It might be hard for some folks today to imagine life before news was instantly available anytime of day. But that time wasn’t all that long ago: CNN, the world’s first 24-hour news channel, launched in 1980, 42 years ago. People who grew up with the network for the most part haven’t yet reached their 50s, which means the faces that built the network are also the ones who prepared the world for the deluge of constant information that was coming.
And the one journalist whose face was most responsible for bringing the country into that new era was Bernard Shaw, who died yesterday at age 82, according to a statement from CNN. If you didn’t know who Shaw was, if you were born too late to have ever heard his baritone giving you a live update on something important in the world, this is why you should still know his name.
Shaw was CNN’s original Washington anchor and likely the first Black face viewers saw on the network after its launch. CNN itself was an innovation inside of an innovation. Cable systems had only been launched about a decade before, so most content wasn’t siloed into categories like news, entertainment or sports. Most people only had access to whatever local TV stations they were close enough to get clear reception of. Whatever those stations were, they weren’t giving you news or information about what was happening in the rest of the world on a consistent basis; at best you got about a half-hour of local gossip followed by another half hour of network evening news.
Put another way, throughout most of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War and so forth, with rare exceptions, you got that news for a few minutes in the evening and then waited until the next day to hear more. And with the exception of ABC’s Max Robinson, none of the faces that brought you those updates was a Black one.
For that reason, in 1980 Shaw wasn’t just an original at CNN, but a pioneer. As CNN’s lead anchor, his was most visible symbol of where television news was headed over the next several decades. CNN’s format would be copied over the years by networks like CNBC, MSNBC and eventually Fox News. But in the early days, cable networks weren’t particularly partisan, and Shaw’s style of straight newsreading was a model for journalists looking to make their way to a national stage as the cable news industry grew.
At the same time, Black journalists weren’t yet ubiquitous in most broadcast networks or in local markets, but Shaw was being beamed daily into tens of millions of homes, and helming coverage of the biggest stories on any given day.
Shaw remained CNN’s top anchor for two decades, leading coverage of the first Gulf War and serving as the first moderator of presidential debates on the network. He retired in 2001, before the era of terrorism, hyper-partisanship, talking heads and competition from the Internet and social media changed the business again.
And 42 years after Bernard Shaw helped give cable news it’s start as an industry, still only one Black man, CNN’s Don Lemon, is a prime time anchor on any network.