A text from my boss is how I learned that my friend and colleague Bernard Shaw had died.
We called him “Bernie”. He was CNN’s first main anchor in the 80s and 90s. Bernie took us from the days of Chicken Noodle News to our innovative coverage of the first Gulf War. His coverage of Baghdad prompted NBC News to do an unprecedented interview with him from Baghdad on the Nightly News. I remember the cheers in the newsroom when Tom Brokaw said something like, “Tonight CNN has become the little network that can.” Praise from a competitor.
I became the youngest executive producer in CNN history in 1984. I was way over my head. The position involved being EP of “Inside Politics” and “The World Today”. For a while I did the work from the Atlanta headquarters. Later the Powers That Be thought it best for me to do it with the anchors in person in DC
The pieces of the puzzle move a lot at CNN, but the moment I remember most fondly was when we recruited Judy Woodruff from CNN. I was excited because I had the chance to work with two of the best broadcast journalists in the country.
Bernie was calm and intelligent. He was simply an icon for all of us. You have to understand that due to financial difficulties, many producers and presenters were very young – not at all qualified to make news on the network. Bernie was the veteran network reporter who gave us the credibility we needed.
Bernie first caught my eye while covering the Air Florida crash in 1982.
I was an executive producer for a local station in Wichita, Kan. I thought this TV news concept was pretty cool.
I watched, longingly, Bernie’s coverage of the plane crash in the Potomac River.
He was solo on the anchor desk, which is very difficult for breaking news because producers have to talk to him while he speaks. Most anchors aren’t good at it. To be fair, most producers also don’t know when is a good time to talk to them. I was impressed with his calm style and ability to engage the audience in the process.
His first words were: “We don’t know the cause of the accident. We are not aware of any deaths or injuries. We do not know if the aircraft was on the correct flight path. We know the plane crashed into the Potomac near or on a major suburban bridge. What he was doing was filling time until he had more information, but he was also telling the producers what questions needed to be answered.
Bernie was simply the best. He had a letter from Walter Cronkite welcoming him to CBS on the wall in his office. He also had a few Emmys stuffed in the corner of his office.
The highlight of my life as a journalist was the one-on-one meetings I had with Bernie every morning. I had my notepad and my pen. Bernie spoke. I wrote. Even though he was a superstar to me, he always listened to my ideas and handled them thoughtfully.
It was known as a prepared interview and asked unique questions. In another CNN milestone, Bernie was chosen to moderate a presidential debate between Vice President George HW Bush and Governor Mass. Michael Dukakis.
Dukakis was known to be tough on crime. As we all watched, Bernie opened the debate with the question, “If Kitty Dukakis was raped and murdered, would you support an irrevocable death penalty?” No one remembers Dukakis’ response, other than he was emotionless. Stoic, in fact. Bernie’s issue was seen as a turning point in the election.
In 1989, Bernie and I were standing in front of the CNN elevators, ready to go home.
Bernie had just told me that I had tried to make the news “too theatrical”. I don’t remember what I did to bring up that comment.
Someone rushed to the elevators to tell us there had been a major earthquake in San Francisco.
ABC was broadcasting the World Series that night. They had an airship in the air.
Bernie ran to his office and came out a few minutes later telling me to put it on. I asked, “What do you have?” He said, “I don’t have time. Bring me up.
We ran into the studio and I called Atlanta to tell them to come see us.
Meanwhile, Bernie took off his overcoat, his jacket and loosened his tie. The network reached out to him and he said, “I apologize for my appearance, but we wanted to get it to you as soon as possible. The Bay Bridge is out. I have been told by my sources that the upper level of the bridge has partially collapsed.
That was all we could contribute to the coverage, but we were the first to report it.
As we were leaving the Washington office for the second time, I said to him, “You call me theatrical. You took off your jacket, loosened your tie, then apologized for your appearance. Bernie looked at me, smiled and said, “Good night, Mr. Kaczaraba.” I didn’t even think about the fact that he got in the elevator without me.
Fast forward to 1991.
The United States was preparing for war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Our army was in place. The allies implored Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait and give up their weapons of mass destruction.
For weeks, CNN staffers worked to secure an interview with Saddam, and Bernie agreed to go to Baghdad. Management deemed the risk to Bernie to be low.
Right after Bernie arrived, the war started.
We had the technology to cover the initial bombardment of Baghdad and were well ahead of the other networks. “Baghdad’s sky is lit up with bombs.” Only Bernie would use the word “enlightened”.
Bernie was on the air for 72 straight hours. No sleep. I remember a live report when he started talking about the sandwich shop in our building and how badly he wanted a sandwich. I knew it was time to bring him home. He returned to thunderous applause from the newsroom. In private, he told me “Never again”. He covered the Vietnam War and the Jonestown Massacre. Bernie had had enough. “I’m finished.” Shortly after, he retired.
When I left CNN, Bernie gave me a glass globe and took me to his private restaurant. His assistant told me it was the first time he took a colleague. The restaurant was reserved for high-level government sources. It was an honor.
More recently, I wanted to do a documentary about Bernie’s life and career. He told me he was not interested. It didn’t sound the same. Bernie looked tired. I told him we better do it soon. Life does not last forever.
My friend, mentor and father figure passed away today. He was the inspiration of both my career and my life. I will miss him.