Two-time Emmy Award winner, Deborah Norville, has been leading the way in television journalism for over 30+ years. An inspiration for other aspiring female news journalists, she has followed in the footsteps of female broadcasters like Connie Chung, Leslie Stahl, and Marlene Sanders, who she says are the real trailblazers.
“I looked to those women who had incredibly challenging jobs and were doing it,” explains Deborah. “I studied the trail of these gals to see how they got from where they started to where they wound up.”
A career in front of the camera was not part of Deborah’s original life plan. Instead, the future news reporter had set her sights on becoming a litigator after taking a civil rights law class in her senior year of high school.
“I was absolutely knocked over by the power of the law and the power of an individual who could follow case law back to its origins,” she recalls.
All set to attend West Georgia College after graduation, one fateful weekend changed everything. After winning a Junior Miss Pageant, she realized that her decision to enter literally changed the trajectory of her life.
The experience of being on TV and witnessing firsthand what went on behind the scenes left Deborah in awe. It was here she realized she could harness her love of research and combine it with production if she became a TV reporter. And as they say, the rest is history!
Today, Deborah holds the title of longest-running anchor of a national news program. Since 1995, she has been at the helm of “Inside Edition,” reporting on some of our nation’s most important and groundbreaking stories.
Off-screen, Deborah is a best-selling author and lecturer, wife, mother, and passionate advocate for causes close to her heart and has been sewing since she was 9 years old. Fascinated by her story, BELLA sat down with the veteran journalist for an in-depth conversation about her life both on and off-camera.
Growing up, being a TV reporter was not on your radar. What did a young Deborah aspire to become?
At a young age I wanted to become an architect. I would go to the local store that sold appliances and I would get the specs so I knew how much space and power I needed, and I would spend my summer drawing houses. Designing houses was really what I wanted to do, and I still enjoy it. But then I found out you had to go to school for five years to become an architect, and I just couldn’t see myself doing the same thing in school for five years, so that toned down the enthusiasm for it.
One fateful weekend during your senior year of high school led you to where you are today. How did you get your start in television?
My second year of college, I got an internship covering the Georgia legislature for public TV. The last day of that internship, the wife of the man who ran the CBS affiliate in Atlanta was flipping channels so he saw me. For whatever reason, he saw some potential, called my producer, and brought me in for an interview. They hired me basically as a gopher, and on the third day I was there, they were low on reporters and needed someone to cover a story, so they sent me.
I was pretty much on the air every day after that. At the end of the summer, they said, if you’ll cover the news for us on weekends when you go back to school, we’ll guarantee you a reporting job when you graduate. So, my career plans got completely upended at that point. My goal was to eventually work my way to the point where I could be eligible for a job in Atlanta. My goodness—to start at that was, like, wow!
What did that mean to you—having the opportunity to follow your dream sooner than you expected?
I have always been incredibly grateful to that gentleman; his name is Shelly Schwab. For no reason, he took a chance on me, and I’ve always been grateful to him. We all have people like that in our lives who have taken a chance on us when there’s honestly no good evidence it’s a wise decision on their part. The one thing you have to do [is] perform in a way that never lets them regret doing that. If you don’t measure up, you’ve torched any opportunity they’ll give anybody else. So, it’s kind of a subtle way of paying it forward because you keep that avenue of possibility open for others.
Throughout your career, you’ve had the opportunity to interview so many amazing people. Does anyone stand out in particular?
I was a correspondent for CBS News, for the magazine, “Street Stories,” which was fronted by Ed Bradley. It was a story about a woman from Oklahoma, and the overall story was how a mother’s love can achieve the impossible. This woman had been divorced from her Tunisian-born husband and they had a child who was 5 years old. She had custody and he had visitation, but one weekend he didn’t return the child. Next thing you know, she’s pretty sure he’s taken the child to Tunisia in violation of all the legal agreements. She essentially bankrupted herself, spending her entire net worth to finance lawyers, trips to Washington, and every conceivable avenue she could think of.
Finally, she heard of some guys who had been a part of the Delta Force Unit. They had become specialists in helping American parents get their kids back when they’ve been taken to foreign countries—very cloak and dagger. This was her last-ditch effort. We had been in contact with these guys and said if you ever have a case that comes along, we’d love to report the arc of the story.
That story stands out because a mother’s love can achieve the impossible. She’s always been an inspiration to me, and we’ve remained in contact; it was a privilege to get to tell her story.
“Inside Edition” has been a staple in viewers’ homes for 30 years. Why do you think that is, and what are you most proud of?
I think its authenticity. A lot of us are covering the same things, and I think it’s the way I tell the story, the way I tee it up. My favorite part is the variety; every day it’s something different, and I’m proud the show is still here. When I joined “Inside Edition,” there were 11 of these news magazines out there and most have fallen by the wayside. Our report card is our ratings, and our ratings strength indicates what we’re doing on the show is resonating with the audience.
There’s the old expression, familiarity breeds contempt, but in the media business, familiarity breeds comfort. With “Inside Edition” you don’t know what we’re going to have on, but we’ve been around long enough for you to know it’s going to be interesting, exciting, and something you won’t regret spending 30 minutes watching and then you can talk about what you saw with your friends.
You’ve been vocal about the ups and downs you experienced in the early days of your career. What did you take away from the experience?
One of my favorite quotes is the Greek Epictetus, “Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen and you will have peace.” The way I translate that is, you can’t control what happens to you, but what you can control is how you allow yourself to think about that, and if you allow yourself to be defined by the event, then you let it define you.
My career blew up at NBC, and I wish to hell it hadn’t. It was years that I couldn’t go past 30 Rock and see the Christmas tree without having that creepy feeling in my stomach. That was hard; I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did. I finally got to the point where I was like, “I’ve got to let it go; it’s not going to change anything.” You could say I got lucky the first time to be on “The Today Show,” but my career has been OK after that, so maybe I’m good at what I do, and that’s where I take my pleasure.
Service and commitment to helping organizations close to your heart have been an important part of your life for many years. What are some of the organizations you work with?
I’m a supporter of the Rita Hayworth Alzheimer’s Gala. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, so for me it was personal. Currently, I’m involved with the Broadcasters Foundation of America, where we raise money for broadcasters in need, as well as the New York Society for The Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) They’re the oldest child welfare association in the world.
Many young women look to you as a role model. What advice do you have for them?
Hold true to what you believe in, and if you don’t know what that is then go and figure it out. Early in my career, every person in that newsroom in Atlanta who was a reporter was either unhappily single or happily divorced, and I thought, I don’t want that. I’ve been married 34 years, and I was able to figure out a way to have the career and still have the marriage I wanted.
I stepped away from network news. I was expecting my second child and CBS News was offering me weekend anchor, but I couldn’t see how being a correspondent the rest of the time was possibly going to work. That story I was doing in Tunisia, I was in Tunisia. It helped me realize what this mom had given up to be with her son, and I looked at myself and thought, “Who are you to willingly go 6000 miles away from your son when he’s such a small person? You really need to be here for him.” For me, that story was a personal wake-up call.
So, for young women contemplating their future careers and the path those careers might require them to take, you must know what matters to you. Who are you, what do you believe in, what’s important to you, what will you compromise on, and what are deal breakers that you can’t be flexible on because it would be untrue to you? That answer is different for everybody, and it isn’t easy. It requires prayer and thought and time, but you’ll get there.
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