How I'm Living Now: Norah O'Donnell, 'CBS Evening News' Anchor

CBS
Norah O'Donnell

Still reporting nightly from her D.C. studio, the anchor talks about her newfound fascination with science and leaning on her father, an infectious disease specialist, as a research assistant.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

As America enters its fifth week of widespread social distancing, Norah O’Donnell is one TV journalist who hasn’t been forced to report from her basement or home office. The CBS Evening News anchor still appears every weeknight from her Washington, D.C., studio, offering the latest updates on the COVID-19 epidemic to her surging audience of more than 7 million viewers. O’Donnell, who took over the anchor chair in 2019, is approaching her coverage with some helpful insights. Not only does she have an infectious disease specialist (her own father) on speed dial, she’s neighbors with Dr. Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and face of the government’s task force to combat the spread of the disease.

She spoke with THR about her new normal, which includes more time with Fauci, CNBC and her family of five.

Let’s start easy: How are you?

Each day is starting to feel a little bit like Groundhog Day. (Laughs) I’m grateful for my health, but I’m worried about people — people’s health and the people losing their jobs. I do think it helps to be focused on the role that those of us in the broadcast media can fill — a public service, working alongside public health officials in helping to share information that hopefully saves lives.

Do you feel pressure to be both informative and reassuring to your viewers?

The tone cannot be about hype. It has to be just the facts. Tone is incredibly important in terms of being reassuring. Early on, as managing editor, I told our team that we can’t just report the horrible news. Let’s also leave time for the incredible stories of humanity and hope and togetherness.

You’re still working from the studio, but what does your day look like now?

I wake up around 6:30, and my husband brings me the newspapers and coffee in bed.

That’s lovely.

Yeah, it is very nice. My dog just kind of sits with me, and I read all of the three papers I have delivered. I try and read what’s online, but, in the morning, I love the hard copies. I watch CBS This Morning while eating breakfast. I get the kids up. I think children also need an incredible amount of reassurance during this time, so I’m mindful of that. I get them fed and ready for distance learning. And then I try and work out from 11:30 to 12:30 every day. We're trying to socially distance at work as much as we can, so I come into the office late in the afternoon and then the broadcast is at 6:30 p.m..

How are you exercising right now?

I work out with my trainer, via FaceTime. I worked out with her in person when I lived in New York, and now we do FaceTime. Other days I try to run or go for a walk. Yesterday, I took my dog for a run, and then I jumped on my kids’ trampoline. (Laughs.)

What’s running like in D.C. with social distancing?  

There aren’t very many people out, but when there are...it’s so unusual how you just spot another person and both of you just move the other way.

It’s wild.

It’s the most unnatural thing — to look at someone and then move away from them. I do always say “hi.” 

What’s been the easiest adjustment? I guess you were already FaceTiming with your trainer...

Yes. One silver lining is it has clarified my schedule a little bit better — because there’s really nowhere else to go.

What’s been the most difficult?

I realized I’m a very social person. I like to be around other people. And after the first couple weeks of this, I thought “Oh my gosh. It’s so hard on everybody. I’m going to just have everybody over for cocktails and dinner on Saturday night.” Did I say that out loud? I can’t have people over....(Laughs.)

What would you say you’ve learned about yourself over the last month?

I think that I’m kind of a geek for science. My parents met in medical school. My dad is actually an infectious disease doctor. My sister is a surgeon. I grew up around discussions about infectious diseases. But now I’m so insanely curious about every detail about this virus and how we get through this.

How helpful to have an infectious disease specialist in the family during all of this.

I’ve got a research assistant on speed dial! And because my father reads every medical journal, he can quickly translate what’s news and what’s not. Early on, when the debate was about wearing masks or not, I asked my dad and he said, “Look, the thing with masks is it prevents the spread of coronavirus...but wearing a mask doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting it.” That’s why there was this lag time in terms of the task force recommending it — that and the concern about taking them away from medical professionals.

Of course.

Little things like that, just understanding the basics of the virus is very useful. Dr. Fauci, before there was real social distancing, came into the studio. He finished up the interview, and the crew kept asking him questions. It’s useful just to have a doctor that I can ask either basic or complex questions. And I’ve known Fauci for a long time. We live in the same neighborhood. He teases me that I ask him tough questions but I think that he brings a lot of honesty to the discussion, and I think that’s why people really appreciate him. Science and facts are what's going to get us out of this.

You probably don’t have more free time now, but have you found yourself watching, reading, listening to anything as a reprieve in the evenings?

I’m finishing Untamed, the book by Glennon Doyle. She is just so fierce and soulful. [Last] Sunday night, I got a little stressed and I realized I need to make some time for myself and enjoy some television — some escapism. So I did start season three of Ozark.

For your media diet, you mentioned three paper deliveries in the morning. Can I assume…

The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, yes.

Anything on TV, aside from CBS News?

Interestingly, I started watching CNBC every morning. That was new for me. I’m so mindful that this is not only a medical story, it’s also an economic story. And in some ways the economic impact is going to be much longer lasting. My husband is a small-business owner, he owns restaurants. It’s very painful to see people lose their livelihood, their businesses and their employment. More than 40 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

Have your husband’s restaurants pivoted to keep business going — switching to delivery or turning into markets?

He shut down some of the restaurants. He kept two open that are in neighborhoods, the ones not really around businesses. He started a market from day one. And he started a pantry, and all of the proceeds benefit the staff. He sells nonmedical gloves, the vinyl gloves, bleach, toilet paper, bread and all of that.

That’s great.

He’s just trying to be creative every day, so he’s hired another 15 people back. But he is optimistic.

Seeing local businesses go under so quickly has been one of the tougher things to watch, but the margins were already so thin.

Yes, the margins have gotten thinner and thinner over time. My husband was the chair of the National Restaurant Association for many years. He always says, "Where else is there in America [where] you cannot have a lot of 'skills,' come in, be a waiter and make $30 or $40 an hour?"

Absolutely.

It’s a really good job for a lot of people, and that great industry employs a lot of people. So this is hard.

What’s on top of your to-do list when all of this is over?

Dinner with family and a big party to welcome home my sister, who is serving in the Army overseas.

Has her deployment been extended?

Yes. Like many of those who are deployed, the Department of Defense put a 60- to 90-day hold on deployments. So many people who had already finished what were long deployments are stuck even longer.