Shaw 'Stepping Back' From CNN

Tuesday, February 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — For those watching last November, the surprise came as much from how he said it as from what he said.

Here was CNN anchor Bernard Shaw the Friday after Election Day announcing that, in three months, he would leave the network he had helped establish 21 years earlier.

He wasn't retiring. Just ``stepping back from the table.'' Making, at age 60, a timely life change.

But as he covered all this, his commanding, rolling baritone failed him. He pressed his handkerchief to each eye. For a moment, remarkably, Bernie Shaw choked.

``I couldn't control the tears,'' he recalls.

Here at CNN's Washington bureau, his final day is nearing. Come 6:30 p.m. Feb. 28, Shaw will bid his viewers goodbye.

``Very reflective,'' he replies when asked his current state of mind. ``I'm committing `anchor heresy.' People don't walk away from these jobs.''

But while great stories to report are limitless, Shaw knows one man's life span isn't.

Maybe that notion dawns on you while reporting from a Baghdad hotel room in the midst of anti-aircraft fire, as Shaw did in 1991 during the first U.S. air strikes of Operation Desert Storm. His voice held steady for those audio-only dispatches, but his words packed a wallop: ``This is thunder, this is lightning. This is death. This is hell.''

Now, seated with a reporter in a conference room, Shaw reaches down and plucks a grain of something from the carpeted floor.

``In the fullness of time,'' he says, pinching the speck between his thumb and forefinger, ``you've got THAT much. I'm pushing myself out the front door because there are things I want to do, and I know that if I don't do it now, I'll never do it.''

One thing in particular: finish the autobiography he says he promised his publisher nine years ago. He also wants to spend more time with Linda, his wife of a quarter-century. See more of his grown daughter and son. Smell the flowers, and grow more: After all, he's a gardener.

``At the last contract negotiation, I told them, 'This will be my last contract,''' he says. That was four years ago.

So his leave-taking is no snap decision. Nor, he notes sharply, is its timing connected with the problems CNN is now scrambling to fix.

Stagnant ratings? An identity crisis? The future of the network is bright under the newly merged AOL Time Warner, Shaw insists. Recent layoffs have been painful and the necessary shakedown won't be finished overnight. But in the end these changes will benefit the audience.

``All you have to do is be patient,'' Shaw declares in a mark-my-words tone. ``And you will see.''

Shaw has always demonstrated faith in good things to come.

Growing up in Chicago's Washington Park in a home where the city's four dailies were such a mainstay ``the apartment reeked of newsprint,'' Shaw learned to read by age 4. And love the news.

Meanwhile, fixating on the images of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite on the family's 12-inch Zenith, Shaw embraced these TV news pioneers as his role models.

He wanted to be them and do what they did. Never mind they were white and he was black. ``News is not white,'' he offers simply, ``and not black.''

After studying history at the University of Illinois, Shaw worked in local TV news.

Then, in 1971, his dream came true: He was hired by CBS News.

But after seven years as a correspondent in its hallowed Washington bureau, Shaw did an odd thing: He jumped to the perennial also-ran, ABC News.

``People at CBS said, `You're going to work for a network that doesn't give a damn about news!' But I knew otherwise.''

He was right, of course, signing on for ABC News' renaissance under its new leader, Roone Arledge.

Would Shaw again prove prescient when, two years later, he bolted from ABC to work for a news organization that didn't even exist?

Back then, Shaw saw a round-the-clock, round-the-world, never-ending newscast as ``the last frontier of television news,'' and he had staked his claim behind the anchor desk in Washington when CNN started on June 1, 1980.

Shaw concedes that, early on, ``there were moments when I wondered whether we would get through the day, and sometimes through the hour.

``The company was so strapped for money, the Washington bureau didn't have a TelePrompTer for two years.''

Instead of reading straight from the news copy clutched in both hands, Shaw learned to glance down at it for cues, then ad-lib, ``so I never lost full eye contact with the camera. It's a good skill for an anchor, but it was a skill developed out of necessity.''

Shaw continued to display another strength: letting the news have the spotlight, not his own personality. A grounded, neutral presence on the air, Shaw resisted all theatrics. Which maybe helps explain the nation's shocked reaction to a question no one will ever forget.

It was Shaw, moderating a 1988 presidential debate, who asked Democratic hopeful Michael Dukakis would he favor the death penalty if his own wife were raped and murdered?

An outrageous, offensive question? A grandstanding ambush? Well, Dukakis would have been welcome to respond with raw emotion, showing this was a human, not a bloodless technocrat, in the race for the White House. Instead, Dukakis kept his cool and sealed his candidacy's doom.

Shaw took heat from everybody else.

``I knew beforehand that I could catch hell for asking the question,'' he says. ``But conversely I thought, If Dukakis hits this out of the park, I'm gonna be accused of serving up a softball.

``Finally I said to myself: Do your job!''

Now, with just a few more days for him at CNN, Shaw can leave assured that he got the job done.


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