Bernard Shaw on Legendary CNN Career, State of News

Legendary CNN anchor Bernard Shaw talks about his life and work. Shaw will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Association of Black Journalists conference in Las Vegas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Every so often, we like to hear from those who've been there before us - those with experience and knowledge, people who aren't just smart but wise.

Today, a special edition of Wisdom Watch. We talked with Bernard Shaw, who was a tough anchor at CNN for more than 20 years until he retired in 2001. He describes himself as straight-laced and old-fashioned, the kind of journalist who sticks to the facts. He reported on the Jonestown Massacre and on the pro democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. He interviewed Saddam Hussein, and reported from Iraq during the first Gulf War, giving minute-by-minute accounts of the bombing. He moderated presidential, as well as vice presidential debates.

And this week, he is being honored by the National Association of Black Journalists, which is meeting here in Las Vegas. He's receiving the group's lifetime achievement award, and he joins us now in the studio.

Bernard Shaw, it is a pleasure to speak with you.

Mr. BERNARD SHAW (Former Anchor, CNN): I share in your delight. Thank you.

MARTIN: What made you want to be a journalist?

Mr. SHAW: When I was growing up in Chicago on the South Side, I started watching television in 1952. I know that, because that's when we got our first Zenith 12-inch round TV set - black and white. And I used to watch CBS News, and my idol was Edward R. Murrow. And I said to myself, I want to be like that man. That combined with my father's habit of reading four newspapers a day, coupled with the weekly Chicago Defender, the black newspaper, and the Pittsburg Courier, so we had a lot of ink flowing through our apartment.

I learned to read when I was three and a half years old, and I've had the habit. And I used to deliver those papers as a paperboy.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

Mr. SHAW: So that basically is where it started.

MARTIN: You have got to tell the Walter Cronkite story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAW: Well, along with growing up, Cronkite also was an idol of mine. And I went into the Marine Corps, and I was based in Hawaii for two years, on Oahu. And one morning, I was reading the local newspaper there in the morning, and I saw this picture of Walter and his wife, Betsy. And the caption was Walter Cronkite is in the island shooting scenes for 20th Century. He's staying at the Reef Hotel on Waikiki. Oh, that was all I needed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAW: So I called the hotel 34 times…

MARTIN: You remember that you called 34 times.

Mr. SHAW: Yes, 34 times and left 34 messages over two days and got no response. And then one day, I came back from work and there was this message - Walter Cronkite called. Please call him. And I called him right away, and we set up a time. He said, I can see you for 15 minutes in the lobby at the hotel when I come back from another island.

So I put on my nicely pressed Marine Corps tropical uniform and went down there and waited. One hour passed, two hours passed. And then I hear this voice - gee, sergeant. I hope I haven't been keeping you waiting. Well, he had promoted me from corporal to sergeant on the spot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAW: I turned around and there he was, with his wife. He said, well, come on upstairs. And Betsy looked at him, as if to say, don't even try it. So they had to go to a formal that night, so she wanted to go upstairs. And we sat in the lobby. Fifteen minutes lasted, and then it was 20 minutes, then it was 40 minutes. And I said, Mr. Cronkite, I've taken up enough of your time. This has been my banquet. You're going to one tonight, and I thank you very much. And it was a very uplifting and a very inspiring conversation.

MARTIN: And as I'm thinking about it now, I don't think there were any African-American correspondents at the major nets at that time.

Mr. SHAW: No, absolutely none.

MARTIN: What do you think gave you the idea that you could do it despite that? Not that you could do the work, but that you'd get in the door?

Mr. SHAW: There was nothing that made me think that I could not or would not. My attitude was, this is what I want to do. I can make a contribution to this craft, and I wasn't thinking color.

MARTIN: You talked about, though - I remember reading a piece by you or describing your - from you somehow in "Missing Pages." It's a collection of memoirs of black journalists by the late Wallace Terry. And, you know, it's so wonderful, and I learned some things about you. I've known you for years, and I learned a lot of things about you, one that you covered the late Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mr. SHAW: Yes, his open housing campaign. In fact, that was my first salaried job. I worked at a radio station, WYNR. And after I went on board - I was just pulling wire copy in the newsroom and helping getting newscasts set up. And Dr. King came to town, and they said we are going to assign you to cover this man. They paid me $50 a week. And I lived and breathed that story, so much so that King and I became very close. He used to call me doctor - that Southern honorific.

And I would cover him night and day. And I got to know him very well. And the one memorable thing he said to me was, one day you're going to make it. Just do some good. Just do some good.

MARTIN: You know, you've always been a cool cucumber, Bernie, and I wonder if your cool was ever tested. I'm thinking, gosh, starting so early in your career, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, that must have been awful.

Mr. SHAW: It was the worst day on this earth for me. I was on the air. I was anchoring, and I had just closed down, and I was doing a weather segment. And the door opened. And one of the staff members, Bill Berg(ph), walked in. His hand was trembling and he put this yellow piece of wire copy. And it was a UPI flash, not a bulletin, a flash - Dr. Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis.

And I went from weather to reading that historic bulletin. And within two minutes, the door opens again. Another hand lays a piece of paper - flash - Dr. King is dead. And I got shivers like I'm getting now, and my voice started trembling. And I got this rocket of a phone call - get to Memphis right away.

I had no clothes. I couldn't go home. I went from downtown North Michigan Avenue, right out to O'Hare field, and I and other people in the media had the same idea. We got on this plane and this Delta flight was so crowded, reporters were sitting in the aisles.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

Mr. SHAW: And when I arrived, I had to pay a cab driver $100 to take me in to city hall. That was the first police station headquarters, city hall. I went upstairs and I started walking down this long corridor. It was late at night -it was around midnight then - and every 10 feet there was a fluorescent lighting fixture on, so you went from light to shadow, light to shadow as you went down.

And I walked past this door, and I heard muffled voices. And I looked in, and there, standing in the room, trembling, hugging one another was Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. They were in a huddle, trembling, crying. And I looked at them. My instinct was to step into the room, and I just stepped back.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. SHAW: Out of respect for their grieving moment.

MARTIN: Well, it's interesting, Bernie, because, you know, I've known you for years. I've never heard you talked about those times. And, you know, some people who covered the civil rights movement, you know, talked about it all the time. It's…

Mr. SHAW: Well…

MARTIN: Is it you just don't…

Mr. SHAW: Well, I try to be as dispassionate as possible, so I can have a clear head to do my job. The one time I lost it and it was just viscerally angry was in Memphis. Mrs. Coretta Scott King designated two reporters to fly on the plane - Bobby Kennedy's campaign plane - to Memphis to get Dr. King's body and fly him home to Atlanta.

And Mrs. King said, Shaw from Westinghouse and Johnson from the New York Times. By this time, rioting had broke out across the country, and my news director in Chicago told headquarters in New York we need him back right away. And they said, Shaw, do not get on the plane to Atlanta. We want you back in Chicago as soon as possible.

Well, I had to cover the departure before I left for Chicago under orders. And I stood on the tarmac next to this white hearse. And inside was this bronze coffin. And inside the coffin, Dr. King's body. And I just started crying uncontrollably, because they put this coffin on this conveyor belt.

The coffin went up into the belly of the plane. It taxied away and took off. I walked into the terminal and got on the plane and went to Chicago.

MARTIN: You must have been furious.

Mr. SHAW: I was so angry. I was crying and I was trembling. I was just so angry. And I regret it, completely losing it emotionally.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. SHAW: Because I'm supposed to be a composed storyteller. And my vision, my perceptions, my abilities are clouded when I become throttled by emotion.

MARTIN: I remember another time - you were foreign correspondent in Nicaragua, and that you had just left because you were filing from - you'd gone to another filing point.

Mr. SHAW: Oh my, yes.

MARTIN: And your colleague…

Mr. SHAW: Bill Stewart.

MARTIN: …Bill Stewart, had gone in to replace you.

Mr. SHAW: That was during the time…

MARTIN: And was murdered.

Mr. SHAW: …of the Panama Canal Treaty debate in the U.S. Senate. I had to go into Panama to do this exclusive interview. And the night before, the Sandinista guerrillas were, inch-by-inch, getting closer to the capital, Managua. I said, you folks know that I'm leaving tomorrow morning. The New York Times are posted here in town, and they said, okay, go to Panama tomorrow and we'll send somebody down.

Two days later, Bill Stewart stepped off the plane to cover for me. And Bill Stewart was a veteran correspondent. And he had been filming in the city. And he walked pass this checkpoint, and this soldier ordered him to the ground and he kept saying, (Spanish spoken), I'm a journalist, and he showed his press credentials.

He lay prone on the ground. The soldier walked up, lowered his M-16 rifle and fired one round in the back of the head. What he did not know was that our cameraman, Jack Clark, was in a Volkswagen van about 50 yards away. And all of this is on tape.

And then ABC News announced to the world that we had evidence. And we put that on the satellite for any TV station anywhere in the States or around the world that wanted it, free of charge. And that truly was the beginning of the end of Anastasio Somoza's regime.

MARTIN: Did you feel guilty that Stewart had come in to replace you?

Mr. SHAW: To this day, to this day, I still wish that I hadn't gone down to Panama. If I hadn't gone to Panama, Bill would still be alive today. Can't bring him back, but I wish that I hadn't gone to Panama.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Bernard Shaw, principal anchor for CNN for more than 20 years. Bernie, I think that it's funny a lot people probably don't know that you speak Spanish, you were a foreign correspondent, Latin American bureau chief, but they do remember your work covering politics. And I think they especially remember this question that you asked during the 1988 presidential debate.

Mr. SHAW: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

Governor MICHAEL DUKAKIS (1988 Presidential Candidate): No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state. And it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America, why we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state in America.

MARTIN: Bernie, it was one of the first questions you asked in the debate, and I think a lot of people see it as one of the reasons that Dukakis lost the election. I mean, he'd had - he was sitting on a lead. He had the - his opponent George Bush, Bush 41, had substantial negatives. The history was against him. He was sitting vice president. People that go, you know, he shouldn't the won.

And there's something about that question that just was one of the things that turned the tide. I'm just wondering, first of all, do you buy that that's one of the reasons Dukakis lost? And second, what made you, what made you asked that?

Mr. SHAW: I asked that question because it was relevant to one of the prime issues in that campaign - capital punishment. The Republicans routinely tried to paint Governor Dukakis as being soft on crime.

They tried to portray him as being a cold-hearted technocrat. So I wanted to ask a question that I hope would pierce the politician's armor. So I asked the governor that question. As to his response at my question costing him the election, I leave that to other interpreters.

MARTIN: Do you think, you know, you said earlier in our conversation that you are a journalist first. You said as to - do you think…

Mr. SHAW: Oh, yes. I've caught a lot of hell from some black journalists.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. I want to talk to you about that.

Mr. SHAW: Yeah. What I said was I am a journalist who happens to be black. And some people did not like that. I am a black man. I am an African-American. I love it. I'm very comfortable with my skin. I have allegiance to my people and their survival and their success. I have allegiance to my - pardon me for pounding on the table - I have allegiance to the profession of journalism. They're not contradictions.

MARTIN: When you look back on your career, what's the one achievement you're most proud of?

Mr. SHAW: That's a difficult question to answer. It's none on the stories -save for one. It's none of the stories I covered over four decades. Being an inspiration to anyone in the world who wants to become a journalist because I had my examples - Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite.

The most important story I ever covered was the 1985 Summit in Geneva between Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Wilson Reagan, because these two powerful leaders sitting on arsenals that are almost incomprehensible than their mega tonnage, sat down and agreed to start down the path of reducing nuclear arms. And I think that was the most important story I ever covered.

MARTIN: You know, your former network, CNN, from which you retired, where you served for 20 years as a principal anchor, retired in 2001, to a lot of people's great regret. But now, some of the more popular programs at your network, Lou Dobbs, which is very opinion-oriented, to the point where some people wonder whether that's really what's taking over the business. And I just wonder what you take about that.

Mr. SHAW: Well, here I go working the plank of controversy - the tack that my favorite network has taken raises my blood pressure. I don't like it. Lou and I were both fellow Marines and we're friends. I don't like it at all. As a journalist, you, the listener, you, the reader or the viewer, need not be concerned about Bernard Shaw's personal opinions.

My personal opinions ought not mean a damn if I'm doing my job correctly. Consumers of news are not being served well or properly - one of the reasons why I'm so glad to be gone. I don't miss it.

MARTIN: You don't?

Mr. SHAW: None whatsoever. I just came from a golf course to your studio to do this interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAW: And I love being with my wifely friend of 33 years, Linda. I love being with our daughter, Anil, and our son, Amar.

MARTIN: Well, that's good then. No regrets?

Mr. SHAW: None, whatsoever. Just that I can't live a second life.

MARTIN: Mr. Shaw, it's been a pleasure.

Mr. SHAW: Mine, too. Thank you very, very much.

MARTIN: Bernard Shaw was a principal anchor for CNN for more than 20 years. He joined us here in the studio, and he will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists this weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. We're in Las Vegas at the National Association of Black Journalists convention. We're broadcasting from member station KNPR. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. We'll be here in Las Vegas.

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