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Norah O'Donnell on the State of Journalism, Balancing Her Personal & Professional Life and More

By Michael M. Clements | November 1, 2019 | People

Norah O’Donnell takes a swing at leading CBS News into a new era.

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Norah O’Donnell is sitting in the CBS Washington headquarters showing me her family’s schedule on her phone. It’s a seemingly endless spreadsheet filled with perfectly aligned columns for days of the week and color-coordinated categories—travel plans in red, meals in blue, and so on and so forth. It’s detailed. It has to be; O’Donnell has a lot going on. She’s the anchor and managing editor for the CBS Evening News; has her own 60 Minutes production team; lives between Washington and New York; is a mother of three; and saves time for philanthropy and golf. “One of my mottos in life is ‘Tee it high and let it fly,’” she tells me. “My husband taught me how to play golf. When do you spend four hours with your spouse doing anything? Never."

“The only way I can do what I do is to have a supportive team,” she says. One thing about O’Donnell: She’s always on message. It’s a trait, like muscle memory, honed from years at the tip of the news cycle spear. She is smart—super smart. Rigid yet empathetic. Respected and feared, yet equally lauded and admired. She’s a born leader—a general marching CBS into a new era under the guidance of CBS News president and political news veteran Susan Zirinsky.

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It was Zirinsky, tapped to lead the network in January of this year, who made the call to elevate O’Donnell to the anchor chair and migrate the production of its flagship evening news program from New York to Washington. The decision intrinsically linked the two powerhouse newswomen, for better or for worse, to the future of the network’s news arm. “Norah is a game changer,” Zirinsky says. “[She] has journalistic credibility, having covered the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, and she is keenly aware that we are building a newscast for the future.” Why DC? “We are at a critical juncture in this country and feel we are getting closer to the story by being in Washington,” Zirinsky explains.

“Any good journalist knows the best way to cover stories is to get as close to it as you can—immerse yourself,” O’Donnell says. Prior to our interview, she took multiple trips to Texas to cover immigration, including meeting with Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. “The idea of what’s happening in the immigration system is completely misunderstood. You essentially have both parties and multiple congresses and presidents who have passed the buck on reform,” she explains before deep diving into a thorough recounting of the history of the political miscalculations that have led to our current immigration system. She’s careful to call out Democratic and Republican shortcomings.

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“Both sides of the aisle feel like they can trust me,” she says—a tenuous tightwire act in a town gripped by partisanship. You’d be foolish to mistake that for false equivalence pandering. In 2018, she won an Emmy for a six-month investigation into sexual assault in the Air Force Academy. This, coming from someone who grew up in a military family. “My dad served for 30 years; my sister is a surgeon in the military,” she says. She’s unflinching. “I have never been more proud in my life to be a journalist. I think the job is so incredibly important. Our founders made freedom of the press the first amendment, not the 11th amendment,” she quips, letting herself escape into a moment of levity.

We’re soon back to seriousness when I ask the former Capitol Hill beat reporter and White House correspondent about the importance of shoe leather reporting in the digital age. “Make no mistake, journalism is under attack,” she states. “There is a war on truth being waged by our foreign adversaries, and that’s not my opinion—that’s the evidence put forward by the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence]. Domestically, we have politicians who are attacking the press,” she says, providing examples from both parties, naturally.

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Now at the height of her career, O’Donnell brings years of learning and inside sources with her. One major lesson she’s acquired is realizing that she can’t do it all. She conveys a story of organizing a birthday party for her twins at home when one of the children told her, “These goodie bags aren’t very good.” Afterward, she confided to her husband, restaurateur Geoff Tracy, “I think that was a really bad birthday party. I’m not very good at this.” He responded, “You don’t have to be good at everything. Next time, if you want a perfect party, hire someone.” “It was a very liberating moment,” she says. “Know what you’re good at and execute on that.” For O’Donnell, that’s focusing on holding public officials accountable, exposing abuse and corruption, and telling the stories of people doing great things. All with a few birdies along the way.

That said, the stakes are high. In the middle of our photo shoot at the Hay-Adams, she asks for a minute to take a call. When she returns, she looks me in the eye and briefly lets her guard down, divulging, “You have no idea how much pressure I’m under.” She’s right, I can’t imagine; but I also can’t imagine anyone more prepared and capable of handling it all.

Photography by: Photographed by Kate Warren; Styled by Pascale Lemaire; Shot on location at The Hay-Adams hotel