By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
“I’m thrilled to be going back and I’m thrilled to be able to help out in any way that I can,” said Ren%E9; Syler, news anchor for CBS’s “The Early Show,” about going to Indianapolis this week to emcee the 2006 Salute to Excellence Awards at the National Association of Black Journalists convention. For Ms. Syler, an active member of the NABJ and a recipient of its 2004 Gracie Allen Award for Individual Achievement in the National Best Anchor category for her breast cancer series, attending the convention and hosting the awards presentation is a way of giving back to a group that has nurtured her career for many years.
“I love this organization,” she said. “I’ve been a card-carrying member for almost as long as I’ve been in television. Its mission is very near and dear to my heart.”
The Salute to Excellence competition will honor exemplary coverage of people or issues of African Americans or in the African Diaspora, and this year’s nominees include Michele Norris of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Brian Williams of “NBC Nightly News,” for his coverage of Katrina in particular, and Mike Wallace, Lesley Stahl and Ed Bradley of CBS’s “60 Minutes” for their unique personality profiles.
Ms. Syler said she admires all the nominees’ efforts. “I think this is a time for us to step back and see a lot of the good things that are happening on TV, done by fantastic journalists who make me proud to be part of this profession,” she said.
Ms. Syler started in TV at the local level as a weekend reporter at KTVN-TV in Reno, Nev., in 1987. After graduating from California State University at Sacramento with a degree in psychology, she was at a crossroads. “I realized I didn’t want to do that,” she said. “Then I read a magazine story about Liz Walker. And, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do! I want to be a television reporter.'”
Ms. Walker, a news anchor with CBS owned-and-operated WBZ-TV in Boston, is an African American newscaster who boasts more than 25 years of experience in broadcast journalism. “I didn’t know her and I had never met her, but her life was inspirational,” Ms. Syler said. “Liz Walker’s story really planted the seed in my head. In that moment, I knew.”
It took Ms. Syler six months to get a job, but once she had it, she was determined to succeed. “There was no substitute for what I learned in those early years. I paid my dues. I’m a sum total of all those experiences,” Ms. Syler said. “I worked at a TV station that had two photographers and 16 reporters. So you would come back from a story with all your tapes, and you had to write the thing and edit the tapes, and then go on the air like you had been sitting around all day thinking about nothing but that story. I had to produce my own broadcasts and then anchor the broadcast.”
When Ms. Syler attends events such as the NABJ Convention, she advises young aspirants with the story of her early days, much as Ms. Walker’s story inspired her. “The lesson I try to impart to young people I meet is that you have to make your own breaks,” she said. “Don’t wait for a great story to fall in your lap. You’ve got to dig, you have to go, you have to work hard, and you have to be married to your career and your industry for a few years.”
That’s the way it was for Ms. Syler. “I remember working very, very hard for no money in my first job,” she said. “But those are the times that I feel I would never trade for anything-the times when I lived on potatoes and hot sauce because it was all I could afford. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make because I love what I do.”
She still loves her work and the people she works with on “The Early Show.” “I feel like we’re family,” she said. “We have all gotten along really well from day one. Dave Price, I always kid him and call him the little brother I never had-or wanted! That’s my laugh line. Hannah [Storm] and I have very similar experiences. We’re both working mothers. She’s just fantastic to be around and to work with, and so is Julie [Chen]. And who doesn’t love Harry [Smith]?”
Still, “The Early Show” remains in third place in the Nielsen ratings in a race of three. That’s a frustration, Ms. Syler said. “But I think right now we’re in a period of flux [in TV news], with Charlie Gibson going to ‘World News Tonight’ and Katie [Couric] coming to us, which we’re thrilled about,” she said. “I think there’s a chance for us to stay good and stable and for the audience to find us, and I think they’ll like what they see.”
Up at 3:30 a.m.
Ms. Syler hustles every weekday to make what she does on-air look effortless, but she doesn’t think that makes her special. “I get up at 3:30 every day. Everyone asks, how do you do it? I ask myself that question every night when I fall into bed exhausted.
“I feel like I do what millions of women around the country, and around the world, do every day, except mine is more visible. But they do it, too, and theirs is no less difficult,” Ms. Syler said. “I’m lucky, though. I have a great husband, a great babysitter. I have two great kids. I actually have a book coming out about this subject next Mother’s Day called ‘Good Enough Mother.’ The whole premise is, you know, ‘I’m doing the very best I can.'”
Ms. Syler voiced concern when the subject turned to diversity in the TV newsroom and the results of the 2006 Radio-Television News Directors Association/Ball State University study that showed little growth in African American representation in the newsroom. “I’m a little disheartened about the survey results,” she said. “Diversity is of particular concern to NABJ, obviously, and I think it’s unfortunate that after all these years we’re still talking about this subject. I wish these things had resolved by now. We have to understand that diversity is nothing more than a commonsense approach to trying to cover the world we live in. I’ve always believed that it’s our differences that make us stronger.”
NABJ can count on Ms. Syler not only at the Salute to Excellence banquet, but also as a role model. “I feel, as an African American woman working in a high-profile job, I have a responsibility to not let down the people who are coming up behind me,” she said.