Norah O’Donnell, a veteran Washington correspondent, has long been able to keep her cool when interviewing a senator, even the President. But when Serena Williams entered the “CBS This Morning” studio a few years ago, the CBS reporter had to gather her wits.
Williams had just won the U.S. Open, and was making an appearance on “CBS This Morning” during O’Donnell’s first year as a co-anchor on the program. “I remember just being gobsmacked by her power and beauty. I think I asked a question like, ‘What’s it like being a role model for young girls?’” the reporter recalled. “And the producer in my ear said, ‘That’s a really dumb question.’”
O’Donnell isn’t tongue tied around celebrities anymore – or other newsmakers, for that matter. In recent weeks, she’s notched an eyebrow-raising number of headline moments, including touching down in hurricane-torn Texas; snaring an interview with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady; and landing access to Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip, to see his return to the Capitol after being shot earlier this year. In Las Vegas after the recent tragic shooting there, she was able to get an ATF agency to divulge exclusively the gunman had purchased 33 firearms within the past year.
“Getting her out into the field more and letting her report and showcase her skills as a story teller is, I think, really essential to our strategy, to our growth going forward,” said Ryan Kadro, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.”
O’Donnell’s recent string of scoops spotlights the continually growing importance of TV’s sundry morning shows. It’s not that an evening-news anchor wouldn’t or couldn’t do what O’Donnell has been doing in recent weeks. But in another era, CBS’s morning programs didn’t have as much momentum. While the show remains in third place among the broadcast-network A.M. offerings, it has made noticeable strides against NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” in recent seasons.
The spark for O’Donnell’s recent story streak came at a July lunch, says Kadro. As the two dined on Greek salad and branzino, they talked about getting her out in the field more, in an effort to let her reporting help boost the program, along, of course, with similar contributions for her co-anchors Gayle King and Charlie Rose.
She says she often relies on “shoe-leather” reporting to help move a story forward, even one that many others are also covering. When she was on the ground around Houston in the aftermath of Harvey, she and her CBS crew found themselves near the George R. Brown Convention Center,which the Red Cross was using as its main shelter in the area. The organization wasn’t letting cameras in, she had been told, but “I was invited in by an evacuee, and I went in with just a small camera with one producer,” she recounts. “What we found was a really dire situation.” Only limited resources were available, and some people had to sleep on the floor. “One of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America was just a mile away,” she says.
O’Donnell is no stranger to wandering around places. As a ten-year old, she wound up doing some work for a Korean TV station. She spent part of her childhood in South Korea and Germany, the result of her father’s 30-year stint in the U.S. Army. Newspapers played an important role in her house, because the information they contained might affect where her father was stationed and what he had to do. Magazines like the Journal of the American Medical Association, Time and National Geographic were often found within easy reach.
“The news always mattered in my house,” she recalled. “My mom would not throw away the entire newspaper until she read the entire newspaper, and understood it.”
O’Donnell hadn’t planned to host a morning program. “I thought I would stay in Washington and cover politics and maybe host a Sunday show,” she says. “This was something unexpected.” After filling in on the show for a few days, she suddenly found herself getting an offer to step aboard permanently.
Now, she works to balance a host of breaking stories and daily responsibilities with longer-term projects. O’Donnell has more things in the works: some science reporting that looks into genetics and a series of profiles of “people who every day are carrying out great acts.” She is looking forward to interviewing Lionel Richie, who is one of this year’s Kennedy Center honorees. “My first two tapes were Lionel Richie and Jack Wagner,” she says. When she does meet the musician, chances are she will have a lot of good questions for him at the ready.