Norah O’Donnell says “the news gods have been working in our favor” as she gets set to begin her first week as anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News.”
“Tuesday, July 16, marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 — so famously anchored by Walter Cronkite, which was one of the high points in CBS’ special events history,” O’Donnell said in a phone interview. “Then, on Wednesday, we head to Washington for the testimony of Robert Mueller. Quite a launch week, as they say.”
The cherry on the cake for O’Donnell, who grew up in San Antonio, is that covering the Apollo 11 anniversary brought her back to Texas — specifically, to Houston, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Center, where NASA monitored that historic first flight to the moon.
“As a Texas girl, I’ll always welcome any opportunity to come home,” she said. “It was my first time ever going to Johnson Space Center. A true delight — just to walk down memory lane.”
At 5:30 p.m. Monday, she also will enter an exclusive club for women: Only two other women in TV history have anchored an evening network news broadcast solo: Katie Couric on CBS and Diane Sawyer on ABC.
What’s more, O’Donnell will be carrying on a Texas tradition started by Walter Cronkite and now shared by four of his successors at CBS. All five were brought up in the Lone Star State.
Cronkite hailed from Missouri but spent much of his youth in Houston and Austin.
Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley are Texas natives, growing up in Houston, Fort Worth and Lubbock, respectively.
O’Donnell was born in Washington, D.C., but moved at the age of 3 to San Antonio, where she spent most of her childhood and teen years.
“The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas,” O’Donnell quipped before adding, more seriously: “Texas produces strong and resilient people. It in some ways is truly reflective of the heart of America. CBS is very popular in the heartland. And Texas is a big beating heart in this country.”
Being part of a military family also took her overseas — to Germany and Korea.
The values she learned as a child continue to guide her today, she said.
“One of my values is to always listen, and to project integrity and trust,” she said.
O’Donnell has covered the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, as well as six presidential elections. She calls the upcoming one “the most important of my lifetime.”
Even so, O’Donnell never thought she would one day be taking the reins of “CBS Evening News,” she said.
CBS President Susan Zirinsky, on the other hand, said promoting O’Donnell to that role was a no-brainer.
“She is an exceptional and experienced journalist who cares deeply about the issues that affect American families,” Zirinsky, the network’s first female president, said, announcing the move. “Norah is the right person at the right time.”
Oprah Winfrey also called in her support. “She said, ‘This job is your supreme destiny,’” O’Donnell recalled.
O’Donnell has the ability to connect with viewers; her confidence was boosted by working alongside Gayle King on “CBS This Morning” for seven years, she said.
She doesn’t miss that show’s bleary-eyed hours.
“I do feel more rested,” she said, adding that her three kids — now preteens — are happy, too. “We can have breakfast together and I can drive them to school. The stars aligned perfectly.”
O’Donnell’s Apollo anniversary coverage will kick off Monday and continue through Tuesday’s evening telecast, which she’ll anchor from the same location Cronkite broadcast from 50 years before, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Cronkite’s emotional narration of man’s first steps on the moon — parts of which will be included in next week’s Apollo coverage — helped make CBS the most-watched of the network broadcasts, drawing the largest share of the 53 million homes that watched.
“This was one of the greatest moments in American history,” O’Donnell said. “In 1969, amidst a year of turmoil — the Vietnam War, assassinations and more — the country united around this incredible event.”
One of the stories O’Donnell is most proud of is a feature airing Tuesday on “the hidden figures of Apollo 11,” three trailblazing women who were critical to the mission.
One was Frances “Poppy” Northcutt.
“She was the only female engineer to work at Mission Control during Apollo 11,” she said. “She was the one responsible for the return-to-Earth trajectories, which were crucial to the mission.”
Though initially O’Donnell will anchor her broadcast from New York, like her contemporaries on ABC and NBC, she hopes to invigorate the role with a move this fall. That’s when she’ll start delivering the news from Washington, D.C.
“That puts us right in the center of everything — climate change, gun control, health care, clean air and water, Supreme Court decisions,” she said.
O’Donnell hopes this distinction will help make the evening broadcast, once again, a “destination point” for viewers.
“We know by (5:30 p.m.) what has happened. But do we know why it happened?” she said. “Where’s the one place you can sit down at the end of a chaotic and hectic day and say, ‘I need to know what’s going on so I can make informed decisions’?
“I want that to be the ‘CBS Evening News.’”
Jeanne Jakle is a freelance writer in San Antonio.