On a warm summer Thursday in New York, Paula Zahn sat down with Pat Mitchell, as part of the She’s Making News series at The Paley Center. Paula’s been a newsmaker for over thirty years, working as anchor or host for CNN, Fox, CBS and ABC. She’s won eight Emmy Awards, the National Commission of Working Women Broadcasting Award and an AWRT Award for reporting on gender bias in education. Currently, she hosts On The Case With Paula Zahn for Investigation Discovery.
For fans of Paula, it won’t surprise you to know she’s just as warm, direct and intelligent in person as on TV. But what you may not have known — she attended college on a cello scholarship, and debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1992. But her junior year, she decided that while music would always be in her life, journalism was her passion. She credits her parents with inspiring her to this line of work, with their “very strong sense of curiosity” and “wonderment.” But things have an unexpected way of tying together — Paula now co-hosts NYC-Arts, bringing her musical and reporting skills into play. (Dare we say… harmony.)
And while she may no longer practice the cello 4-5 hours a day, clearly that discipline and commitment influences her work: “I believe in obsessive preparation.” Paula emphasized the importance of doing your homework, and of being willing to be reflective and self-critical about your own work — in order to get better. As she put it: “If you go into work and don’t want to be the best you can be, might as well hang it all up.”
Throughout the afternoon, Paula’s story showed how one thing can connect to another in an unexpected way. Her father’s job with IBM caused the family to move a lot — Paula called the company I’ve Been Moved. But later in life, those childhood experiences helped her when she began covering local news, with a big range of stories and the need to get to know people and places fast.
Paula also shared fun stories about her hardships along the way — a “baptism under fire” that included her first news director ripping her story into a hundred pieces in front of everyone. Her advice to the crowd: go to the bathroom to cry, don’t let your boss see. She prevailed, and many people came to know Paula as the co-anchor with Harry Smith of CBS This Morning. It was clear Paula loved this time at CBS, and she let us in on a little secret: despite the difficulty of the 4:10am wake-up, early morning news shows are the best for working moms, because you only miss breakfast. And then you join the kids at the homework table later, usually with Mommy having the most homework.
Many other important stories were shared — including Paula going belly to belly with Fidel Castro, while eight months pregnant, and a powerful retelling of her experience on 9/11 as a New Yorker, mother and newswoman. So keep an eye out for this interview come this fall, when it will air on PBS. We’ll keep you posted.
Till then, two pieces of advice from Paula we can’t stop thinking about:
- “Careers are filled with setbacks. You’re going to fail.”
- “Falling on your face is a forward motion.” — Paula credited Pat, who then credited her grandmother. Go Pat’s grandmother, a wise woman.