Q&A with Jane Pauley

The broadcast journalism pioneer and author discusses her love of storytelling, the recent Brian Williams controversy, and how 20-somethings should embark on a career.

Jane Pauley and Billy Collins have a conversation before the audience in Alfond Sports Center on Thursday, April 9. (Photo by Scott Cook) Jane Pauley and Billy Collins have a conversation before the audience in Alfond Sports Center on Thursday, April 9. (Photo by Scott Cook)

You get Jane Pauley on the phone. She says she’s almost arrived at her daughter’s New York apartment, an 11-block walk from the home she shares with her husband, cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and two cats. Pauley was returning a coat she had borrowed for a shoot the week before. So, she says, you’ll be hearing the doorman’s voice momentarily. You, in turn, confess right up front that you are a little out of your comfort zone, talking as you are with one of broadcast journalism’s greatest. When the conversation comes to an end an hour and 40 minutes later, you have an even better understanding of why Jane Pauley is one of America’s most beloved and well-respected television news and talk-show personalities.

Billy Collins hit on it in his introduction of her last Thursday evening at the Alfond Sports Center Warden Arena when he said, “If you’ve watched television at all in the last 30 years, the person I’m about to introduce is a familiar face. It’s as if she jumped out of the television right into your living room.” Indeed, whether she’s the one doing the interviewing or the one being interviewed, Pauley has a charming way of making anyone within reach of her voice feel as if he or she had been included in a chat among friends in her living room.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

The seats on the gym floor were filled for the Rollins College Winter Park Institute’s final event of the seventh season of its Ideas in Residence program. As the audience would later learn, it was also the last appearance for Collins in his role as the institute’s senior distinguished fellow. The two-term U.S. Poet Laureate was the inaugural speaker in 2008. “I hope next year, I’ll be out there with you, just soaking it all in,” Collins told the audience.

But for more than an hour, the pioneering news woman and the poet talked about people “redesigning their relationship with time,” as well as Pauley’s 40-year career, including co-hosting Today, anchoring Dateline NBC, hosting The Jane Pauley Show, authoring two books, including her 2004 memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, creating the Life Reimagined Today series, and advocating for mental health after her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder 15 years ago.

The Monday preceding her Rollins visit, between her springtime stroll and preparing for the next day’s CBS Sunday Morning assignment, Pauley graciously shared life stories and insights while answering questions about her award-winning career in broadcast journalism and her second and latest book, Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Dixie Tate: At 24, you became the first woman to anchor the evening news in Chicago. At 25, you became Barbara Walters’ successor on Today. What are your thoughts about the news industry today compared to the 1970s and ’80s?

Jane Pauley: Well, the pace is certainly a lot faster. I mean when I think back to how, you know, the New York thing about the city that never sleeps? It was pretty, pretty sleepy when I got up in the morning and went to work.  And 30 Rockefeller Center, which was my home away from home for decades, you know, back in the ’70s and early ’80s, the only person in the building might be polishing the floors. And our interviews would be seven, sometimes nine, minutes long. I think they call that a documentary now. Now it’s quicker and maybe sometimes a more appropriate pace. But on the other hand, I think the speed at which everything is happening makes it hard to process information. … I read the paper on my smartphone like everybody else, skipping over, well, I don’t know what I’m missing. I think the primary difference is the ridiculous polarization. …When I started in television objectivity was a genuine value. … I think most people would agree that, on any objective standard, the news business has become very polarized and in some cases ideologically motivated in a way that a young Jane Pauley would have been astounded that you could get away with that.

DT: Do you think it was easier then to determine what actually was news compared to now?

JP: The stories that we cover, there isn’t a right way to tell it or a wrong way. It’s a creative act. Now the burden is on the reader to pay attention to who you’re listening to and who are their sources. It’s kind of a free-for-all. There’s something to say for all the creative voices that are being heard. Though I suppose somebody could make a case—I wouldn’t make it, but I’d be interested to read it—that this is in some ways the golden age of journalism because there are so many people attending to so many different things. When I started at NBC the news was whatever that managing editor of nightly news said it was on any given night. They were all men who were making that determination.

DT: What was your most memorable assignment?

JP: Just as I was about to say I can’t answer that question, in the back of my mind, I guess, it was Princess Diana. I don’t know if an hour from now I’d want to say, “Oh, gosh, not that,” but that’s what came to mind. I did cover the royal wedding, I covered the other royal wedding, and then I covered Diana’s funeral about three weeks after I met her—which is not to say I knew her; it was probably a 30-second encounter. But nonetheless, you’re traveling abroad and you know you’re covering something the world is watching, and having a shared emotional experience heightens the memory of it, so I guess that’s why that came to the fore. … The joke is that I have the memory of an Etch A Sketch. I need to contact Tom Brokaw on that question. He’ll remember. Tom remembers everything. … It’s frightening how interesting a life I’ve lead and managed to forget most of it.

DT: What’s your opinion on the latest blow to media credibility, the Brian Williams story?

JP: You know I was traveling quite a lot in February and the early part of March and speaking to crowds in Q&A kinds of situations, and that was always the first question. I don’t know exactly what to make of it. I guess the question is what the outcome will be. … Historically, people are astonishingly either forgiving or forgetful or something so that it may just be a matter of time before enough news cycles have passed. Or maybe not. Brian obviously was very popular, the highest news ratings of the three networks. Very talented. Extraordinarily funny. What you don’t know is how attached people were to him. … One thing that interests me is how we’ll gauge how much the people who admire him need him back. Or are news people like me, people that you recognize but don’t really matter that much? We’ll see. I don’t know what I’m hoping happens. I have told stories in my own home, family stories, where I inadvertently put myself in a situation where it wasn’t me; it was Garry. Memory is really unreliable. … Even if memory is unreliable, I guess your news people have to be reliable.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: When it comes to trust, who are the Walter Cronkites of today?

JP: They don’t come around that often. Cronkite would have been an absolute stickler for the facts and fact-checking. But that said, we as viewers really had no way of knowing that or really of knowing the assertion I just made, I don’t know if it’s true. It’s just he had a reputation for being trustworthy. But there’s no way of saying that humans were more trustworthy 40 years ago than they are now.

DT: What did you love most about Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life?

JP: What I love best about my book—and unfortunately the paperback version doesn’t include it—but the hardback’s endpapers have the photographs of the people. Altogether we told 37 stories in the four years the series ran, and I was still doing stories when I was writing the book. … I’m still meeting people, and I think, “Oh, You would have been a wonderful story.” When I come to Winter Park for the Institute, I’ll meet people. I am confident that I’ll come away with more stories. There are plenty of examples out there. An entire generation plus parts of two other generations are already doing this. It’s not as if these 25 people thought of it all by themselves. They are representative of the paradigm shift. That’s what the significance of the book is. Sometimes you end up telling people something they already know. That’s what I’m doing, because people arrive knowing what we’re talking about. They just leave knowing more. I think people are often changed after we finish the discussion.

DT: Any chance that there’ll be Your Life Calling Book 2?

JP: I never expected to write one book. Certainly not two. But I did. So I have no plans to write a third book, which may be a guarantee that I will. But I don’t think so. I’m delighted that I have two books but I don’t hear a third one calling to me at the moment.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: What is it you like most about interviewing people?

JP: The surprises. To be able to at the end of an interview see how it lines up and see why this zigzag pattern brought a person to exactly this spot and it makes sense. And sometimes explaining to the person how I’ve connected the dots is fun for me.

DT: Do you have any words of advice for 20-somethings preparing to embark on a career?

JP: It’s all the same. … Don’t wait until you know the destination before beginning the journey. The brain learns from failure, not success. We’re going to be living long lives, especially those in their 20s. Not to be paralyzed by failure. Not to be paralyzed by your friends who seem to have it all together. … What is exciting about my book for younger people is that I make the 50s and 60s look aspirational, a time in life where you will have had your experiences, you will know yourself better. … Starting something has an awful lot in common with starting something again, and so the messages in the book absolutely resonate. … It’s the same. We’re all on a repeating cycle, I guess. And we have an awful lot in common.

DT: To what do you attribute a successful career that spans four decades?

JP: I had opportunities, good chances. … I said yes. I said yes when I should have said “Are you kidding? Me?” I said yes. My life didn’t happen because I went out and conquered the world. My life happened because I said yes.

DT: Is there anything you haven’t tried that you’d still like to try?

JP: No. I don’t think that way at all. In fact, that’s why I’m such a perfect ambassador for my message. Because I come from the part of the audience that thinks, “She’s not talking about me.” I don’t have a bucket list. I haven’t a clue. I don’t think that way. I have confidence that interesting things will happen if I am prepared for them. It doesn’t need to be I will start a nonprofit, or I’ll write that novel. I don’t think that way. Some people do. That’s why my book is not a how-to book. Every story is different. My hope is that all the stories are interesting but that a reader finds one story or one statement or one idea that really resonates and that it was worth the read.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: Who in the book was the oldest of the re-imaginers?

JP: Maybe Gib Pool, who I hear from periodically. “Jane I got a gig on a cruise ship.” Or, “I’m at a comedy festival.” I’m just so proud. Why would I be proud? I didn’t make him funny! I just found that he, I think, gives me credit for a really good reason. The really good reason that he gives me credit is that I validated what he was doing. I gave him affirmation that he was on the right track, and that is something that people need. Even validation that your journey of self-discovery is going to be fruitful and I admire you for doing it. Or, you know that leap of faith you took that didn’t turn out so well? I so admire the courage it took to have tried. Which, by the way, is why my daytime show [The Jane Pauley Show] is my favorite thing on my resume, because it was a failure, and it was a brave thing. It took courage to try it. And I think a resume with no failure on it suggests someone wasn’t trying hard enough. So I’m proud of that failure. My book isn’t about success stories. It’s about people who try.

DT: Is it a laugh a day being married to a cartoonist?

JP: I’m the funny one. I think Garry would not have married me if I did not have a sense of humor, and I probably wouldn’t have married him back without a sense of humor. We do find each other good company. It’s not just that he’s funny. He’s a writer. He has an ability to see the same newscast I’m watching, and turn to me and make some incredible observation. … He’s a genius.

DT: Do you find yourself asking “What’s your story” a lot?

JP: No, I don’t, but I want to know what it is. You know, I don’t really say it that way. I won’t ask. I will kind of poke around. If I’m next to you on a plane, I’m not interviewing you. But when we get off the plane I’ll probably know some of your story, and you might know some of mine, too.