I met Bernard Shaw at the Washington Bureau of CNN in the 1990s while he worked as the network’s lead news anchor. I was changing jobs, moving from infantry to public affairs and visiting that newsroom was a key part of the Defense Information School curriculum. Knowing Bernard Shaw was a Marine veteran, I yelled “Ooh Rah” as our gaggle of students strolled by his office. To my pleasant surprise, “Hey Marine,” echoed through the hallway.
With an immediate about-face I peeked into Shaw’s office. We discussed his service in the Marine Corps from 1959-1963, his tours aboard Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. He told me his work in the military had sparked an “ah-ha” moment. Part of his job as a message center specialist was to clip news articles for delivery, and it occurred to him through this experience that he wanted to work in journalism.
He left the service as a corporal and climbed the ranks of journalism from there; working as a reporter in Chicago, then a White House correspondent, then a national and senior correspondent for CBS and ABC News, all during an era when Black journalists hardly ever appeared on television.
Shaw encouraged me to “be a great Marine and dedicate just as much energy to being a good journalist,” as I transitioned to my new public affairs role.
Back at Fort Meade I learned more about Shaw from Col. Keith Oliver, the senior Marine at the schoolhouse who coordinated the DC Bureau visits and regularly spoke with Shaw. Oliver told me Shaw had been so determined to meet Walter Cronkite while he was a young enlisted Marine that he called Cronkite’s hotel 34 times in the hope of connecting with him. This yielded a meeting with Cronkite where Shaw boldly declared his mission to join Cronkite at CBS one day. Years later, Cronkite personally welcomed Shaw to CBS News as a correspondent.
Just as Cronkite welcomed Shaw, Shaw would later welcome Sandy Kenyon, his CNN Washington Bureau producer, into his process of news writing. Kenyon, who hadn’t gone to journalism school, said he was blessed to receive the best training he possibly could have from Shaw in a “college of one.”
“Bernard Shaw took me in as a student, and over the course of 15 broadcasts per day that we wrote and produced together during the first two years of CNN’s existence, he taught me how to be a journalist,” Kenyon said. “Bernie kept faith in me even though I had no formal training and had even flunked typing in high school! Only an extraordinary mentor and teacher could have managed to get on the air so often with such an inexperienced person; and today, I marvel at his patience.”
Kenyon, who now works as an entertainment reporter for WABC-TV’s Eyewitness News in New York, said “Forty years after I met Bernie, I still recall the lessons he taught me. At least once a week, I will think of his advice while writing a line of copy and then try anew to come up to his high standard.”
After the assassination attempt on President Reagan, Shaw was on the air for 20 consecutive hours without a break, Kenyon told MVJ.
“He was the only network anchor not to declare White House Press Secretary Jim Brady dead,” Kenyon said. “A U.S. senator had phoned us first with the ‘news,’ and yet Bernie never put it on the air despite intense pressure to do so. Why not? As he explained to me many hours later, the famous senator was merely reporting second-hand information, and that information later proved false. This was just one lesson on one day. There were many more I carry with me always,” Kenyon said. “By leading through example, by taking the time to explain the details of the craft, and by showing faith in me when others would not, Bernard Shaw was the ideal mentor to me.”
Much of Shaw’s strength came from within – he had a personal self-confidence that compelled him to chase his lofty goals without reservation.
“There was nothing that made me think that I could not or would not,” Shaw said of his journalism aspirations in a feature about his work on NPR. “My attitude was, this is what I do. I can make a contribution to this craft.”
His achievements in journalism paved the road for other Black and veteran journalists, according to Amy Sullivan, the news director for KATV in Little Rock.
“Bernard Shaw is an example to the world of Black excellence,” said Sullivan, an Air Force veteran and NABJ member. “To go from serving his country as a Marine to continuing to serve as a journalist is extremely motivating and another example as to why more newsrooms should hire veterans – they don’t back down from a challenge.”
Shaw’s coverage helped to establish the reputation of a then-upstart network called CNN as a reliable and credible national news source. Shaw embraced risk, reminded the establishment of the importance of diversity, and focused his life’s work on selflessly serving others.
“Bernard Shaw’s presence then should be acknowledged now for the presence of so many of us Black men on television today,” said Venton Blandin, a reporter at ABC15 Phoenix and Marine veteran. “He was us heading into the future. We are him now looking back to our past,” Blandin said.
What does Bernard Shaw’s legacy mean for journalism today? In a world where we experience constant change across all industries, what cannot change is our commitment to informing the public accurately and mastering our storytelling craft. Shaw encouraged future generations of journalists to strive to “be the very best, work very very hard and be confident in yourself.”
From our first meeting, more than 25 years ago, Shaw’s words remain a great guide to me as I begin to turn the page to a new chapter in my own career – one focused on feature film making and creating documentaries in a style the public has never seen before. Shaw’s extraordinary career reminds us that journalists have a critical role in society; working tirelessly for the truth, and representing the people by their presence in the public arena.