CBS Evening News gives anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell the perfect platform for her unique combination of talent, presentation and charisma. Sharp intellect, clarity of thought and film star looks put her at the very top of her trade. Center stage in the network’s recent election coverage, Emmy Award winner O’Donnell has covered five presidential elections, interviewed many notables (even Royalty), and countless world leaders (including the only American conversation with Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And yes she did ask him about Jamal Khashoggi.)
By Colleen Haggerty
Anchorwoman and managing editor of CBS Evening News, mother of three, and wife to prolific restaurateur Geoff Tracy, New York Moves had the wonderful opportunity to sit down remotely with the renowned American journalist, Norah O’Donnell, on the set of her show in the CBS Washington D.C. News Bureau. Despite the typical intensity of the news cycle, Norah looked effortlessly put together in a cool green blazer, camera-ready for the evening news show which was to be broadcasted live in mere hours. When asked about how she keeps so fit, she lightheartedly attributed her sharp looks to the great lighting of the studio, but I beg to differ—you can’t feign that level of beauty or great style. Maybe it’s also her acute attention to health and her daily run with her husband around D.C., or her seven-day work week and the woes of mothering three pre-teens in the midst of home-schooling COVID-19 ridiculousness. Whatever it is, it is no wonder why New York Moves honored Norah O’Donnell as a 2011 Power Woman—with her utter professionalism, grace, and cut-throat journalism, she is a role model for women and girls everywhere.
Replacing the incredibly respected Walter Cronkite, or “Uncle Walter” as she affectionately put it, as the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, Norah O’Donnell strives to be as trustworthy and impartial as possible. Whilst it proves to be a difficult task with the vast news landscape of today, Norah stands by the 30 minute time frame of the Evening News, noting it as a “the tightest broadcast out there.” Likewise, Norah feels an intense sense of responsibility to live up to the impeccable standard of journalism that Cronkite set. Widely known as the “most trusted man in America,” Norah adheres closely to Walter’s views on democracy, frequently referring back to his saying “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” This was the phrase that seemingly defined Cronkite’s morality in his position, and likewise, defines Norah’s. Norah made a powerful analysis, noting that, without journalism, issues paramount to our state of the nation would not be brought to the public. With this, she brought up the principal role journalists played in notifying the public that Mr. Trump and other White House staff tested positive for COVID-19, a highly politicized worldwide health-crisis and a massive force in the presidential election.
“We would not have known that Hope Hicks, the president’s advisor had tested positive if it weren’t for Jennifer Jacobs from New York News who first broke that story. The White House wasn’t telling us that. It was a reporter who broke that story that has led us to where we are today, imagine if journalism had not broken that Hope Hicks was sick, is it possible that we might not even know the president may have would the White House be able to hold that information from the public? It’s a question.”
It was the idea of the esteemed Susan Zirin-sky, the President of CBS News, to move the News Bureau to Washington D.C. from New York City in 2019, during the height of the impeachment of Mr. Trump. Since the move, the team working on the CBS Evening News has been able to provide an in-depth look at the political landscape of America each night during a period of such historical salience. This is another reason why Norah O’Donnell is ultimately so proud to be a part of the show, because, as she says, she candidly believes it offers “the finest news.”
Throughout her childhood, Norah was brought up constantly reading the news. Her parents both stressed the importance of being well-informed, and revered journalism as an imperative force and a venerable occupation. Whether it was the newspaper, Time magazine, National Geographic, or the Medical Journal (her father was a doctor), there was always something to pick up and read. Although she grew up in a large family with four children, her mother still insisted on reading every line of the newspaper every day and would not throw them out until she did. As Norah described, this led to a massive pile-up of newspapers on their kitchen table, mimicking a conversation with her mom in this circumstance in our interview. “I’d be like, ‘Mom! You gotta throw out the newspapers!’ [to which] she’s like “I haven’t had the chance to go through it!” [and] I’d say, you don’t have to read the whole thing line by line!”
Norah carries on her mother’s tradition by reading at least six hard-copies of newspapers every day, because she truly believes in the inherent power of an informed electorate. Although the average citizen may not be as committed to informing themselves of the public opinion as she is, they may very well tune in to a 30-minute broadcast. In her position as anchor and managing editor on one of the most popular news networks, in conglomeration with other journalists, Norah has the power to effectively decide what the American public needs to be informed of.
This is what makes Norah uniquely important — her admirable dedication to journalism and education makes for a stronger democracy. Combined with her drive and resilience, Norah’s lifetime interest in news is what led her to be the consistently successful journalist she is today. At 25, she was already a correspondent on NBC, working with Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, and Scott Pelley. With this, it is no surprise that she was entrusted in her position with the CBS Evening News, a frequent interviewer on 60 Minutes, and a presidential debate moderator, some of the most honorable positions a journalist can receive.
Despite the daily intensity of politics and a national health-crisis, journalism has remained a force of candor. With all of its faults, as a journalist in America, we are allowed to ask questions that provoke the truth. Unlike countries such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, journalists in America are able to hold people in power accountable. Unsurprisingly, Norah O’Donnell is well known for her ability to ask impressively hard-hitting questions. A year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Nora did an exclusive interview with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, becoming the first journalist in the world to interview him as a part of an independent news source. In this interview, without hesitation, the first question she asked him: “Did you order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?” Although other people in the newsroom urged her to start with more pleasant questions, Norah asserted that, as a journalist, it is her job to hold powerful, conceivably dangerous people accountable, and in doing so, powerful people must be asked powerful questions.
“I felt very strongly that this was a historic interview, it was the reason that we were there, and so I thought that it was very important for that to be the first ‘open the gate’ tough question. He’s powerful and we can ask a powerful question.”
More recently, Norah has interviewed former Vice President and President-Elect Joe Biden, Vice President Mike Pence after the death of Irani General Kasam Soleimani in January 2020, the CEO of Boeing after the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max aircrafts in March 2019, and the Trump administration Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley after the impeachment of President Donald Trump, to name a few. When our interviewer asked Norah if she feels that her job of asking hard questions is easier than answering them, she replied succinctly that although she certainly does not envy them, people of enormous power should expect to have to answer hard questions, and as a journalist, she is the person meant to ask them. This is the reason, she remarked, that the founders of the United States established freedom of the press and the First Amendment. It is the purpose of these foundational rules to hold people in power accountable and maintain the essential construction of our democracy.
Our interview took place the day after the vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. In our interview, Norah noted that both Harris and Pence were obviously focused on providing clear soundbites, knowing that most Americans would not watch the debate in full. Although this strategic analysis may easily be missed, we should not take it for granted. If you take anything from this interview, it should be that, in her heart, Norah cannot help but deliver the truth. No matter what, we must continually remind ourselves of the indispensable role journalists like her play in propagating truth and democracy, for it is the analyses of historic events like debates and elections that push our society to be progressive and forward-thinking.
With her accumulated experience from 25 years in the news circuit, Norah told New York Moves that she will one day (hopefully soon!) author a book that will lay down the exact components of a powerful and purposeful question, explaining that “asking the right question is the heart of all communication.” For this reason, much of her time preparing for her show is spent crafting logical questions with her team, which, as she said, makes sense, seeing that she was a philosophy major at Georgetown University. The first component of a poignant question, she remarked, is always curiosity. Also, one must always remember to ask questions which “seek an answer,” and do not allow a person to “wiggle out of [it].” Tentatively titled “The Art of the Question,” she declared that the book would go into detail on the fundamental purpose of question-writing in journalism. Norah spent a considerable amount of time talking to us about the importance of a well-crafted question, citing its true importance as one of the most misunderstood aspects of working as a journalist. A question must be short, it must be succinct, and it must have a purpose behind it. O’Donnell made it absolutely clear: there is no beating around the bush when it comes to finding the truth.
With all that said, as phenomenally powerful as she may be, Norah partakes in a regiment of activities in her downtime. Ranging from sports like running, golf, and tennis, to driving her kids around to hear the latest preteen gossip and what’s trending, or watching (and starring) in The Colbert Report, somehow, Norah manages a fulfilling and prolific personal life on top of her career. She also is phenomenally encouraging of her husband, Geoff Tracy, a powerhouse in the hospitality and restaurant industry. In his own grand endeavors, he has succeeded in opening and managing a multitude of successful restaurants, two of which opened prior to the time he was 30. Talk about a power couple. To close out the interview, speaking directly to the audience, we were lucky enough to have Norah O’Donnell let us in on her favorite life quote. She said that, no matter what, “the quality of your life is built on the quality of your relationships. So if you have great relationships, you’re gonna have a great life.” Well said, Norah.
This year, New York Moves will have Norah O’Donnell host the November 20th annual Power Women Honoree Gala 7-8 PM EST. Each year, Moves honors a cast of powerful women who pave the way for girls everywhere in a male-dominated society. Being held virtually for the first time in 18 years, the gala will take place over Zoom, and will feature honorees from all walks of life including top Fortune 500 companies. The event will also be joined by performances from America’s Got Talent’s Roberta Battaglia, Emmanne Beasha, and Daneliya Tuleshova; guest speakers will be Lili Estefan & Betsey Johnson. You can go to movespowerwomen.com for details and/or a recap of the event.
“Shoutout to Moves Magazine and to all of the powerful women out there, I’m proud to be a part of the sisterhood. Keep going, don’t give up, support one another and not only support, but let’s exalt one another because ultimately that’s the way we all succeed…So thank you to New York Moves magazine.”