Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on the way to the top of their fields.
Name: Ron Claiborne
Original Hometown: Los Angeles
Job: News Anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America
How did you get your start?
I was in college during the Watergate scandal, and I was riveted by the idea that journalists could expose a scandal of that magnitude and change history with revelations leading to a president having to resign. It deeply impressed me. I thought journalism could be a form of public service. I went to Columbia grad school, but there was a recession in ‘75 and it was hard to get work. So I went back to L.A., started working doing technical writing. Out of the blue I got a call from a newspaper in the Bay Area where I had interviewed. They had a summer relief position. After that, I was looking around and met a guy in a bar who said, “You should go back to New York.” I packed my car and drove back with no job. I stayed on the couch of a friend for a while, going through the New York Times help wanted ads, a relic of the past that no longer exists.
Since your first job was for a newspaper, how did your transition from print to television happen?
I didn’t affirmatively want to be on TV. The first agent I had, had a specific idea that he’d create a niche in New York of taking newspaper reporters and making them TV reporters. He wanted people who knew how to write. But generally speaking, the people who write for print are happier observing and not performing. They’re distinctly different types of personality. I went to work for Channel 5, and I was doing badly. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I was not a performer. I was also contemptuous of TV. I thought it was superficial and I disliked it.
So it was a rough transition?
My voiceover was terrible — it was monotone and stiff. So was my on-camera performance, which is increasingly an important aspect of the business now than it was then. I was used to writing descriptively. But in writing for TV, you’re writing to fit the visual aspect. For example, I was writing someone as being distraught. In TV, you need to let the pictures and sound tell the story, marry the words to the images. Because I had this bad attitude, I wasn’t really thinking about this. My writing was not adapted to the medium, and I found the idea of being on camera terrifying. So much so that I couldn’t sleep the night before.
I remember I was out reporting in Brooklyn early in my career, and I’d get so nervous in front of the camera, I’d start shaking from side to side. A couple of bystanders were walking by. I was getting more and more nervous that they were there. I must have done a take 20 times. The women looked at me, and one of them said, “Honey, you’ve got to take it easy.”
It was a difficult transition. There’s no formula. If you’re nervous, the only way you’re going to get through is doing it over and over. I was lucky I was at a relatively small independent station where they were OK with it. And we’re talking 1982, when they were more accepting of the learning curve that people go through. If you did it now, nobody would put up with that. I had to make my peace with what I was doing, decided if I really want to do this. Then I started applying myself.
Who do you think are the best anchors out there today?
David Muir is very good and has made the news more accessible and modernized. Robin Roberts is great. She’s a natural; she’s got personality, and credibility, and likability. Dan Harris, my colleague at GMA Weekend who also does Nightline is really good at interviewing, which is a rare skill. Interviewing is my favorite aspect of the job. George Stephanopoulos is the smartest guy in the world. He’s great at follow-up questions, which is one of the hardest things to do in interviewing.
Why is it so hard?
A lot of people will be evasive or give you nonsense or bullshit in their first answer. In my mind, you have two chances to ask. First you ask one question, and if they don’t answer or it’s incomplete, you get a chance for a second one to try and nail it down. If it’s your third try, you lose their trust because you seem belligerent.
So in your experience, what makes a good anchor?
Delivery, credibility, and authority. People need to believe that the person reading the news to them knows what they’re talking about, even if it’s a story a thousand miles away that they didn’t cover. The value to the TV station is that the people watching believe that you know what you’re talking about.
Do you think credibility can be re-gained once it’s lost — like in the case of Brian Williams?
We’ve never seen anything like [Brian Williams’ situation] so I’m theorizing, but it’s hard to imagine you can regain it after you lose it. It’s a difficult balance. The reality is that not only does the audience want and need to trust and believe that you are credible, but they also want to believe you’re a person and not a robot. If you displayed no personality at all, you’ll have an audience of your family. They want to know what you’re like, or at least be able to imagine. I think you can be yourself without it compromising your objectivity, I don’t think there’s inherently a conflict between personality and professionalism. You can take it too far, where the performance or personality undermines the authority. There is a balance, but where it is, is hard to describe. Gray hair helps too.