I was a total nerd. [Laughs.] I was the kid in the backyard who would be playing with everybody else, but then would excuse myself to go inside to watch the news every night — the local news, and then Peter Jennings.
So was that on the sly, or did everybody kind of know?
Everybody knew. Which played into that whole nerd status. I even remember trying to guess on Fridays who the Person of the Week was, because oftentimes Peter would provide a clue throughout the newscast.
I started writing to local news reporters in town when I was 13; I remember racing out to the mailbox at the end of the driveway to see if someone had written me back. One of the anchors, who was considered, you know, the Walter Cronkite of my hometown, wrote back. I still have the typewritten letter with that giant newsroom font. The last line said something along the lines of, “Competition in television news is keen. There’s always room for the right person. It could be you.” After that, I set up a visit at that TV station, and then began interning at 14, carrying the tripods and equipment. I was so happy to be doing that. And to this day I am grateful to those photographers and reporters who let me bum around in the back seat of that cruiser.
So that was a time — not quite the Cronkite era — but when anchors were still among the “most trusted people in America.” We’re obviously in a far more cynical era now where the “fake news” charge is common. How do you think about that transformation and work to restore the trust?
I think about it every day, to be honest with you. I’m fully aware that when I go upstairs — that same stairwell that Peter [Jennings] took and Charlie [Gibson] took and Diane [Sawyer] took — and walk up to that desk, that I’m having a conversation with America in a very polarized time. And it has evolved quickly into a two-way conversation — through social media and all the tools we have to reach out to the audience and for them to let us know in an instant what they think. The audience [has to] know that you hear them — all of them. And that you’re asking questions they would want you to ask.
But equally important [is] the end of the broadcast every night — typically, an “America Strong” segment that celebrates a small-town triumph somewhere. It’s crucial right now to do those pieces. To send the signal that we are connected, that we care about one another. And even though the temperature of the rhetoric is something many people haven’t seen in their lifetime, that’s one small thing we can do every night to signal that we’re all in this together. And we’ll do it again tomorrow night.
Network ratings are very closely watched. What kind of impact do they have on the way you approach your work?
I’ll be honest with you: We’re all aware of the ratings. And all I can say is that I’m just grateful people seem to be responding. The thing it does for me is to reinforce the responsibility we have every night if they’re choosing to come to us to break through the noise — they’re bombarded all day long with tweets or abbreviated forms of news — and try to help them decipher what matters. As we approach another election, I feel more strongly than ever that people have to be armed with information before they can make choices. And more importantly than even that, people have to know that their voices are being heard. Because there is quite a bit of suffering. And the only way people can tell their story is if we actually get out there and give them a voice.
Do you have people over the years that just stay with you?
There are people along the way that you carry with you. And it's always the quiet person who's going about their life. There's one woman whose name is Florence Jones. [She] was in one of the towers on 9/11. One of the last 25 out of her tower before it collapsed. And I have followed her through the years for all of these milestones down at Ground Zero. I was with her at the reflecting pool before it actually was open to the public. It was her first time seeing it. I get chills even telling you about it. She just was taken aback. And you can just hear it in her breathing. She just put her hand to her chest. And I'll never forget standing with her that day. Giving her that time and being grateful that she was allowing us to stand there with her.
Is there advice that really made a difference for you?
The piece of advice that I remember to this day comes from that same newsroom where I was interning at 14 and then landed my first job. I was sitting behind this veteran reporter, and I'm sure I thought I was making all the right calls on whatever the story was that I had been assigned to. I was getting so frustrated because I wasn't getting anywhere. And I think this reporter sensed that. And he turned around, and he said, "Well, to get the story, you've just got to get out there and get the story." It was such valuable advice about just getting out of that newsroom. Getting into that cruiser and going to the story.