. and to hear the women who believe they were abused by him. But I thought ‘This is wrong. Simple as that. And it has to end.” Just the month before I was at the United States Air Force Academy talking to former cadets who were violently abused, but weren’t taken seriously. These are the strongest women ever, the next fighter pilots, and they were sobbing about what had happened to them. One of the most horrible things about this abuse is how soul-crushing it is. Women cannot achieve full equality in the workplace until this is dealt with.

Q: There have been women who have said that they left their careers, like some of the comedy writers who were harassed by Louis C.K., because they couldn’t deal with the aftermath of what happened to them.

A: It happened with the cadets, and it’s happened (at CBS), where people left their workplace because of harassment. There are women who left the noble field of journalism because of the way they were treated by Charlie. It’s really difficult for me to fathom. These were smart, passionate women leaving newsrooms, and also hospitals and schools, because of this. There’s no place in the business for it.

Q: So we have to talk about it.

A: Abuse is fostered by silence. Journalists have ended that silence. It’s out in the open. Executives are on notice about their behavior.

Q: So what else can be done?

A: We need women at the top of Fortune 500 companies, in politics, in newsrooms, and in making the laws. 2018 is going to be the year of the woman. There are more than 500 women running for office this year, more than double the number in 2016. That’s how democracy works.

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