When the National Association of Black Journalists gathers Aug. 8 at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino to kick off its annual convention, former CNN correspondent and anchor Bernard Shaw will be honored with the organization's most prestigious recognition, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
In a career spanning 40 years, Mr. Shaw has been one the most distinguished journalists in broadcasting. He has been an up-close observer of world history, whether delivering live news reports from Baghdad at the onset of the Gulf War, covering the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City or asking Michael Dukakis the toughest question in the 1988 presidential debate. TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke with Mr. Shaw about the NABJ convention, diversity in the media and his career in broadcast journalism.
TelevisionWeek: How do you feel about receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Black Journalists?
Bernard Shaw: I have a very warm feeling of gratification. To me, the NABJ is a Bible among core groups in the black community, so to me, this is trumpeting recognition from the altar. I really feel that way. I genuflect with quiet appreciation.
TVWeek: How helpful do you think NABJ is for journalists these days?
Mr. Shaw: The NABJ is as essential to American journalism as journalists are. And that's not a play upon words. Editors, owners, publishers, network executives, news directors, executive producers -- across the spectrum of journalism, be it broadcast or print, these leaders need to know there's a conscience. They need guidance, which the NABJ does just routinely, getting no recognition for that. They have conversations with newsrooms across America daily about personnel staffing, about the essential importance of diversity.
The NABJ is on the job 365 days a year. They're not just about their annual convention. They are a conscience. They are a journalism conscience in America.
TVWeek: What is the state of diversity in the newsroom today?
Mr. Shaw: Proponents of diversity should never be pleased with the level of staffing, be it African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans ... proponents should never be pleased. There is an ingrained resistance in the minds of people who control to people who are different. That is natural because of the way this country evolved historically.
The battle is never won. We taught our children, our son and daughter, that the battle is never won. Each generation fights the same battle, only it becomes more subtle, more sophisticated, but it's still a war. The battle is to help this great nation achieve the promise, that's all.
Look at the immigration battle right now. We have about 13 million people who have been living in this country for years, raising their children, educating them, and there's actually an argument about whether they should be here. They are here, and they are a vital part of the American fabric.
The battle is never won. There are some people who still believe that people of color are not needed in this country. And yet people of color have been the essence of this country since its beginning. So there's a great education requirement, and all of us are educators and we're going to make this country work.
TVWeek: You have mentored many people in your life, but who, if anyone, was your mentor?
Mr. Shaw: I didn't have anyone who held my hand, but I had inspirational mentors. There are two in particular that stand out. One I never met, but I followed very closely. The other one I met in 1961, and we've been friends ever since.
I should tell you, ever since I was 13 years old, growing up on the south side of Chicago, my only goal and ambition in life was to be a CBS News network correspondent because my idol was Edward R. Murrow. When we got our first little 13-inch Zenith black-and-white television set, I would watch his programs.
And I would watch Walter Cronkite, who was my other idol. I met him when I was in the Marine Corps in 1961 in Hawaii. I met him to discuss what I had to do to become a journalist. We had a 45-minute conversation in a Waikiki Beach hotel and he was very inspirational, and after that meaning, we became fast friends. I worked at CBS for seven years and we're still friends.
Walking inspirations would be Ed Bradley. That's one of the reasons why I tremble at the thought of getting this award, because Ed got this same award two years ago, and Ed and I were friends.
This has a religious feel for me. This is not just another award, in my judgment.
TVWeek: You have been in the middle of some of the most significant events in history -- such as the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Is being in the right place at the right time serendipity or great reporting?
Mr. Shaw: I was fated to be an observer of these events simply because I was there. It's all about timing, and I realized that. My only hope is that I handled them properly, I covered them properly. I think the record shows that I did.
Reporters are not king makers. I was a history major at the University of Illinois in Chicago. I have a very sensitive reverence for history and a respect for facts. Connie Chung once said that if there was a nuclear bomb attack or something cataclysmic, I would report it factually, and she's right. She knows me; we're friends. Connie Chung, Lesley Stahl and I are all from the CBS News class of 1971. We were hired at the same time in the Washington bureau.
Having been present at the creation of historic events does not puff me up at all. I'm an observer. I'm an historian.
TVWeek: Is it true that you were the only reporter who didn't go on the air with the news that James Brady was dead when he and President Reagan were shot in 1981?
Mr. Shaw: ABC and CBS ran obits, but the White House never confirmed that he was dead. If my mother had told me that Jim Brady is dead, I wouldn't have reported it, because my mother was not there at the hospital. The source for that wrong information was coming from Capitol Hill. How did someone on Capitol Hill know what was going on in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital? It was basic journalism.
TVWeek: Does it seem that there's too much jumping-to-conclusions reporting in today's news?
Mr. Shaw: You are so right. That's why I have a tight stomach when I watch the news, especially watching. Reading news is a little more palatable for me, but watching the news, I get a tight stomach. And sometimes I cringe at what I see on the networks. Your observation is so right, and that's why I don't miss what I did for 40 years. My wife, Linda, my daughter and son, they made far too many sacrifices that I will never know about to help me in my career, and I'll go to my grave thankful to them. I could have never done what I did by myself. Never.
TVWeek: What do you think of the recent controversy surrounding MSNBC's Don Imus and NABJ's involvement?
Mr. Shaw: Don Imus was simply aping the garbage already out there. He presumed what he said was acceptable in the land. My reaction is that Don Imus is just one of the many culprits in this. The culprits span from the people who are on the air daily, talk show hosts to the recording industry.
There's a disease of loose mouths in our society, and until we begin to systematically muzzle those loose mouths -- and when I say muzzle, I do not mean severing our freedom of speech protections from the constitution. I don't mean that at all. I mean people who have foul-mouthed use of language to disparage other people must be held accountable. This is not the accepted way in our culture.
The problem is that the media are so pervasive, that the people who receive the media, be it by print, television, radio, the Internet, they start believing this is the norm. This is not the norm. This rear-guard action must always be fought, and Imus is but one of hundreds of culprits. That's where I stand on that.
TVWeek: What do you think of the quality of the news delivered via the Internet, podcasts, blogs and such?
Mr. Shaw: People write anything, and the only rescue from this is common sense. Bloggers can blog into eternity, but news is gathered, written and reported by professionals, and they're called journalists. People have to think and use common sense, and that requires effort. But if you're serious about having a democracy, you do have to work. Democracy is not free. It's not neat, nor is it easy. Look at the responsibility the average citizen in democracy has, from paying taxes to educating their children to voting, all kinds of commitments. We take them for granted, but they require effort.
TVWeek: Your last show on CNN was "Inside Politics"; what's your take on the current batch of candidates for the presidency?
Mr. Shaw: The glut of debates is very understandable. Both parties have walked the plank by frontloading the caucuses and primary schedule, so we'll know the potential nominee or titular nominee by early March. That's extraordinary. But that's a function of locking up money and other things in the campaign. They have brought this upon themselves.
People are beginning to tire of debates, and they forget that this is just the first round. The second round, the most important round, comes in October 2008, the presidential debates. The states, really, have brought this upon themselves and we'll have to wait to see how it plays out. That's part of our process.
TVWeek: Will this early declaration of presidential candidates render the party conventions somewhat irrelevant?
Mr. Shaw: The conventions have been becoming irrelevant over the past 20 years. This is just a continuation of this development.
TVWeek: Does the advent of online media create opportunities for diversity?
Mr. Shaw: Opportunities in those media. But the dominant media are print and broadcasting.
Diversity is a perennial challenge. In my judgment, there will always be displeasure with the numbers. People forget that the holders of the choicest jobs hold onto those jobs for years and years. They don't rotate out of those anchor chairs. So really, people with talent have to take a number and stand in line. But the numbers will always be uneven. The numbers don't increase exponentially. They just do not.
TVWeek: What did you think of Dan Rather's recent comment that since Katie Couric has been in the anchor chair, CBS News has been "tarting up" the nightly news to make it more like "Today"?
Mr. Shaw: I haven't really given his thoughts much consideration. I'm aware of what he said, I read the quotes, but I have not given time to think about what I think about it.
TVWeek: You've witnessed so many historic events over the years. Is there one that stands out in your memory as bigger than all the others?
Mr. Shaw: Yes: 1985, Geneva -- the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, where these two leaders of the most powerful countries in the world sat down to start discussing reducing their nuclear arsenals, which could blow the world apart. Without question, that was the story. It's not sexy, but it was a monumentally important event -- important to all humankind.
TVWeek: Were you surprised to read in the Reagan diaries that, even though he seemed ready to push the button, he was just as afraid of a nuclear war as most people?
Mr. Shaw: No, I wasn't surprised. His first job as president was to defend and protect the people. That's the first tenet in the oath. He swears to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the American people. That's why he went to Geneva. That's why they went to the boathouse on the lake and Reagan proposed such a radical reduction in warheads that Gorbachev's jaw dropped. He knew what he was doing. That's one of the reasons why I cite that event.
You know, you're the only reporter in recent memory that's asked me that kind of question. They think the Gulf War or being there when the war broke out and describing what was happening.... No, that wasn't the most important news event. It was the one I cited. Geneva 1985, without question.
TVWeek: I read that you're writing a book now?
Mr. Shaw: I switched from working on an autobiography to a memoir. I still want to write a journalistic primer, and I want to do a novel or two. I've been pleasingly undisciplined about all this. I've been enjoying Linda, our daughter and son, and enjoying life. I don't miss what I did for 40 years. The writing will get done when it gets done. I have no complaints. I'm looking forward to receiving this award and going to the convention in Las Vegas, seeing people and listening to people and what's on their minds.