A few hours before our interview, Norah O’Donnell decides to sleep in…until 6 a.m. This is new for her—the notion that she might be able to wake up around the same time as the rest of us, and she hasn’t quite adjusted. For the better part of a decade, O’Donnell cohosted CBS This Morning and rose at what is for most people the middle of the night.
Next week she shifts gears—and schedules. O’Donnell is about to take her seat in the anchor chair at CBS Evening News, making her the second woman ever to solo-anchor the broadcast. Katie Couric held the position from 2006 to 2011. (Connie Chung coanchored the program, with Dan Rather, from 1993 to 1995.)
Her move comes at a time when trust in the news is at an all-time low and, thanks to mobile alerts, social media, and a host of other distractions, there have never been more opportunities to avoid what was once appointment television for most American families. (Even so, the three major news broadcasts still command upwards of 20 million viewers a night.) In both respects, O’Donnell has her work cut out for her, and she knows it. “The evening broadcast has to change,” she insists. “We are now living in a time when we already get the headlines on our phone. So how do we provide context and depth?”
“By 6:30 p.m. at night, we know what happened,” she says. “How can we explain why it happened? I think people are hungry for and craving a trusted source of unbiased, fact-based news. And that is our standard. And that’s, quite frankly, the brand of CBS already.”
Still, O’Donnell’s ascent is at once evidence of a new era at the network—which has started to recover from the exits of Charlie Rose, Leslie Moonves, and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager, who all stepped down amid sexual misconduct and gender discrimination claims—and an obvious next step. She has covered Congress, six presidential campaigns, and the White House. She’s interviewed half a-dozen presidents and has stared down hurricanes, a red-faced Bill O’Reilly, and other natural disasters on live television.
Ahead of her first night in the same seat that famed anchor Walter Cronkite once occupied, O’Donnell spoke to Glamour about her ambitions for the show, how she found her voice in journalism, and what a person does when she misses a call from Oprah.
Norah O’Donnell: That’s true. My first anchor job was when I was 10 years old, in Seoul, South Korea. My father was a colonel in the U.S. Army, and we were deployed to Seoul. We lived on the Yong Song army base for two years. It’s a tight-knit community, and a friend of my mother’s said, “Hey, I know about this opportunity,” because children in South Korea were required to learn English at a young age, and they were looking for people to make audiotapes and to do an English program on a station that was sort of the equivalent to a PBS.
That became my first job, essentially anchoring an English-learning program once a week on Korean television. I got a small paycheck every week, and I’d go get Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie tapes. That was the beginning. I’ll never forget it. “Penny Lover“ by Lionel Ritchie was my favorite song.