REMEMBERING CNN ANCHORMAN BERNARD SHAW. (MAY 22, 1940-SEPTEMBER 7, 2022.
By: Richard Prince, "Journal-isms"
‘I Believe in Asking Tough Questions,’ Even of the Industry. Bernard Shaw, who set the example of a Black television journalist who could report in the style of his idols Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, yet call out his industry for insufficient attention to diversity, died Wednesday of pneumonia unrelated to Covid-19, Shaw’s family announced. He was 82, CNN reported.
In a career spanning 40 years, Shaw might be best known for delivering live news reports from Baghdad at the onset of the Gulf War in 1991, reporting on the student revolt in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, perhaps covering the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, or asking Democrat Michael Dukakis the toughest question in the 1988 presidential debate.
But overall, Shaw’s fealty was to hard-nosed Murrow-style reporting at CNN, a concept that some say went out of favor in the years after Shaw retired as CNN anchor in 2001 and is now the subject of debate as the network’s newest managers seek to rein in what they view as an opinionated, leftward tilt.
“I wouldn’t think of myself as a journalist of color,” Shaw told a 2014 town hall meeting sponsored by CNN’s Diversity Council. “But I’m a journalist first. Strive to be the very best and use models that exemplify the very best.”
And yet, when Shaw received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from the National Association of Black Journalists, he struck out at unnamed media owners who are “sabotaging the public good” with their “profit fixations,” and he warned white men that they ignore diversity at their peril.
“Journalists, hear me tonight,” Shaw told the NABJ awards banquet audience in Las Vegas. “There are some owners in the business — bosses, parent companies — whose profit fixation and staffing directives and decisions sabotage the public good they profess to serve.
“They are turning the people’s right to know into the people’s fight to know,” he said.
“Beyond this ballroom tonight, white males, wake up,” Shaw continued. “Globally, you are an island speck in an ocean of color. The reins of power will weaken and so will your grip — if you do not faithfully support our nation’s greatest strength, diversity. To you, caught in the middle, stay vigilant. You must stay strong.”
Shaw emphasized the word “globally” in discussing his remarks afterward with Journal-isms, saying he was aiming at a worldwide audience. “What matters is that my words give hope” to people of various ethnic groups, he said. Shaw would not name the white men or the companies he was talking about.
“People in the media know who they are,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the numbers. They know who they are and we know who they are.”
Shaw added, “I was speaking for the historical record. I expect my words to resonate long after I’m dead. . . . That was in the tradition of Frederick Douglass,” the first well-known Black journalist, he said. “I was seeking to inspire, to inform and to light a fire under some asses.”
Shaw grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went to a tough high school, as others have noted. Shaw told Allison J. Waldman of Television Week, also in 2007, “The battle is never won. There are some people who still believe that people of color are not needed in this country. And yet people of color have been the essence of this country since its beginning. So there’s a great education requirement, and all of us are educators and we’re going to make this country work.”
Nine years later, when “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt accepted “Journalist of the Year” honors from NABJ, Holt paid tribute to those who came before, including ABC’s Max Robinson and Carole Simpson, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel, and Shaw. “These are people that opened the doors for people like me to walk through and therefore it’s incumbent on all of us to remember that many of us are the products of great mentors,” said Holt. “Our diversity in newsrooms simply makes us better,” he added.
Holt might have added the late Ed Bradley of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” whom Shaw called a “walking inspiration.” The two were friends.
In Politico, Roger Simon told the story of Shaw’s infamous presidential debate question to Dukakis, the Democratic Massachusetts governor who was debating Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush.
“On stage, Bush entered from the left and Dukakis from the right. Dukakis stuck out his hand about 15 feet away from Bush and had to carry it across the stage like a spear before Bush got near enough to shake it. “They stood behind their lecterns. By agreement, Dukakis got to stand on a small sloping platform that was hidden behind his. This hid the fact he was much shorter than Bush.
“Shaw, looking commanding and stern, began: ‘By agreement between the candidates, the first question goes to Gov. Dukakis. You have two minutes to respond. ‘Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?’
“In the press room, there were gasps from the reporters. ‘Whaaaa?’ ‘Did he really say that?’ ‘Un-BELIEVE-able.’ “Any TV director worth his headphones would have immediately ordered a camera to get a reaction shot from Kitty, who was sitting in the audience. After all, it was her rape and murder being talked about.
“But reaction shots of the candidate’s families were expressly forbidden by the debate agreement. So the camera stayed locked on Dukakis.“And Dukakis answered instantly and smoothly. ‘No, I don’t, Bernard,’ he said. ‘And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.’
“He had been on the record for years and years on that subject. Massachusetts had no death penalty and also had one of the lowest crime rates of any industrialized state in the country. Dukakis didn’t believe in capital punishment. He had seen all the studies and he didn’t believe it deterred crime.
“So should he throw out that principle because the hypothetical victim was now his wife? Is that what principles were all about? They were good when others’ loved ones were involved but not good when your own were involved?
“In the press room, the murmurs over Shaw’s question now turned to mutters over Dukakis’ answer. ‘He’s through.’ ‘That’s all she wrote.’ ‘Get the hook!’
Simon also wrote: “It was the most controversial [question] ever asked at a presidential debate. It was asked on Oct. 13, 1988. “Shaw was not your average journalist. Shaw really liked to see the candidates sweat. He liked to see the panic in their eyes. “He liked to zip in a high, hard question right from the start and see these men who run for president gulp and gape and search their memories for the answer they had read in their briefing books.
“Except that the answers to Shaw’s questions were almost never in the briefing books.
“He had asked Al Gorewhat he would do if he or one of his children got AIDS. He asked Dan Quayle if it was “fear of being killed in Vietnam’ that caused him to join the National Guard. He had asked Al Haig, flat out: ”Do you think Bush is a wimp?’
“Bernard Shaw was one tough customer.” ‘As reporters, we were not doing our jobs if we don’t ask the toughest question possible,’ Shaw said.” ‘I couldn’t not do that. I’m from the Chicago school of journalism. I believe in asking tough questions. This whole process is too easy on politicians. They fly up and down the country asking for votes and they ought to be forced to stand up and say what they really feel. Otherwise the voters are being jilted.’
“Shaw, an anchorman for CNN, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, went to a tough high school and at age 13 had seen how Edward R. Murrow had stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy.
“While others had cowered, Murrow had taken McCarthy on. A lot of people had told him he was being too tough, he was committing professional suicide, but Edward R. Murrow did not care what others said.” ‘He was,’ Shaw said, ‘my idol.’ “
“Funeral services for Shaw will be closed to family and invited guests only, with a public memorial service planned at a later time, his family said,” CNN reported. “In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Bernard Shaw Scholarship Fund at the University of Chicago. The Shaw family requests complete privacy at this time,” the family said in their statement provided by former CNN CEO Tom Johnson.
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