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So What Do You Do, Deborah Norville, Inside Edition Anchor, Bestselling Author?
A 30-year TV vet and NYT bestselling author talks balancing her life and staying positive- December 5, 2007
Deborah Norville is first and foremost a survivor. The broadcast veteran -- who is celebrating her 30th year in the business next month -- endured one of the most brutal cases of career- and character-bashing ever inflicted on a television personality in the nineties but emerged stronger for it. It might seem like ancient history when the arrival of the younger, blonder Norville on the Today show couch in 1990 was characterized as 'the other woman' breaking up the television marriage of Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, but the memory remains vivid for Norville. While the press had a field day painting the 29-year-old Norville as Eve Harrington to Pauley's Margo Channing, the much vilified anchor was told by the powers that be at NBC to hold her tongue. While on maternity leave the following year, Norville dutifully kept silent about the controversy in an interview with People and was photographed breast feeding her son. The photographs allegedly angered NBC executives, and it was announced in April 1991 that Norville would not be returning to Studio 1A. Her replacement: Katie Couric.
Today, the resolutely outspoken broadcaster/author makes sure she's heard whenever she has something to say. These days, Norville is talking a great deal about her latest book, Thank You Power, which cracked the New York Times How-to/Advice best seller list. Going beyond the current crop of touchy-feely you-can-do-it books like The Secret, Norville uses scientific evidence to show the positive effect gratitude can actually have on one's life, health, and wealth.
It's certainly worked for her.
Name: Deborah Norville
Position: Anchor, Inside Edition; author, Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You.
Resume: Prior to joining Inside Edition in 1995, worked at CBS as anchor of America Tonight and correspondent for 48 Hours and The CBS Evening News. Launched nationally syndicated Deborah Norville Radio Show on ABC News Radio Network in September 1992; hosted for one year. Named co-host of Today in January 1990 after serving as the show's news reader and a stint as anchor of the network's NBC News at Sunrise. Left Today on maternity leave in February 1991. Briefly anchored Deborah Norville Tonight on MSNBC while simultaneously hosting Inside Edition. Started her television career while still in college as a reporter and weekend anchor for WAGA-TV in Atlanta, Georgia. Author of several books.
Birthdate: August 8, 1958
Hometown: Dalton, Georgia ("The carpet capital of the world. We make enough carpeting on an annual basis to pave a six-lane highway around the Equator!")
Education: University of Georgia
Marital status: Married to Karl Wellner; three children.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I usually get The Week in Review because my husband stole the Style Section. [Laughs] I glance at the front page but then I go for Week in Review because I feel if I read that, I've accomplished something."
Favorite television show: "My husband and I like Brothers & Sisters right now. On the surface one would think, 'This isn't real life.' The reality is, oh yes it is. Get five families together and chances are every scenario that's been depicted on this show will be present in one of five families. You won't find them all in one family, that part is a bit unrealistic. But they do have Sally Field as their mother so if that were the case, maybe you would. The acting is fantastic and you don't see a lot of great acting all that often."
Guilty pleasure: "Potato chips and milk."
Last book read: "I'm one of those people where the most recent is always my favorite. Right now I'm working on a book called Richistan by a Wall Street Journal reporter [Robert Frank]. The book is not new. It was on my husband's table and I stole it when he finished it.
Next month will mark your 30th anniversary in broadcasting. How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
A lot of hard work. An inability to be personally satisfied with my own effort. I would say also unquenchable curiosity.
What the secret to your longevity?
I think it's being nice. I really do. When the media turned on me and made me target practice, I didn't lash back --- in part because I was under a gag order. [Laughs] I could have lost my contract if I had. [Laughs]
Oh yeah. I was ordered by bosses at NBC to not speak to the press.
Did you think that was a good idea?
I thought it was insane. I said to my agent at time, "This is crazy. How can you tell someone who is in the press to maintain a 'no comment' stance?" He said, "First of all, you're talking about network brass." [Laughs] Secondly, he said, "You've been given a direct order, and if you now take action contrary to what they've ordered you not to do, they could hold you in breach." So now it's turned into a legal thing. If I had opened my mouth and done what my instincts were -- which was to tell my side of the story and explain all the answers to the questions that were going unanswered by anyone -- at the very least my version of events would have been out there. Say what you want about me, but Norville speaks the truth. More importantly, I would have at least felt like hey, at least I defended myself. Que sera, sera. What happens, happens, but I did what I could.
How did you deal with the pressure?
I sewed. It's funny, the only interview I did grant was to Guideposts. They had called me in the thick of all the craziness and wanted to do a piece. I thought, "You know what? I bet those folks don't even read Guideposts" -- an ecumenical Christian-focused little magazine that my mother had always read for years -- so I thought, "What the heck?." So I said, "Yeah, sure." They asked me the same question: "How did you get through it?" I said, "My faith" -- because I am a born again Christian. I do believe there is a purpose to everything, and the hardest thing is to wait for that purpose to be revealed on God's time, because we're type-A people -- God give me patience and give it to me now! But really it was my faith and it was my sewing machine.
The reason the sewing machine worked for me was because I was still showing up for work every day. Heck, I won an Emmy while all the craziness was going on! It certainly wasn't that I wasn't well-equipped for the job. It was obviously political stuff -- I was younger and blonder than Jane Pauley. But the sewing helped me, because while I was going to my job day in and day out, there wasn't a whole lot of fulfillment. I could pull out the sewing machine -- at the time I was expecting a child and decorating the baby's nursery -- and I could work on the window shades or crib bumper. I could finish it and put it up and feel really good about it. There was a sense of satisfaction. That was the one thing they weren't saying -- "She's a lousy seamstress."
I did some research into what was being written about you during that time and was shocked to find a piece in The New York Times by Walter Goodman, which ran on January 9, 1990. He wrote: "For any viewer who might find Ms. Norville's good looks a bit too much so early in the day, her style is reassuringly down to earth." He also called you a "blonde glamour puss" in the piece. How does such blatant sexism look in your rear view mirror now?
The same way it looks to everybody else -- You've got to be kidding!
|None of [the celebrities] fascinate me, and they can all take a hike as far as I'm concerned.|
It was the 1990s, not the sixties...
No, it wasn't the sixties or the era of the weather bunny. I might point out that at an even earlier time in the morning, apparently those same "good looks" were sufficient enough to bring the ratings up 40 percent on the program I was anchoring. The whole thing was just wank. It was ridiculous. With the benefit of hindsight it is even more laughable. But at the end of the day, the net result was a woman who had worked incredibly hard from the age of 19 onward and had earned every opportunity she ever got and was thrown out on her ear. But no one ever said when we come out of the womb there is someone standing there who says, "Welcome to the world. It's going to be fair from here on out." It's not. There are no guarantees made to anyone. None were given to me. That's okay because I'm a big believer in hard work. The same work ethic that got me on Today at the age of 29 got me back to where I'm fronting a show that 5.2 million people watch every day. That same work ethic helped me do the research for a book that's about a fundamental truth that sold enough copies to make the New York Times top ten list. That same work ethic enables me to do the juggling act and have three children that are incredibly cool kids and has kept me married for 20 years. Some times the breaks go your way and sometimes they don't.
When we talked about Katie Couric's public relations nightmare at the CBS Evening News a few weeks back, it occurred to me that women who come out of morning television, regardless of what they go on to do, are narrowly defined by that role, and yet the men that start out the same way are not. Is that ever going to change?
[Long pause]. I think it's because they notice the women more in the morning. The women pop off the screen; the men don't. In the animal kingdom, the male is the flashy looking one. With the human animal, it's the girl that puts on the feathers. I don't have anything really profound to say.
Let's talk about Inside Edition. You've been there for almost 13 years. That's a long time to be with one show. Why have you stayed?
It will be 13 years in March. I've stayed here for a couple of reasons. The reason I came here is probably the primary reason I have stayed. This is a good place for me, personally, at this stage in my family life. When I came here I had a three year old and one in the oven. I now have three children. This job has been one that has allowed me to stay at a pretty intense level in terms of network broadcasting and television journalism and at the same time, be the kind of mom and wife that I feel I need to be.
I had a very clear wake up call when I was at CBS, which is where I was before I came here. At CBS, I was so grateful to be at the network doing stories that were substantive and meaningful -- that was the heyday of network news magazines. There were 13 of them on the air at the time, but it was quality television. There was one story that I did about a woman from Oklahoma City who had kidnapped back her child who had been taken in violation of a custody order by her Tunisian-born husband. It was like that old Sally Field Not Without My Daughter movie. We had done a profile on them and had been there with the commandos when they did this whole cloak and dagger undercover thing and literally outran the Tunisian border patrol on a speed boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Talk about jaw dropping suspense. Yet, here I was on this tiny island, where a woman has literally spent her last five dollars to be reunited with her child, and I'm willing to leave mine five thousand miles behind. It didn't compute. As I saw this woman hug her son, I thought, "I can't do this anymore."
That was when I started thinking, "When this contract comes to a conclusion, I would like to continue doing [television] magazine reporting, but I need to be based [in New York]." There weren't any anchor opportunities for me. If you're an anchor, it really is a ball and chain around your foot. If you're desperate to be home with your family, it's a welcome ball and chain. I was looking for a ball and chain, and there was none to be had at CBS. They could give me the Sunday night anchor job, and the rest of the time I was going to be on plane. I couldn't do that. At a certain point, for me anyway -- I don't say this in judgment of anyone else's choices -- I had to subjugate my own wishes, desires and passion to run around the world and do cool stories to take care of the important assignment, which was the family.
I don't want to get into the Mommy Track argument. It was what I needed to do. It was right for me and for my family. It's funny, when I made that choice and the job at Inside Edition came up, the same Pulitzer-prize winner who called me "scheming and conniving and hungry as a shark" also opined that I had traded my credibility. I responded back. No longer under a gag order, the one promise I made to myself when I did get back on track was that I would never let them --- defined as those nitwits in broadcasting --- have control over my life again. At the same time, I also said I will respond as I think best to any issues that may arise in the press. So, to that I responded, "I never knew that my credibility had anything to do with the eyeball or the peacock on my paycheck." Mr. Pulitzer-prize winner had nothing more to say.
From that moment on -- really when I came back to television at CBS -- I've always let the PR people at the stations, the networks or whatever know: "Great to work with you. We're going to have a good time, but you need to know, I've been done in by others in your business before and it won't happen twice. I'll certainly let you know any time I'm doing anything, but I won't be coming to you for permission." Knock on wood as I say this, I think I've been blessed with some fairly decent press because I'm a straight talker. The image that was made of me was of someone who was somehow devious and underhanded. I understand in a vacuum people create facts to fill the space. I now make sure there's no vacuum by being accessible.
Have you always been someone who looked for the silver lining or did you develop that ability as a defense mechanism to help cope with what you've gone through?
I think it's always been there. It's certainly something that has evolved and become a stronger force in my life, but I think the tendency was always there. It's really a reflection of my childhood. My mother was sick for more than half of childhood. When I was eight years old, she had a benign tumor removed from her spine and had to re-learn to walk, so the memories I have of my mother as an active woman are like up to age seven. I remember we lived in a two-story house and Daddy outfitted the downstairs family room as a bedroom for mom because she couldn't take the stairs. When I was 10 she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which was then and continues to be a chronic and incurable disease. She had a really rough go of it. That was my childhood -- not exactly white picket fences. On those days when my mom was well enough to get in the car and come pick me up, it was a big deal. When I would see that my mom had fixed her hair and put on lipstick, what that meant was mom was feeling good; she was having a good day. I was always very grateful for those moments. With that as the back story, it may be easier to understand that maybe with those dark clouds I would have this ability to find the silver lining. It was probably a coping mechanism that worked effectively for me.
Was that an impetus for Thank You Power? How did that come about?
It was just a hunch. The good news about my job is that I work on a show that has got great currency with the viewers. Inside Edition is a really solid show, and because I've been there for a really long time, it's not hard for me to write the show. I can do my research quickly. I had a little extra time on my hands and it just occurred to me that when I looked for the silver lining, I felt my life went better. I'm enough of a cynic doing this for 30 years that I thought, it's better because you want it to be. So, I thought, "I'll see if there's anything to it or if I'm just blowing smoke." I put on the research hat. I started going into the academic journals. There's a lot of garbage out there, but when you do sift through it, you do get to some kernels of valid, properly executed studies. That was how it happened. It was really idle curiosity. It wasn't something I did every day. It was really over the course of two years, and once I started getting into something, it was like peeling back an onion.
That's when I went down the avenue on positive affect --- that your cognitive thinking can be improved, and then it was wow, that's really neat. You can actually influence your body's response to stress. You can actually lower your blood pressure. This is unbelievable. Did you ever see that movie A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe? Remember when he was flipping out and you could see those numbers and things would appear? It was exactly that way -- all this disparate data and all these really cool surveys -- and suddenly I just saw these lines which were not tangential that definitely connected this to this to that. I thought, "I'm going to weave something together and I think it's going to be good." It was definitely not hard labor to do this. I pulled a couple of all-nighters -- and that's because I tend to let deadlines get way too close. I think that's a hallmark of people who are directed and focused -- sometimes you need the pressure of a deadline.
Your show covers the requisite celebrity stories. Which celebrities do you find fascinating and which ones need to go away come 2008?
Wow. [Long pause] None of them fascinate me, and they can all take a hike as far as I'm concerned. That's the flip answer. What I find really interesting is when you ask this question of people who do shows that devote a good chunk of airtime to these individuals, they probably have the usual suspects -- Lindsay, Britney, and Paris. I actually blogged about them -- I call them "the party princesses." I said we all ought to take the "Paris pledge." What I said for every Paris, Britney, Lindsay story we do, we should raise our right hand and say we will do a story about a young person who is doing things for all the right reasons -- who makes headlines because of an achievement or a contribution. I don't really give a flying fig about what these people do when they go to the red carpet and throw up. It doesn't do anything for my life.
As much as we lament the state of affairs that has created the news stories of the pop princesses, we cover them. We facilitate those stories and we make those people celebrities. What would happen if we didn't show? I cannot speak for my producers -- this is me personally saying this -- but I suspect if I were to go to my boss and say, "How about we declare a moratorium on all those kinds of stories?" He would shake his head and say, "You don't understand. The competition is going to cover it and the viewers want it." You can always point the finger in another direction rather than look in the mirror. We've created these people. No one would know who Paris Hilton is, was or will be if the first photographer hadn't taken a picture of her. We created them. [Whispers] We can make them go away, too. But we won't. [Laughs]
You talked earlier about making career decisions based on what was best for your family. Inevitably, whenever I talk to a woman with children for this column, the conversation turns to the juggling act that is working motherhood. How do you do it?
Finding decent childcare is the hardest part of it all. It's not a euphemism that it's hard to find good help; it's impossible. If you don't have family that lives nearby -- and my husband and I don't -- it's very difficult. I couldn't have a baby right now. I don't know how I'd find someone to care for it. The publicist for my book went through four babysitters in the time we were working together. I have another friend who said, "Do you think I could learn German?" because the best she could do was someone who didn't speak English but spoke German. I said, "I think you probably could, but I'm not sure the people at 911 will." That to me is what it's all about. The biggest responsibility is keeping your kids alive.
When they were really small, I was very lucky. I had incredible reliable babysitters or nannies or a combination of all of the above, so I was able to patchwork something together. But I have to say it wasn't without an unbelievable amount of stress. When they were little there wasn't a business trip I didn't go on where I didn't worry. I killed myself. When I was still at CBS the note fairy would leave notes for every single day I'd be gone. When I was on an international trip, my phone bills were outrageous because I would fax letters with little mommy pictures so there would be something every day for my son. I remember standing at the phone bank at San Francisco International Airport at 4 o'clock California time saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." It was time for prayers back in New York, and a woman who was dressed like me in a business suit with her rollaway bag next to her overheard me and she burst into tears. And I thought, "You know what, she's right. This is hideous." That's why I made the choice I made. It is the woman who makes the choices, and I think we're able to do it with a gladness of heart that our husbands, the fathers of our children, would not be able to do. That's my observation from having lived this mommy life for 16 years.
You wrote extensively about suffering from depression in a previous book. Is that something in your research you've found an endemic to women in today's society where the pressure to "do it all" and "have it all" is so great?
At any given time 20 percent of the population is depressed. According to the World Health Organization, by 2020 it will be the second leading cause of death. I don't know if they don't throw heart-related issues in there. Now that I've done a book on the nuances of science I'm not nearly as fast and loose. I qualify everything. But that's the official statistic, which is frankly why a book like Thank You Power is such a cause. It's not about selling a gazillion copies. It's about giving people strategies and tools that they can use in their own lives to help them cope better. For me, Thank You Power has helped me do that. I never knew that's what it was. It's obviously been something I've employed for a very long time. I just coined the term, but this notion of the power that comes from recognizing the good in my life I think has enabled me to handle all the moving parts.
What would you consider your greatest success?
It's corny to say your kids, isn't it?
That's a very popular answer, actually.
What gives me the greatest sense of pride is when I take a step back and look at my life as a moving picture. What I see is that all the parts seem to move in a beautiful, synchronized dance. There are a lot of parts, but they don't seem to jar against each other. I think that's what I'm most proud of. I look at my husband and think, "Oh boy, did I get lucky." I look at my kids, who despite their mother's career, are really sensitive, kind, interested people. Look, I'm not doing a show where we're going to help you understand why the war in Iraq seems to not be going away, but there are moments during my show when people watch and feel uplifted, entertained, and happily transported away, and there's benefit in that, too.
What about your biggest disappointment?
[Sighs] I don't really have one. The obvious one would be I'm disappointed by the way the NBC thing turned out, but you know what? Those were people who let me down and that will always happen. My biggest disappointment? That I haven't lost those 15 pounds I've been trying to lose. I've learned to find blessings in my disappointments so there really are no big ones.
Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.
[This article has been edited for length and clarity.]
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