CBS News’ Bob Orr is free of the press–or his he?
By Randall Kenneth Jones
Originally published in the Naples Daily News
Visit the Society of Professional Journalists website at spj.org and you will find a lengthy Code of Ethics – a detailed description of conduct devised to guide an industry of passionate yet flawed researchers, writers, photographers, videographers and broadcasters in policing their professional behavior.
Of specific note: “Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
We all seem to have an opinion about journalism and journalists, on fact versus fiction. Still, it’s tough to find fault with any man or woman whose life’s work has been an ethical focus on our collective education—emphasis on “ethical.”
Though a young Bob Orr dreamed of being the play-by-play announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he began his prolific television news career in 1973 at WTRF-TV in his hometown, Wheeling, West Virginia, before working in Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia.
Orr joined CBS News in July 1993, where he remained until his retirement in February 2015 and his relocation from Fairfax County, Virginia, to Naples, Florida. His most challenging adjustment today is “turning the spigot off. That’s hard to do when I’m used to drinking from a fire hose.”
During his tenure at CBS, Orr primarily focused on two beats. From 1994 to 2006, he was the Transportation Correspondent, covering safety and security issues.
After 9/11, though he retained the Transportation Correspondent title, Orr began focusing on security and counterterrorism. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established, he formally added DHS to his coverage responsibilities.
In November 2006, Orr took over the Justice beat as the CBS News Justice and Homeland Security Correspondent. In this capacity, he was the lead correspondent covering domestic and international terrorism as well as U.S. law enforcement issues.
Specifically, Orr was a primary contributor to special event broadcasts of major stories including the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden and the 2013 bombings of the Boston Marathon, the latter winning him one of his four national Emmy Awards.
“For over two decades, I had a front-row seat to just about every international event,” observes Orr. However, to Bob Orr, such extraordinary access begat great responsibility.
Orr’s journalistic focus essentially branded him as a “Master of Disaster.” After all, how many of us have jobs that force us to face the darkest sides of the human condition on a near-daily basis?
“All of the awful events I witnessed and/or reported on over the years caused me considerable stress and angst. Reporters are human beings and subject to the same kind of emotional reactions as anyone else. One simply can’t spend 24 hours a day covering disasters, accidents and terror attacks without paying a personal price.”
Nevertheless, Orr adds: “My family paid a higher price than I did. The counter-terrorism beat, in particular, is a 24/7 obligation. Meaning: the correspondent is never really off.”
All of this raises the question: what kind of person does it take to be in the business of “handling the truth”?
To begin, a healthy sense of humor doesn’t hurt: “I am the worst person to be with at a cocktail party—I can depress people in 10 minutes,” jokes Orr.
Yet, moments later he admits: “I had to put up a firewall to not get too emotionally attached.” A firewall he also confesses could easily go up in flames.
The shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was the single worst story I ever had to handle. I still cannot fathom the senseless cold-blooded killings of 20 defenseless first-grade children,” he recalls. The heart-breaking story is also one Orr found “impossible to cover in a dispassionate way.”
That said, is it unusual to want to protect one’s emotions? Don’t many (read: most) consumers of the news do the same thing? Don’t we frequently put up firewalls around our over-sensitized, headline-battered hearts?
Perhaps it is human nature to become somewhat detached from the “bad news” that seems to inundate our daily lives, but it’s downright unconscionable to ignore the contributions and the sacrifices made by journalists like Bob Orr—those who essentially live each workday surrounded by our collective grief.
In short, if you think it’s hard watching the news, try reporting it. At a minimum, please take a moment in remembrance of the dozens of journalists who, in their heroic effort “to seek truth and report it,” lose their lives each year.
Orr places journalistic endeavors into two distinct categories: “investigative” and “human interest.” Regardless of where a journalist fits on the precarious sliding scale between the two, each shares the obligation—the responsibility—to maintain the aforementioned code of ethics.
He also seems to possess a special combination of confidence in his skill set and an appreciation for the sheer importance of the work that has all but eliminated any sign of ego.
True, I have personally been blessed with an exceptional media outlet to share my journalistic voice. However, that voice is one that unapologetically comes from a rose-colored-glasses view of the world.
My voice has placed an emphasis on “class” in hopes to—in some small way—balance out the overwhelming amount of negativity found in almost every other form of media. My journalistic firewall attempts to shield readers from anything other than optimism and kindness.
I will always believe there is something positive to be learned from everyone we meet—even if that lesson must ultimately be classified as what to NOT do.
During interviews, I have even joked: “If I happen to unearth a smoking gun, I’ll help you hide it.” All for the sake of being Mr. Nice Guy. Bob Orr was not only tasked with unearthing the smoking guns, but—whether he will admit it or not—he also played a critical role in disarming the gunmen.
“The most important thing for me was not ‘what’ I covered, but ‘how’ I covered it,” Orr humbly states. “I gave the job my best shot and I am satisfied with that. The whole point of journalism is to inform, so if I helped somebody get a little smarter about some issue, that’s the only lasting dividend.”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law….abridging (limiting) the freedom of speech, or of the press….”
So yes, we seem to be able to say—and post on social media—pretty much anything that makes us feel good about ourselves, even at the expense of others. Orr agrees: “We live in the most connected time man has ever known; however, I would argue that we are also the most misinformed.”
Understandably, Orr adamantly believes: “We must have a free press, because it’s the only institutional check on authority we have.” He also understands that “news breaks first on social media—social media drives the bus. Everyone is a reporter. Everyone is a cameraman.”
If that’s true, shouldn’t journalistic ethics be a national discussion—one taught to and applied to the population at large? What if those who didn’t practice responsible journalism were, simply put, held responsible?
Yes, wishful thinking, but still worth the wish.
Is Bob Orr a supporter of the free press? Yes. However, is retired Bob Orr free of the press? No. None of us is, nor should we be.
“I will read and watch a variety of outlets in an attempt to get a proper contextual understanding of the important issues,” he says. “I won’t be too interested in partisan spin or programs that openly advocate a single editorial opinion, but the rest of it, bring it on.”
Marketer, publicist, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.
Photos: TOP — Bob Orr (photo courtesy of CBC News); Photo 2 — Bob Orr (photo by Craig Blankenhorn/CBS); Photo 3 — Bob Orr at the The 35th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards, 9/30/2014 (photo by Marc Bryan-Brown); Photo 4 — Bob and Susie Orr (photo courtesy of CBS News); Photo 5 — Randall Kenneth Jones and Bob Orr (photo by Kevin Randall Jones); BOTTOM — Randall Kenneth Jones.