Peggy Noonan: “It was at CBS that I really learned the essentials of what professional journalists do”

CBSNewsroom c 1981 sharpened

She learned it the same way I did, from many of the same people, working in the same cramped studios with bad lighting and musty air in the bowels of what was once a dairy in midtown Manhattan.

I arrived a few years after she had left. But clearly, not much had changed.

Good times: 

When I went down to CBS News in New York, in 1977, my job for a long time was pretty much the same—interviews, writing morning broadcasts—but now on a network level. I was still on the overnight and still in a small space, Studio 5 at the Broadcast Center, but the interviews now were on national and international stories, and because CBS was a mighty network, most of my calls were returned.

It was there, at CBS, that I really learned the essentials of what professional journalists do. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I was being taught by masters. At WEEI we’d all been young, recent college graduates. But at the network my colleagues—the radio editors and writers and anchors—were mostly veterans of the business. They taught me how to understand a story, how to tell it, how to do it clearly, in little space.

In the CBS newsroom in those days, there were a bunch of old, semi-curmudgeonly correspondents and editors, and they taught me by reading, editing and rewriting my hourly news broadcasts. When they had time, they would explain why this sentence was too long, that phrase open to different interpretation.

For many years I had been a writer who wrote most comfortably for the eye. I had spent three years in college writing features and editorials for the student newspaper, and naturally wrote for readers. But the old men in the newsroom had made their careers writing for listeners, for people absorbing information not through the eye but the ear. They knew how to write words in the air, which is different from words on the page.

More than that, they communicated a deeply adult sense of excitement about the gravity of news and the importance of reliable and trusted information: We can tell people what they need to know, we can actually help them understand the world better, see it clearer. They were thoughtful—this was a mission to them, a vocation—and had depth.

Read more. 

A favorite story from my days at CBS News Radio carries a lesson I try to impart when I teach homiletics.  It involves the night President George H.W. Bush fell violently ill in Japan and threw up on the country’s prime minister. I was the copy editor on the news desk that day. The anchor gave me his script to edit. It included this deathless piece of prose:

“The president said he hadn’t been feeling himself…”

I told him he might want to rethink that.

Preachers and public speakers: remember to write for the ear.  Please. Thank you. :-)


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