Former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw died Wednesday at a Washington, DC, hospital of pneumonia unrelated to Covid-19, Shaw’s family announced Thursday. Shaw was 82.
Shaw was CNN’s first chief anchor and was with the network when it launched on June 1, 1980. He retired from CNN after more than 20 years on February 28, 2001.
During his storied career, Shaw reported on some of the biggest stories of that time – including the student revolt in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, the First Gulf war live from Baghdad in 1991, and the 2000 presidential election.
“CNN’s beloved anchor and colleague, Bernard Shaw, passed away yesterday at the age of 82. Bernie was a CNN original and was our Washington Anchor when we launched on June 1st, 1980,” Chris Licht, CNN Chairman and CEO, said in a statement Thursday. “He was our lead anchor for the next twenty years from anchoring coverage of presidential elections to his iconic coverage of the First Gulf War live from Baghdad in 1991. Even after he left CNN, Bernie remained a close member of our CNN family providing our viewers with context about historic events as recently as last year. The condolences of all of us at CNN go out to his wife Linda and his children.”
Funeral services for Shaw will be closed to family and invited guests only, with a public memorial service planned at a later time, his family said.
The family requested donations to a scholarship fund in lieu of flowers, according to a statement provided by former CNN CEO Tom Johnson. “The Shaw family requests complete privacy at this time,” the family added in the statement.
In a statement, Johnson said Shaw “exemplified excellence in his life” and will be “remembered as a fierce advocate of responsible journalism.”
“As a journalist, he demanded accuracy and fairness in news coverage. He earned the respect of millions of viewers around the world for his integrity and independence. He resisted forcefully any lowering of ethical news standards or any compromise of solid news coverage. He always could be trusted as a reporter and as an anchor,” Johnson said.
“Bernie was my personal friend and colleague for more than 55 years. I will miss him enormously,” he added. “My wife Edwina and I extend our most genuine condolences to Bernie’s wife Linda and to his family.”
Shaw was born May 22, 1940, in Chicago to Edgar and Camilla Shaw.
He spent four years in the Marine Corps, during which he was stationed in Hawaii when he sought out TV news legend Walter Cronkite for advice about how to become a journalist.
Shaw got his career start as a radio reporter in Chicago, during which he interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who told him, “One day you’ll make it, just do some good,” Shaw recalled.
His first job in TV was as a political reporter for CBS, helping cover the Watergate scandal. He’d later become ABC’s Latin America correspondent and bureau chief, where he and his team captured the only aerial pictures of the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana.
He left ABC to take a job with Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, the world’s first 24-hour television news network – a decision he said many of his former colleagues thought was crazy. “I thought it was the last frontier in network television news,” he had said.
Turner remembered Shaw in a statement Thursday evening after learning of his passing.
“Bernie was a pioneer, a consummate professional and one of the most respected journalists in the country. As a masterful mentor whose calm and disciplined demeanor provided the perfect tone for historic coverage that would define his twenty-plus year career at CNN – his legacy will live on in the work and minds of so many journalists around the world,” Turner wrote, expressing condolences to Shaw’s family. “The world has lost a hero for democracy and truth.”
‘Boys of Baghdad’
Shaw is often credited with raising CNN’s international prominence and turning CNN into the news leader it is today. He was also known for being cool under pressure – which was exemplified with his coverage of the First Gulf War.
He and fellow reporters, John Holliman and Peter Arnett, made TV history by broadcasting the night of the first attack in Baghdad in real-time, and would become known as the “Boys of Baghdad.”
“The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We’re seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky,” Shaw said, reporting from a Baghdad hotel as bombs rained down.
Arnett recalled how in the first moments of the bombing: “I raced for the microphone, and here was Bernie – ‘Atlanta, come to Baghdad, come to Baghdad.’”
“He had the microphone first, the instinct to broadcast, to be there,” Arnett said. “He didn’t hesitate. He scooped the world.”
Shaw told NPR in 2014 that “one of the things I strove for was to be able to control my emotions in the midst of hell breaking out.”
“The more intense the news story I cover, the cooler I want to be. The more I ratchet down my emotions, even the tone of voice because people are depending on you for accuracy, dispassionate descriptions of what’s happening. And it would be a disservice to the consumers of news – be they readers, listeners or viewers – for me to become emotional and to get carried away,” he said.
CNN made its debut with Shaw as its Washington anchor at a time when other networks had White males as their lead anchors.
After less than a year on air for CNN, Shaw led the network’s coverage of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. When the other networks reported that White House press secretary James Brady had been killed, Shaw held off on reporting until he received official confirmation – which never came and the other networks had to retract.
Shaw also earned a reputation for conducting tough interviews. His sharp questioning was on display when, in 1988, he became the first African American journalist to moderate a presidential debate.
In the second showdown between then-Vice President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, Shaw asked the candidates to speak about the death penalty.
When Dukakis said he was against the death penalty, Shaw asked: “If Kitty Dukakis (Dukakis’ wife) were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
The question was duped a candidate career killer and, some thought, changed the trajectory of the race.
Shaw signs off
Shaw announced in November 2000 he would be stepping back at CNN to spend time with his family and to write books.
“My best time has been simply being here, helping to do what attracts you, our viewers, your demand to be informed instantly with knowledgeable context and insight. And to you around the world and across our great land here in the United States, more than your praise I have valued your criticism and your suggestions. Scrutiny can be instructive,” he told viewers.
“Harder than entering this business, is leaving it and leaving CNN, especially after 20 years here. But you know, some roses are so fragrant. And as a gardener, I want to grow and smell them more – when I’m not writing.”
Shaw was the recipient of many awards for his journalism including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement Award in Broadcasting and was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 1999.
“We were a team. That is the only way the network succeeded. That is the only way the network made history,” he told CNN staff and alumni at the celebration of CNN’s 35th anniversary in Atlanta in 2015. “We succeeded because you made excellence a habit. You did that every day … you soldiered on.”
Shaw said he always believed that the “most important chair was not the anchor chair.”
“The most important chair was the chair at the assignment desk. The most important chair was the audio person’s chair, the director’s chair, the editor’s chair, the reporter’s chair.”
His advice to employees: “Make a promise that when you show up at work as a CNN employee you will work to take excellence one step beyond.”
Shaw is survived by his wife Linda and their two children, Amar Edgar and Anil Louise.
This story has been updated.