CBS Anchor Norah O’Donnell on How to Ask the Tough Questions

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In ELLE.com’s monthly series Working hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first job, worst job and everything in between. This month, we spoke with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, if one and a half year long investigation into sexual assault within the U.S. military uncovered systemic flaws and major mistakes made by leadership. Below, O’Donnell on one lesson she learned the hard way, her journalism hero, and what it means to be a reporter in 2020.

My very first job

When my father was an Army doctor, we were stationed abroad in Seoul, South Korea, and my mother met someone looking for an English speaker to record language tapes for children. I was 10 years old at the time and I got a check every other week for work. I quickly learned the strength of earning an income and the freedom that gives you. My family did not have much money to grow up with, so this was the first time I could go out and buy a pair of new shoes or a band for myself. I loved Lionel Richie and Jack Wagner, who had a short music career. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper too.

My hardest job

I used to be babysitting for $ 2.50 an hour growing up. Once, when I was babysitting four children at a time, I thought to myself, “This is the hardest job in the world.” As a mom, I now understand why I thought that. Caring for children, keeping them entertained, fed and tidying up after them, as any parent or caregiver will tell you, is one of the hardest jobs in the world and it is completely underrated. I learned to be patient and how to multitask, both skills I use all the time at my job today.

My journalist hero

Bob Schieffer is an incredible mentor. He has for decades been the most respected journalist in Washington, not just anchoring Face the Nation but also CBS Evening News. When I came to CBS as head of the White House, correspondent and primary temp it Face the Nation, Bob put me really calm. We anchored together and there just is not a better person to do it with. He would finish my sentences and I could finish his sentences. He is a good person who embodies what it means to be a journalist. He has also managed to maintain the trust and respect of many by not taking himself too seriously.

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Words of wisdom – and the advice I ignored

The best advice I have ever received is either from my mother, who always said to me, “Be a good listener,” or from the longtime CBS producer Adam Verdugo, who says, “Follow your curiosity.”

The worst advice I ever got was when I first started anchoring. Someone said to me, “You’re too conversational.” I said, “Really? Tell me what that means!” They said, “You’re just too conversational.” And I said, “Well, thank you so much for that advice.” Being a good conversationalist is actually a plus in journalism. The best interviewers in the world are good interviewers. Take Gayle King, for example. She is an incredible conversation partner and as a result has it most fascinating interviews.

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A lesson I learned the hard way

How to ask tough questions – without sounding judgmental. Journalists have an obligation and a responsibility to hold powerful people accountable, as well as to expose abuse and corruption. But when asking tough questions, make sure your tone is just right. I once did a live interview with the late Senator John McCain on a particularly heated political topic. Then he called a CBS director and complained that my tone was off. John McCain and I had known each other forever because I covered his presidential campaign in 2000, so I saw his feedback as constructive. You can ask a hard question without sounding annoyed or teased by it or their answer. I watch a lot of live cable TV, and sometimes the tone of a reporter is to make people think that journalists are too meaningful. There is a way to be critical without being judgmental.

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The story I’m most proud of

We have reported on the issue of sexual assault in the military since 2017. It ended up being a series of Emmy Award-winning reports where we spoke to a number of cadets at the Air Force Academy who told us they were being attacked and harassed and then continuously harassed in their efforts to report it . While working on the investigation, I thought to myself that these were the future leaders of our U.S. military, the best and clearest women in the country, and they were driven from service due to assault and harassment. It struck me not only as a great injustice to them, but also as a threat to our long-term national security because we need more women serving in military affairs.

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How I report sexual assault

Dig, dig, dig and then talk to survivors. Our work is related to bringing together people who are willing to talk on camera and describe the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment. One of the most difficult parts of the military sexual assault investigation was talking to parents of daughters who have died by suicide because of what they went through.

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Why a #MeToo bill in the military is long overdue

Our CBS study preceded Vanessa Guillén murder in Fort Hood, but her case brought so much attention again to the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the military. Journalism has served a purpose here, pushing leaders and powerful people to make change and try to make change.

Many survivors and victim advocates have told me they think it’s time for a #MeToo movement in the military. I’m from a military family, and my sister served in the military. The alleged abuse that has occurred is not in line with the values ​​I grew up knowing. There are a number of people carrying out these attacks and they should be held accountable. My biggest concern is that it prevents really amazing people from serving – and we need these people to be the best military in the world.

This interview is easily edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Staff Writer
Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news and women’s issues.

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