In 1961, Marine Cpl. Bernard Shaw, stationed in Hawaii, read that Walter Cronkite was there, filming a documentary. He called Cronkite’s hotel 34 times in two days, seeking a meeting.
It led to 45 minutes with the CBS anchorman, who--with Edward R. Murrow--was Shaw’s idol. The kid from Chicago, a news junkie planning on college after the corps, wanted to know how to get into journalism.
The kid got into journalism. Did pretty well too. Now, where once there were the Big Three of anchordom--Rather, Jennings and Brokaw--Bernard Shaw and his international Cable News Network exposure have made it the Big Four.
CNN’s principal Washington anchor, he is its best-known member in a worldwide staff of 1,600 (minus New York-based Mary Alice Williams, who last month left for NBC).
Shaw still recalls what Cronkite, now his friend, told him when they first met. It was two lessons, really:
“Among other things, he told me that I should read, read, read, be interested in everything . . . that I had to be ready for anything.
“I said, ‘You and I know what our No. 1 social problem is--racism in this country.’ I warned that no matter what happened, I won’t let anything dee ter me.
“He looked at me, and this very warm smile came over his face. And he said, ‘No, Bernie, you shouldn’t allow anything to deter you.’ ”
Shaw, a short, compact man of 48 who still has the erect bearing of his Marine days, smiles. He puffs on a cigarette, just as reporters did before city rooms banned smoking as a worse threat to health than editors.
With 26 years in broadcast news, his attitude toward the profession is refreshingly old-school--no glitz, get to the point, and don’t be the sort of video-fluent whiz-bang who mistakes tight production for journalism.
Shaw began in radio in 1964, at WNUS in Chicago, one of the nation’s first all-news stations. But he would advise today’s rookies to go into print news before the broadcast kind:
“Yes, absolutely. You’ve got to have an almost religious respect for the printed word. If you don’t have that going in, it’s doubtful that you’re going to have it in broadcasting--where some people do not spell words correctly, where they spell them phonetically in scripts.”
He winces at such people. “If you’re a stickler for correct spelling, presumably you’re going to be a stickler for facts. Which is basic to journalism.
“I see a lot of it,” he says, referring to vidiot savants who can’t spell. “A lot of it. And whoever has that weakness is a threat to journalism.”
Old school. Part of it is from Cronkite, part of it from growing up in Chicago, a great newspaper town, Ben Hecht country, in an era when the city had four dailies doing battle.
The son of a Chicago house painter who also was a great newspaper fan, Shaw still reveres those whose work he read. He ticks off a few names--Keyes Beech, Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, Peter Lisagor. And John Chancellor, who, he readily recalls, “was with the Sun-Times.”
While working in local radio, Shaw also was attending the University of Illinois--studying history, not journalism.
“I felt that, for me, majoring in journalism was a waste of time. I sensed that I could write"--he wrote for his high school and college newspapers--"and I felt the better major was history, to give me an understanding of us humans.”
He always wanted to report in Washington. He was assigned there, as White House correspondent, by Westinghouse Broadcasting, shortly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose campaigns he had covered in Chicago.
He made the jump to CBS’ Washington bureau--Cronkite’s warm welcome-aboard letter still hangs on his office wall--in what he calls “the class of ’71,” all future anchors: himself, Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung.
Heady times, then, with the winds of Watergate stirring. He worked for six years, a general assignment man who in due course told everyone who would listen that he wanted to cover Latin America.
Problem was, says Shaw, who speaks Spanish, the beat was spoken for at CBS, and “you had the world-class firemen” working it--Bert Quint, Latin specialist Robert Schakne and, in Argentina, Charles Kuralt.
Enter an admirer of his work, ABC Washington bureau chief George Watson, a respected veteran who was to prove pivotal in Shaw’s career on two occasions. He hired him in 1977. Shaw went off to the Latin American beat.
That provided an intense--and sad--part of the career. In 1979, in pursuit of a Panamanian informant in a story on drug-running, Shaw was about to leave Nicaragua, then controlled by strongman Gen. Anastasio Somoza.
Two reporters, one from the Washington Post, the other the New York Times, arrived at Managua. With the Sandinistas moving steadily in, Shaw, not wanting to leave the country’s civil war uncovered, warned ABC of the new arrivals.
ABC dispatched an experienced correspondent, Bill Stewart. “Two weeks later, he was dead,” Shaw said, his voice flat and sad.
Millions of viewers around the world saw how it happened at a countryside roadblock. Unaware that ABC cameraman Jack Clark was taping the scene from a distance, a national guardsman to whom Stewart showed press credentials made him get down on his knees, then lie down on the road.
Then he lowered his rifle and shot him.
ABC staffers transmitted the horrifying footage via satellite to New York, having fooled an unsuspecting government censor in Managua by sandwiching it in between innocuous footage.
Shaw, Watson and the late ABC anchor, Frank Reynolds, were in ABC’s Washington bureau when they saw the video of Stewart’s death.
“I started crying uncontrollably,” says Shaw, whose on-air manner is consistently calm, unemotional, matter-of-fact. “And Frank just put his head down and walked into his office and slammed the door.”
With two small children and a wife by then, Shaw readily admits he lost his desire for Latin America. He returned to Washington, intending to stay. Seventy-two hours after he landed there, the Iranian hostage crisis erupted.
ABC officials called “and regretfully said, ‘We need you in Tehran,’ ” he recalls. Off he went. There he stayed for two months, filing reports with Peter Jennings and Barry Serafin, working constantly.
He came home exhausted. Then he went out on the campaign trail in 1980, assigned to cover GOP candidate George Bush. Brit Hume was assigned after the Iowa caucuses, “which really angered me.”
A call from Watson in early 1980 changed his life again. Watson, then out of ABC after what proved to be the ill-fated hiring of famed Watergate prober Carl Bernstein as ABC’s Washington bureau chief, had joined CNN.
As its first Washington bureau chief, Watson had to organize both a bureau and a staff, operating on the no-frills, keep-costs-down CNN philosophy that still prevails. He had his work cut out.
(Now back as ABC’s bureau chief here, Watson wryly recalls those start-up days at Ted Turner’s proposed 24-hour news service, one that many in the business considered little more than a cable pipe dream: “I was trying to convince Bernie it was a wise and not suicidally foolish thing to do to move from ABC to an upstart network that a lot of people didn’t think had prospects for surviving.”)
Watson’s job offer was anchoring, which Shaw wanted to do, having prepared himself with the hard-won background of his years as a reporter. “Again,” Shaw says, “this was the influential hand of Walter Cronkite on my shoulder, doing it the way he did it.”
But it was a hard decision. A recession was on. He had his family to support. And cable, while growing, was still largely regarded as the wave of the maybe, not the future. He paced, pondered and brooded.
His wife, Linda, proved the deciding factor. “She said, ‘If it takes off and you’re not on board, I won’t be able to live with you. . . .” He grins.
With Shaw and Mary Alice Williams as its best-known anchors, and a staff of only 300, CNN opened shop on June 1, 1980, seen in only 1.7 million homes.
CNN says it now is seen in 51 million U.S. homes, even though the A.C. Nielsen ratings company says there are only 49.5 million cable homes in the United States. (Turner Broadcasting System, CNN’s parent, insists that Nielsen’s figures are wrong.) CNN says it also is seen in 75 countries worldwide, has nine domestic bureaus and 20 overseas bureaus and plans to open seven more abroad this year.
After five years and $77 million of red ink, CNN, by any standard a worthy network rival now, has been profitable since 1985. That profitability in large part is due to its low-salary, non-union shop and the tightfistedness that enabled it to survive in the early days.
That approach still prevails. CNN’s Washington bureau, employing 200 and occupying the third floor of--ironically--the Union Labor Life building, a short walk from Capitol Hill, is a model of no frills.
Turner’s Atlanta-based empire tries to avoid the cult of anchor personality because, as CBS, ABC and NBC all have painfully learned, an anchor star means megabuck salaries.
Still, in a company that reckons it has 52 anchors--including in that count such personages as Larry King and “Crossfire” artilleryman Patrick Buchanan--Bernard Shaw has become a bona fide star, albeit one with no secretary and a small office filled with yellowing stacks of newspapers, old Congressional Quarterly issues and various knickknacks.
If air time is the oxygen of the TV newsman, Shaw is oxygen-rich: In addition to live interviews with world and Washington heavyweights, he co-anchors not one but three newscasts a day--"Newsday,” “The International Hour” in the afternoon and what is considered CNN’s flagship newscast in prime time, “PrimeNews.”
But in terms of salary--he is negotiating a new contract that reportedly would double his income--Shaw is nowhere on a par with the Big Three. He declines to discuss such things.
But he is said to earn less than the 10% of Dan Rather’s estimated $3 million annual salary that goes to the CBS anchorman’s agent. Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings also are in the millionaire anchor class.
A bit excessive, all that money?
“I think they’re paid what they’re worth,” Shaw says, stoically. “You’re talking about the marketplace. I’m jealous of what they make.” He grins. “I wish I made as much as they make. I know I work as hard, if not harder.
“But reality is reality. People can say they’re not worth it. But it’s the market. . . . If the market didn’t dictate that they’d be paid the salaries they get, they wouldn’t be getting them. It’s that simple.”
Shaw, who lives in suburban Tacoma Park, Md., gets invited with his wife to the usual Washington business-and-pleasure rambles reserved for the town’s “A list” of movers, shakers and unindicted co-conspirators.
But he guards his weekends. They’re for the family, he says. And, unless a major news story has popped, his idea of whoopee after his workday ends at 9:30 p.m. would disappoint students of the Washington glamour life.
To unwind before going home, he says, he stops off at Tacoma Station, a jazz club in northwest Washington, and listens to one set, usually played by Marshall Keys, a friend he calls a brilliant saxophonist.
Like most reporters, he thinks he’ll write a book someday--three, actually. One would be about the practical side of journalism, what it is, what it means. Another would be an autobiography. The third would be a novel.
He also thinks about his job and CNN, which he says he doesn’t intend to leave. The major network news divisions keep retrenching, trimming staffs, cutting costs. CBS even is considering closing its Paris bureau.
An inevitable decline?
“Well,” he says, “I think aside from our journalistic impact, CNN has had a very far-reaching impact on the economics of this industry--how money is spent to cover the news--and this is an indication of it.
“The industry was slapped in the face. It had to stand up and notice how we, then and now, do more with less.”
CNN often has been likened to an electronic wire service, sort of a video version of the Associated Press. Will that be the future of the network news divisions?
“I really cannot see the future,” Bernard Shaw says. “But if I had to guess, I would say whatever happens in the future, it damn sure will be cost-effective.”