When Sharyl Attkisson was a junior at Riverview High School, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. She complained the newspaper was being unfair, slanting its high school sports coverage in favor of Riverview’s archrival, Sarasota High School. The newspaper even went so far, Attkisson claimed in her letter, as to poke fun of Riverview’s cheerleading squad (Attkisson was a cheerleader at the time). It was a bold move for the then 15-year-old, but Attkisson felt like an injustice had been committed, and she was compelled to correct it.
“I’ve always had an intense sense of fairness,” Attkisson explains, 38 years later. “That’s been the consistent theme of mine.”
That same sense of fairness recently inspired the 53-year-old, Emmy-winning journalist to make another bold move.
On Monday, Attkisson resigned from CBS, where she had worked as a news anchor and investigative journalist since 1993. She cited her frustration with what she says is the network’s liberal bias and corporate-driven censorship.
The Sarasota native reached the pinnacle of her profession during a 32-year career that took her from war zones to the White House. But March 28, Attkisson will make a “very serendipitous” trip home to Sarasota, returning to moderate a lecture by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall series. She was invited to moderate the event by her high school friend and University of Florida classmate Jay Logan, who is the 2014 Ringling Town Hall chairman.
“I wanted to have Sharyl back because this is her original home and she wants all the best for Sarasota,” Logan says. “Sharyl is a little-known, really successful product of Sarasota … and we want her to be a bigger part of the community.”
For Attkisson, the event will be her homecoming — not just to her hometown, but to her core principles. It will be empowering, she says, to finally be free from the restrictive tether of working for a corporate media outlet. She admits it is a bit symbolic that her first public event after leaving CBS will be in her hometown.
“I’m breaking free,” Attkisson says. “It’s very fitting that I’ll be in Sarasota. It’s a really happy time for me. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I’ll be free to moderate as I see fit.”
And, even though she sometimes felt like an outsider during her journalism career, Attkisson says Sarasota still feels like home.
Attkisson refers to her childhood in Sarasota as a “very memorable time.” She speaks fondly of her memories of Wilkinson Elementary and Riverview High School. She lived in a few places around town, including a house on Flamingo Avenue on Bay Island, and a house on Pinecrest Street, near Phillippi Creek.
She remembers how black the bottom of her feet used to get from walking around barefoot all the time as a child. And how, despite multiple trips to the emergency room for tetanus shots after stepping on rusty nails, her mother never made her wear shoes.
“I remember running after the mosquito trucks with my friends,” Attkisson recalls. “Our parents would let us run around in the streets. We’d disappear in the morning, ride our bikes, catch minnows in the creek, and then we’d hear our mom whistle at the end of the day, telling us that it was time to come in.”
Even in high school, Logan says Attkisson’s courage was apparent.
“It’s not really cool to be nice to the kid who is ostracized or quiet in high school,” Logan says. “But she was always OK with that. And Sharyl was a cool kid — she was a cheerleader. But she always embraced and encouraged everyone and was protective of their need for acceptance. That is the genesis of her courage.”
Attkisson attended the University of Florida, where, after considering degrees in both law and architecture, her passion for writing ultimately led her to pursue a career in journalism.
She rose quickly though the profession’s ranks, working as an anchor and reporter for news stations around Florida, including WTVT Tampa from 1986 to 1990. And, despite never aspiring to break onto the national stage, CNN hired her as an anchor in 1990.
“If I had aimed to get there, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” she says.
Her first nationally televised newscast was opposite Bernard Shaw on the 6 p.m. newscast.
“I wasn’t that nervous,” she says, “but I didn’t know any better.”
Assigned to cover international news, Attkisson had to frequently improvise interviews with world leaders on the fly with no script. She used to arrive at work early to study atlases, and she would pore over the news wires during the day to learn about international issues and memorize the names of global leaders.
Attkisson eventually left CNN to join CBS News in 1993. She served as an overnight anchor for two years before becoming a Washington-based correspondent. With CBS, Attkisson won five Emmys and three Edward R. Murrow awards for her investigative journalism.
But she says the most rewarding experience of her career was flying aboard a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber on a combat mission over Kosovo in 1999.
“They offered to let me push the button,” Attkisson recalls, referring to a missile launch on the flight. “But I declined. I didn’t think that would be right.”
Despite the accolades and exciting experiences, there were frustrating times, as well.
Attkisson says she sometimes felt like an outsider at CBS, yet comfortable in that position, never quite in tune with the idea of inserting liberal political opinions into stories as if they are fact. And she never reconciled with the notion that the news is sometimes guided by the “unseen influence” of corporate interests.
“People ask and, yes, there often is a tendency for there to be a liberal bias in a lot of media, but there is also a competing corporate bias, which is conservative,” Attkisson explains. “From what my colleagues tell me, all of the big three networks largely use similar decision processes, and we often seem to arrive at the same 10 stories every night. But there’s a lot more than 10 stories going on in the world.”
Attkisson now lives outside Washington, D.C., in Virginia. She first discussed the possibility of leaving CBS in early 2013 with her husband, James, and their 18-year-old daughter, Sarah. They were supportive of the move, she says.
And March 10, Attkisson took to Twitter to unceremoniously announce her departure from the network.
“I have resigned from CBS,” she tweeted.
Since leaving CBS, Attkisson has been inundated with requests for interviews, and news of her resignation has gone viral on the Internet. She says the uproar over her departure from the network validates her perception that the public often “isn’t getting what it wants” from major news outlets.
“I feel like there’s a growing sense of censorship in the news,” she explains. “And I think people are thirsty for what they used to consider straight news.”
Attkisson says she “needs to take a breath” and has no immediate plans for her career other than to finish an upcoming book (tentatively due out in November), which will shed light on her reasons for leaving CBS. While researching for the book, Attkisson uncovered that old letter to the editor from high school.
That letter, she says, is a reminder of the principles that defined her past and will continue to guide her future.
“I feel as though I have a really strong moral and ethical compass,” Attkisson says. “I won’t perform under conditions that I think are wrong … setting that bar makes me feel as though I’m operating journalistically, it makes me feel fair.”
If you go
Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will speak in a special Ringling College Library Association Town Hall, which former CBS and CNN anchor Sharyl Attkisson — a Sarasota native — will moderate.
The lecture is presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation, and proceeds will advance the campaign to build a new library at Ringling College of Art and Design.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 28
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota
Contact: Tickets are available at https://sarasotaopera.org/michael_bloomberg
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]