PHOTOS BY PAVEL HAVLICEK
STYLING BY CANNON
THE JEFFERSON HOTEL IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
CBS NEWS POLITICAL CORRESPONDENTS DISCUSS CAMPAIGN STRESS, BALANCING CAREER AND FAMILY, AND WHY THIS YEAR’S ELECTION MATTERS SO MUCHTO SO MANY
IN THE CUTTHROAT BUSINESS of Washington political coverage, television correspondents are perhaps the most competitive. They have the double responsibility of getting the scoop and putting it on the air in a concise, compelling manner. Often, it’s not enough just to have a big, fancy title like “chief White House correspondent” or “investigative correspondent.” You also have to have a fat Rolodex, dogged determination and the ability to tell a complicated story in mere minutes. Four of CBS News’ star correspondents—Sharyl Attkisson, Nancy Cordes, Jan Crawford and Norah O’Donnell—are reporting and shaping the stories that are likely to have the most impact on the upcoming presidential election.
Chief White House correspondent
Few women have held the title of chief White House correspondent for a major network, and that’s one aspect of Norah O’Donnell’s latest assignment that really inspires her. She was named to the position at CBS News in June, after 12 years as a Washington correspondent for NBC. “It’s an exciting time in history,” says O’Donnell, calling from—where else?—the White House. In her new role, O’Donnell is also the principal substitute anchor for Bob Schieffer’s Face the Nation, in addition to reporting occasionally for 60 Minutes.
“My friends will tell you that I always talked about wanting to be like Barbara Walters,” says O’Donnell, the daughter of an Army doctor who spent part of her childhood in Seoul, South Korea. By age 10 she was already on television, teaching English on a weekly show and earning enough money to buy herself Polo shirts, Nike shoes and Lionel Richie tapes.
As a senior at Georgetown University, O’Donnell interned at ABC’s This Week with David Brinkley. One day the assigning editor sent her down to the White House, where President Clinton just happened to be giving an East Room press briefing. “Ann Compton said to me, ‘Go follow Brit Hume. Just follow him, and go into the East Room. If you have a question, just raise your hand, and here’s a notepad, by the way,’ ” O’Donnell remembers.
Her big break came as a young reporter at Roll Call magazine. It was during Clinton’s impeachment and O’Donnell shared a byline on a story about Hillary Clinton calling congressmen. She got onto C-SPAN’s Washington Journal: Saturday and soon she was doing political commentary for CNN. “People watch and start to call you,” she says.
By 25, O’Donnell was a full-time contributing correspondent and analyst for MSNBC. She joined NBC News in 1999 and covered the 2000 presidential campaigns of John McCain and George W. Bush, providing analysis of the debates, the Republican and Democratic conventions, election night and the 2000 Florida recount. Her Dateline NBC story, “D.C. in Crisis,” which aired Sept. 11, 2001, won her the Sigma Delta Chi Award for breaking news coverage. After the attacks, she traveled extensively in Afghanistan with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. She also covered the 2008 election, and won an Emmy as part of NBC News’ election night coverage.
Some call this a meteoric rise in broadcast journalism, but O’Donnell, 37, doesn’t see it that way. “Slow and steady wins the race,” she says. “It takes a long time to develop sources and develop a reputation for being fair so that both Democrats and Republicans will trust you.”
As if she isn’t busy enough with her day job, O’Donnell has also co-authored a cookbook with her husband, D.C. chef and entrepreneur Geoff Tracy. The idea for the book, Baby Love: Healthy, Easy, Delicious Meals for Your Baby and Toddler, grew out of O’Donnell’s interest in nutrition and her experience feeding their kids, 4-year-old twins Henry and Grace and 3-year-old Riley. Although both O’Donnell and her husband have grueling schedules (they organize their lives with color-coded Outlook schedules), one thing she doesn’t have to worry about is cooking. “It’s a pleasure to have a chef for a husband,” she says, adding that she does like to bake—especially her signature dish, Norah’s Brain Booster Banana Bread.
Growing up in Hawaii, CBS congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes might have felt far removed from the breaking news stories of her childhood, but her parents, both doctors, made sure she stayed abreast of current events by tuning in to shows such as 60 Minutes. Cordes still calls her mother her seniorproducer: “She knows more about what’s going on in the world at 6 a.m. in Hawaii than I do at noon on the East Coast!”
So it was no surprise when the summer after her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, Cordes got an internship at the Today show. “That’s where I really fell in love with TV journalism,” she says. “There were eight interns, and there was very little to do because they have this enormous staff, so we were fighting over scraps.” She started working on the overnight show NBC News at Sunrise, which was anchored by Ann Curry. “I was just hooked.”
But after graduating in 1995, Cordes thought she would go to law school—just because “that’s what everybody did.” A job counselor advised her otherwise, encouraging her to pursue her interest in public policy. That was the kick-start to Cordes’ career in political journalism. She got a job in Honolulu as a reporter for KHNL-TV and after a few years she enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
By 1999 Cordes was living in Washington, D.C., and covering the 2000 presidential race for the local station WJLA-TV. She joined ABC News as a Washington-based correspondent for News One, then became a news correspondent based in New York covering Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and the 2004 election. In 2007 she joined CBS as the transportation and consumer safety correspondent.
Cordes was on maternity leave with her second child in 2010 when she got a call from Sean McManus, then the president of CBS News, asking if she wanted to add the congressional beat to her roster of responsibilities. “Initially I was skeptical because it was a beat everyone was interested in, and when I came back to the Hill it was an incredibly busy time with the healthcare plan and the financial bill,” she remembers. “It was a lot to juggle.”
As Cordes tells it, there really is no other beat like Capitol Hill. “You can walk down to the second floor and speak to any member of Congress,” she says, marveling at the access she has to newsmakers. “They are right there and it’s up to you to go get them. And the staffs of congressmen are the best sources because they’ve often been there so long and understand the process. They always have info they want to give you off the record or on background.”
For Cordes, the real challenge now is to distill for the public what’s happening on Capitol Hill and to explain why the government is doing such a bad job. “There’s a real frustration in the American public. People don’t understand why this august legislative body can’t complete basic tasks in a timely manner. It can get depressing,” she laments. “We as a nation should be able to accomplish these things. Everyone knows the contours of compromise or how you should fix the tax code. The problem is, it’s always an election year! That’s the excuse, always!”
After several years working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Jan Crawford thought she might leave journal-ism to do First Amendment work at a New York law firm. She had just graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. But when she announced her plans to her editor he balked. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “You can always be a lawyer!”
Indeed, Crawford, 46, who grew up on a farm in rural Alabama, had been smitten with journalism ever since she joined the school newspaper at the University of Alabama. “My dad’s a farmer,” she says. “I’m a real country girl. We didn’t even have a newspaper delivered in the morning.” The closest town was 20 miles away and had a population of 5,000. Crawford eventually became the editor of her school paper with the intention of pursuing a career in journalism. “I could not believe that there was such a career where you could go out and ask people questions, get to the bottom of things, find stuff out, go somewhere people couldn’t normally go, find out things first, tell people about it and then get paid for it,” she marvels.
After graduating in 1987, Crawford got a job at the Tribune, joining the legal affairs beat in 1993. In 1994 the Supreme Court beat opened up and the Tribune sent her to Washington. She won the paper’s highest prize in 2001 for her reporting on the presidential election of 2000 and the legal battles over the White House.
“Seventeen years later and I’m still kind of a rookie,” she laughs. “The court doesn’t change a lot except very recently.” Although it takes a while before justices trust reporters and welcome them, Crawford was able to interview nine justices for her book, the best-seller Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, which was published in 2007.
“Most people in this town want press, but the court doesn’t want it at all,” Crawford explains. “It’s very hard for television because there are no TV [cameras] allowed.” So Crawford tells the stories of what the judicial branch does through the people whose cases are working their way through the system. She was the first network journalist to get a televised interview with Chief Justice John Roberts, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and then-86-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens.
Crawford began dabbling in broadcast journalism in 1998 when she became a Supreme Court analyst for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. She also served as a Supreme Court analyst for CBS’ Face the Nation. From 2007 to 2009 Crawford was a legal and political correspondent for ABC. She joined CBS News as a regular contributor in 2009 and this year she added political correspondent to her list of duties. In addition to the courts, Crawford will also cover the upcoming Republican campaign.
“The great thing about the court beat is that you know you will never be scooped because they don’t leak anything out of that place,” says Crawford, laughing. But you know who they will call if they change their minds.
CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson has a third-degree black belt in tae kwan do, so she isn’t afraid when White House aides or congressmen cuss her out, as some did recently after she broke the story about federal agents “walking” guns across the border into Mexico, arming drug cartels.
“I’m comfortable with people not liking my stories,” Attkisson says. “When a White House person yells at me, I think I’m getting somewhere and there’s more to the story.” She is certainly not intimidated—she is, after all, one of the few journalists to have flown in a B-52 on a combat mission in Kosovo. After more than 15 years as an award-winning investigative correspondent for CBS News, Attkisson is used to the fallout from her breaking news stories. She gets threatened, people cry, a lot of people are mad at her at any given time. On occasion she has been known to check underneath her car for possible bombs.
Investigative reporting has come naturally to Attkisson, who always has been curious and knew she would be a writer. She initially chose psychology as a major at the University of Florida but talked to a friend in her dorm who was majoring in journalism. “I said, ‘What is that?,’ and when she told me, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
Upon graduating, Attkisson got a job as a reporter at WUFT-TV in Gainesville, Fla. She later moved to Tampa to work for WTVT, where she says she really learned how to report and to anchor. Her big break came when she joined CNN in 1990 as a correspondent and anchored its coverage of the Gulf War. “I was anchoring full time, learning a lot about the world,” she remembers. “I would come in every day and study the geography of the area we were covering. I didn’t want to mess up or appear unknowledgeable on air.”
In 1993 Attkisson moved to New York City to join CBS News as a co-anchor of its overnight broadcast, Up to the Minute. She figured out pretty quickly that to get her stories on TV every night, she’d have to break news. “You can’t get on the news here without a producer and a great story,” she says. “So I thought, OK, what is nobody covering?” In 1996 there was a story about Chinese money being funneled into the Clinton campaign; Attkisson called around and ended up with something completely different: a tip that the Chinese had stolen design plans on the nuclear warhead W88. “It got me on the evening news every night,” she says. “Just by being very curious and nosy and suspicious and digging a little further.”
Another big story, about Firestone tires on Ford Explorers being dangerous, landed Attkisson on the evening news for 11 1/2 weeks. She won an Emmy in 2002 for her exclusive reports on mismanagement at the Red Cross and she was part of the CBS News team that received the RTNDA-Edward R. Murrow awards for overall excellence in 2005 and 2006.
Although Attkisson has become a pro at getting sources to tell their stories, getting them to do so on camera remains difficult. “It’s a lot easier to get someone to talk on the phone,” she says. “When you ask ‘Can I come over with a camera?’ they get really nervous.”
Fashion credits for group photo:
On Nancy Cordes, blazer by T Tahari, Available at Lord & Taylor New York, NY. Dress by Burberry, Pumps by Prada. All available at Saks Fifth Avenue Chevy Chase, Maryland. Earrings by Judith Ripka, judithripka.com, available at Judith Ripka New York. Diamond ring by Roberto Coin, robertocoin.com. Necklace from Adeler Jewelers in Great Falls, Va., adelerjewelers.com. On Norah O’Donnell, skirt suit by Prada. Peep-toe pumps by Salvatore Ferragamo. All available at Saks Fifth Avenue Chevy Chase, Maryland. Earrings and ring from Adeler Jewelers Great Falls, VA. On Sharyl Attkisson, dress by Black Halo, Available at Bloomingdales New York, NY. Pumps by Christian Louboutin, Available at Saks Fifth Avenue Chevy Chase, Maryland. Earrings, ring and bracelet by Judith Ripka, available at Judith Ripka New York. Watch by Korloff Paris, korloffparis.com. On Jan Crawford, python-print skirt suit by T Tahari. Pumps by Manolo Blahnik, All available at Saks Fifth Avenue Chevy Chase, Maryland. Blue diamond and silver necklace by David Yurman, Available at The Tiny Jewel Box Washington, DC. Oval diamond ring from Adeler Jewelers Great Falls, VA.
Back to top