NEW YORK — Norah O’Donnell understood the cultural differences that led Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not to shake her hand before their CBS This Morning interview last week, and to request that she not cross her legs. But his references to her as “the lady” were almost too much.
“I had to repeatedly bite my tongue and not say, ‘You know, my name is actually Norah O’Donnell,’” she said. “I thought the questions were more important.”
Wise decision. It would not have resulted in the kind of publicity a rookie morning-show host needed during her first month on the job. O’Donnell, who jumped to CBS last year after more than a decade at NBC News, replaced Erica Hill within the trio of CBS This Morning hosts that also include Charlie Rose and Gayle King.
O’Donnell has the chance to learn her trade and build a following in the relative obscurity of a perpetual underdog program. Competitors Robin Roberts at ABC and Savannah Guthrie at NBC have more viewers but also more pressing problems: Roberts trying to recover from a rare blood disease and Guthrie facing a wide-scale audience defection following the messy dismissal of Ann Curry.
O’Donnell, 38, grew up in Washington journalism. As an ABC News intern, she grabbed a notebook and stood in the back of the room at a White House news conference with President Clinton. She worked at Hotline, then as a reporter for Roll Call. Her job at Roll Call led to the job at NBC. She was a White House correspondent during President George W. Bush’s administration and was the host of a daytime show on MSNBC. Leaving NBC was a tough decision, but O’Donnell saw more opportunity at CBS, where she would be White House correspondent, chief substitute for Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation and eventually, perhaps, Schieffer’s replacement.
That was until getting a call this summer from CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager and President David Rhodes, asking to see her.
“I figured I must be in trouble if they both wanted to see me,” she recalled. Instead, they offered her the job on CBS This Morning.
The new gig required some personal juggling. O’Donnell and her husband have 5-year-old twins and a 4-year-old daughter. She flies to New York Sunday nights and leaves after the show Thursdays to have three days with her family. On Friday she works from a Washington studio.
Still, O’Donnell said, “It’s not the kind of a job you turn down.” Her family is expected to move north this winter.
“Morning TV is the crown jewel of broadcast journalism,” she said. “Where else can you do two hours of live television with the audience that we have?”