Norah O’Donnell Invokes Edward R. Murrow to Launch New Era at ‘CBS Evening News’

Brian Steinberg

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Though Norah O’Donnell had her first turn as anchor of “CBS Evening News” Monday night, she didn’t rely on any attention-grabbing tricks to carry the day. There was no flashy drawing board, no rattling off of unsettling, urgent headlines and no wrap-up of the day with a mawkish end segment calling up some element of Americana.

Instead, the new evening-news anchor took viewers from Washington to Puerto Rico to outer space in under half an hour, part of a bid by CBS to lure new viewers to its venerable evening newscast, which has ties to some of most legendary practitioners of TV journalism and yet runs behind its rivals. In an anchor role once reserved for Walter Cronkite, O’Donnell delivered a no-nonsense newscast that was packed with information and left little time for gimmicks.

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Indeed, O’Donnell summoned the ghost of the celebrated Edward R. Murrow, who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy with the CBS News TV program “See It Now,” in an effort to tell viewers what to expect from her tenure behind the desk. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire,” O’Donnell said, reading from an excerpt of a famous Murrow speech about the power of TV.  “But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

And she added a rejoinder for viewers: “For Mr. Murrow, we will try to use it well  – and with integrity.”

Viewers could see evidence of the philosophy early in O’Donnell’s first broadcast, when a graphics package labeled recent tweets by President Donald Trump “racist.” The social-media remarks had called for several female Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to places of origin, even though three of them were born in the United States and all four are American citizens. And earlier reports from CBS News had not used such a direct descriptor of the remarks. On “Evening News,” O’Donnell, correspondent Weijia Jiang and graphics that accompanied their reports all used the same label to describe the tweets.

O’Donnell was “the only big-3 anchor to report as fact, unattributed, in the first sentence of her era as anchor, that @realDonaldTrump tweets were ‘racist,'” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra university and a former senior vice president of specials at NBC News, via Twitter on Monday night. “Other anchors demurred. Maybe @cbsnews is serious about ending the era of ‘alternative facts.'”

CBS News intends to deliver “good journalism first. This is a trusted broadcast. No spin. No point of view. Smart,” CBS News President Susan Zirinsky told Variety in a description of the show under the new anchor. Zirinsky has in recent weeks plunged ahead with a massive overhaul of two of the news division’s flagship programs. Both “CBS Evening News” and “CBS This Morning” have fallen further behind their rivals after recent anchor shuffles at both programs.

At least one competitor seemed ready to parry during O’Donnell’s debut. As she took viewers through stories about unrest in Puerto Rico; boiling politics in Washington; and the death of a civil-rights activist, “NBC Nightly News” had scored an exclusive interview with Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran in which he offered his impressions of heightened tensions between his country and the United States.

CBS News is touting its own exclusives, teasing a visit O’Donnell is making to the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow to highlight the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. Tonight’s newscast also teased an exclusive interview O’Donnell has done with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos about his goal of providing private space travel.

No one at CBS News thinks their evening-news program will turn around on a dime.  “This is a glacial climb,” said Zirinsky.

In the meantime, O’Donnell seems determined to present the news without too much fuss and distraction and let facts speak first.

 

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