Ultimately, Shaw gave Ted Turner’s oft-mocked Atlanta-based news operation a sheen of respectability in its early days and over the span of two decades helped build CNN’s respectability worldwide.
Just 10 months after CNN debuted, Shaw was at the anchor desk when news broke that President Ronald Reagan had been shot along with his White House press secretary James Brady. While other networks said early on that Brady died, using Sen. Howard Baker as a source, Shaw hedged his bets, saying CNN had no independent confirmation that was true. In the end, his doubts were proven right. Brady was alive after all.
After 15 hours on the air, Shaw’s writer Sandy Kenyon asked his boss why he held back. “Sen. Howard Baker is a respected man but he was not at the hospital,” Shaw told Kenyon. To Kenyon, “That just speaks volumes about his journalistic skills and integrity.”
Shaw caused ripples as a moderator during a 1988 presidential debate between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush by opening with a question on how Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis would handle his wife being raped. Dukakis’ less-than-emotional response didn’t help his cause at the time and he lost the election soon after.
“I realize that in asking that kind of question, that it would arouse emotions, but I meant the question to Dukakis to be a stethoscope to find out what he was feeling on this issue,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “Bush had been beating Dukakis severely about the head and shoulders, charging he was soft on crime. Many voters perceive seeing and hearing Dukakis but not feeling him. I asked that question to see if there was feeling.”
Shaw helped elevate CNN’s profile during the start of the 1991 Iraq war. He had arrived at Baghdad hoping to snag an interview with Saddam Hussein but Hussein invaded Kuwait. As Shaw was trying to leave the country, he became stranded at a hotel when U.S.-led coalition bombs hit the capital. He and colleagues Peter Arnett and John Holliman were the only American newsman in the country providing live reports via satellite phones, enabling CNN to scoop the broadcast networks.
“As a journalist, he demanded accuracy and fairness in news coverage,” said Tom Johnson, CNN’s Atlanta-based president from 1990 to 2001, in a statement. “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.
Shaw won the Edward R. Murrow Award for Lifetime Achievement Award in Broadcasting and was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame in 1999.
Even after he retired from CNN in 2001, Shaw remained an active viewer of the network.
Tony Harris, who worked as an anchor at CNN from 2004 to 2010, said one day he received a handwritten letter from Shaw, a man he had admired but never met. Shaw wrote that Harris made the job look easy, which is a high compliment from any peer.
“I didn’t believe this was actually from him so I showed it to my supervisor,” Harris said. “He said that’s what Shaw does when he likes something.”
Harris said Shaw actually made the job look easy. “He showed all of us would-be minority journalists, here’s the skill sets you need. You need to have a grasp on math and politics and foreign lands and cultures that aren’t your own. You need to be whip smart. This is what he was saying by his mere presence.”
Shaw, born in Chicago, spent four years in the Marines before getting into radio news. He recalled crossing paths with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and King told him: “One day you’ll make it, just do some good.”
He jumped over to TV, becoming a political reporter at CBS covering Watergate. Walter Cronkite was his mentor. Later, he joined ABC as the Latin American correspondent before taking his chances at CNN.
During his off time, Shaw loved to play golf and was a big NFL Washington Commanders fan, often going to both home and away games. (He was close friends with owner Dan Snyder.)
Kenyon, the former CNN entertainment reporter, remained in touch with Shaw for decades and had lunch with him in D.C. this past June. He said Shaw was mentally sharp and doing okay health-wise at the time so Shaw’s death was a shock to him.
“Bernie always told me we stand on the shoulders of giants,” Kenyon said. “He must have said that 100 times. That’s how I feel about him.”
Shaw is survived by his wife Linda and their two children, Amar Edgar and Anil Louise.