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Moorhus: Let's start in September of 1970 when you went to work for WMAQ-TV.
Simpson: Did I tell you that I first came to their attention when I was on the radio in Iowa? Did I ever tell you that story?
Moorhus: I think so, but go ahead and repeat it.
Simpson: Well, only because it was kind of coming full circle. I had just begun in radio at WCFL in Chicago in 1965, I was on the air, and, as I say, it was a novelty. People were not used to hearing women delivering the news. Lee Phillip had a TV show, kind of a noon lady talk show kind of thing, and had celebrities from town, but you really did not hear a female voice doing the news before I began. So I got a lot of attention, and people were [saying], "Hey, there's a woman doing the news."
So in a very short period of time, a lot of people had heard about me because I was on this top rock station and doing news, and I got a call from the news director of WMAQ. This was like only six months after I had begun in radio. He called me up and said, "I'd like to talk to you about coming to Channel 5."
I met him for dinner, or lunch, and he told me that he had been driving to visit his parents in Iowa, had been driving on the highway, had tuned in the radio and picked up WSUI in Iowa City, and had heard my voice, heard me delivering a newscast. He said he tucked the name in the back of his mind and thought, "Wow, she really sounds good," and kind of didn't think about it anymore.
Then a couple of years later, I'm on the air in Chicago and he remembers that this was the voice he had heard, and invited me to leave radio and start a television career. Of course it was tempting, and I talked to the news director [at WCFL], who was my news director and who had taken a chance on me without any really commercial experience to start in a big market like Chicago. I told him that I had had this offer, and he said, "You stay with me for three years," (I had signed a three-year contract). He said, "I don't want to stand in your way if this is something that you really want to do, but you need to hone your craft. You need to learn. There's lots you can learn in radio, and you will be a household name. You go back to them in three years when you are somebody and you'll be able to make your own terms. You'll be able to get a better deal, you'll bring more to the station with your notoriety and your fame as a radio personality." He said, "Now, do want you want to do, but think about that. Think about what you can come back to them with after you've had these experiences."
And I listened to him, and I'm really glad I listened to him, because over that summer when I was on maternity leave, and Channel 5 came back to me after I'd had that big scoop on the Chicago Seven trial, I was able to be in a much better position in terms of negotiating what duties I would have. I wanted opportunities to anchor, and I wanted to cover certain things. So that was really good advice that this guy gave me.
Moorhus: It seems like that's the kind of advice he would have given a young man that he wanted to cultivate as well.
Simpson: Probably so.
Moorhus: He was not discriminating against you as a woman, let alone a black woman.
Simpson: No, not at all. Right. He said that he recognized that I had talent, and he said, "You want to hone that talent and you want to professionalize it, and this is a great place to do it."
I ended up not going to WMAQ at the end of the three years. I then went, as I told you, to the CBS all-news station [WBBM]. But the five years that I had in radio were absolutely terrific preparation, because I learned how to write very fast under deadline. I knew how to write for the ear instead of for the eye, which is a very different way to write things. I learned how to deliver and project my voice, and I could use my voice as an instrument, as a singer does, sometimes to effect the right mood for the story that is horrible, for the story that is funny, for the story that is light and "featurey." So those years of learning to write and learning to do things under pressure for an all-news station, when it's a deadline every minute—you go with the news when you have it—I wouldn't trade that for anything. Doing live talk-backs and things like that, all that capability.
All I had to add for TV now was the camera and the appearance, which I wasn't real happy [about], because in radio you are very much in control of your product. I would go out and cover my story with a tape recorder, I would come back to the studio, pick the sound bites that I wanted, write a script around it, and play the parts of the sound bites that I wanted, and I was totally in control of my product. In TV, you're not at all [in control]. You are totally interdependent on all kinds of people before your product gets on the air. So I had to change. Now I'm not going to have to worry about just my writing and have the story right, and am I delivering it in a compelling fashion.
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Simpson: Now you have to worry about the camera person getting the pictures you need, the sound person making sure that the sound is good, the light person making sure that there's sufficient light on the subject. Then you're dealing with a producer that may want it a certain length and fashioned in a certain way. Now you're dealing with the writer that's got to lead into your piece, that gives it the proper lead-in. Then you've got to worry about getting on the set and doing the stand-up and having your hair in place and your face not shiny and your eyes not squinty and all of these other kinds of things.
So the prospect of going to TV was kind of daunting. Now I'm going to have to rely on all of these other people to get a product on the air, but yet I felt, "This is where the country's moving." Television news was growing and becoming more and more important, and more people were getting their news from TV. Clearly, if I wanted to be in a mass medium that was going to have impact, television was going to be the place that I would go.
So I accepted the job. As I say, it was very difficult for me to get into this mode of how you look. I knew that at this period of time women were being held to a higher standard than men, so you had to spend some time worrying about the lighting. Lighting can destroy someone. A very attractive person can be made to look very horrible.
I have to tell you that period of time, 1970, was when a lot of news organizations—it's after the Kerner Commission report has come out and talked about the segregation in the newsrooms and how few minority reporters were being hired but were needed to cover these stories of the civil rights struggle. A lot of us were hired during that period of time, and there were black colleagues that I had that were literally plucked out of the classroom. If there was someone that looked reasonably attractive and was reasonably intelligent, "We're going to make you a television correspondent." A lot of people were hired and failed, because they didn't have the other skills. They didn't know.
Then you had a lot of white resistance from the technical crews that we had to work with. Chicago's a big union town, and everything was unionized. Our cameramen were IATSE [International Association of Television and Stage Electricians], the film people are, engineers doing sound were IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers], and these were strong, powerful unions in a big union town. There was a lot of pressure to open up the trades and open up those technical jobs to minorities, too. In fact, a lot of black organizations in Chicago started saying, "We're not going to let you cover our event unless you have a black reporter and you have a black crew." Of course, there was extreme white resistance to this, but what these black organizations were doing was knowing that that was a way to open up opportunities that would not otherwise be possible, and I thank those organizations. I'm not sure that I might have had a job had it not been for pressure from the outside to have black reporters and black camera people as part of this coverage, of this movement.
So the white technical people were very resistant because pressure was being put on those, and again, in a union town like Chicago, it was your father and your brother and your son and your uncle, and it was a very family—there was much nepotism in the trade unions, and it was very hard for anybody from the outside to break through that. The jobs were really passed on from family member to family member. The white people were upset about all of this [pressure to hire blacks].
There's a black correspondent, he was hired by WBBM-TV, George Foster, very handsome black man—jet black. Very keen features, very handsome. Dressed beautifully. He had been a schoolteacher. He is one of these people that they had plucked. He was talking about how much difficulty he had getting your crew to go out and—you know, you want to have a crew that's working with you and for you to get the story so that you can be competitive, and Chicago was a very competitive news town. He said that he would go out and he was having so much trouble with them. I found out, years later when I got to know some of these people, they wanted him to fail and they admitted it to me. What they would do is—because he was so dark—very fair people and very dark people have to be lit very carefully, because if they're too fair, they wash out, it looks terrible, they look like ghosts. And if you're very dark, and you're not lit properly, you will just fade into the background. They used to take this attractive black man and stand him in front of a white wall, so that when his stand-uppers would come out, when he would be on camera, you'd see teeth and eyes—that's all. And they'd go, "Well, we just can't light him. We just can't deal with him."
So a lot of people failed, okay? Some because they didn't have the skills and the know-how to do the job, but some by being sabotaged by people like that that were resistant and so upset that integration of our industry was beginning. But I learned early on, from working with the engineers, that I needed these guys on my side, that because I was interdependent, because I could no longer control my product, I've got to have these people like me, and I'm going to make them like me, and I'm going to make them do the job for me, because then I'll look good. Right? If I come back with the best pictures, or an element of a story that Channel 2 didn't have or Channel 7
didn't have, that's all to my glory. I needed these guys to work for me and to hustle and to rush and to be the first camera in position.
So I learned a technique of dealing with these older white males that resented very much a young, black female coming into this O&O—NBC-owned and operated station—from radio with no television experience telling them what to do, which is the job of the reporter. You go out to do a story, and you have in mind what elements you need to do the story, so you're, in effect, the director of the camera crew. These guys would just sit down on me, kind of like, "well what do you want us to do?" I learned that all I had to do was [say], "Well, I don't know, but what do you think if we got up over there on that hill? Do you think we'd get a really good shot of this whole crowd of people here?" What I started doing was bringing them into the process. I knew exactly the pictures that I wanted, but I knew that I couldn't say, "I want you to climb up on that hill over there, and I want a wide shot of that, and then I want you to come down here and I want you to start getting me some individual tight faces, and then I want you to get a cutaway of the band over there."
So I would walk with them and I would talk with them, and play the naive, stupid little female, knowing exactly what I needed and wanted, but that's the way I had to survive. I look back and I cringe now—being the outspoken, forthright, frank kind of person I am today—when I look back on how I behaved with this stars-in-my-eyes, "Could you help me? Do you think this would work?" But it worked. It worked. You do what you have to do to get the job done. I would buy them coffee, and I would pick up lunch, or I'd get a package of M&Ms, and keep the crew happy. Keep the crew happy. And I still do that, to this day. They like to work for me. They like to work with me, because I bring them into the process. You'll find a lot of correspondents ordering them around and treating them like you're technical people and we're the talent and you're the crew, and I've never treated them that way. I've treated them as colleagues and we're in this together, and we're working on this story together. If I get a good story, and everybody loves that story and it has a terrific audience response, they look good. We win awards. So I have always brought them in, and fortunately, had them always on my side, when I could tell very early on they did not like this idea.
Moorhus: Where do you think you got the prior experience, or the kind of instinct, that that was the way to manage them?
Simpson: I don't know. Because, as I said, I had worked with white technicians in radio, but I didn't have to rely on them as heavily. When I think back on it, I don't recall asking people how to make it work, or even sitting down thinking, "Now, what strategy can I use?" I think it just came. And that's a part of, I guess, being a reporter, that you size people up. I think I'm good at doing that, that early on getting a sense of how people respond to me and that kind of thing. I know then what kind of attitude to assume with them. Perhaps that's from years of interviewing other people and knowing—but I guess I have known that about men, that men like to be looked up to and [told] that they're in charge, and that they know what's best. It's playing to that whole male ego thing, which I guess along the way I learned and understood. I was playing the little girl, and "You're the big, strong, powerful man, and you can help me out, and you can show me what to do," and that worked.
Moorhus: That's very politically savvy.
Simpson: It was. And I tell the young people today, I tell the young women—we have young desk assistants and production assistants, and it's kind of an entry level where they're beginning to be producers, but sometimes we send them out with a crew, and I'm like, "Don't be sitting up here
thinking you know everything. These people have done this work for years and years and years, and you're going to come out and be the big shot and say, 'I want you to do this, and this, and this, and that.' It's not going to work. Make them part of the team. Bring them into the process. Ask their opinions."
And to this day, every story that I go out on, I sit down with the camera person before we even pick up the camera. "Here's what I've got to go do, this is what I'm trying to accomplish. What do you think about this? If you see something that you think—" They love that. "If you see a shot that I don't know about and you want to get it, get it. Tell me about it later. I want you to use your instincts. If you see someone about to cry or about to get emotional, start putting the camera in, start focusing, get in on them." So we sit down and talk like that, and I think they like to work with me because I do treat them as, "You have skills. I've never shot a camera. You tell me what's going to work and what's best for this."
But men do respond. [Laughter.] Men respond very well to the poor helpless female role, and it served me well in my early years in television. Because I wanted them to make me look good. I don't know. I used to say, "Now, you all put the pretty filter in, I'm getting ready to do my stand-up. I want the pretty filter in." It was kind of a joke. "My career depends on this." [Laughter.] Because it is the place, it is our showcase. You can do a spot, but that period of time that you're in the public's living room and focused, it has to be together.
Moorhus: It was a male/female thing, but it was also a kind of professional/technical relationship. So you were bringing them along with you, and they responded very well.
Simpson: They did. They did.
Moorhus: How long do you think it took you to begin to feel comfortable in that new medium?
Simpson: Not very long at all. When you're working in local news, you really work. I would have a day that might begin at eight, and I'd have maybe covered two stories for the noon news, something else for the afternoon. You're doing it every day, and everything you do is getting on the air, so you're getting a lot of experience. It's a really intensive effort, so you just have to do it. There wasn't time to learn it. And as I said, the writing was easy, and the delivery part was. All I had to do was bring the pictures along. And how wonderful that was. I would have to use word pictures for radio in describing things, but now I had these wonderful pictures. Of course, the impact, a picture worth a thousand words. You could sit there and talk about David Koresh's compound up in flames,* but seeing that thing just cave in on itself—so I began to appreciate the power of the pictures, and let the pictures tell the story. All I do is help weave them together and put in a few facts, but let the pictures and let the people talk, let the subjects talk, hear their words, and that kind of thing. I loved very much marrying the pictures to the words and having that extra dimension to add to the reporting.
Moorhus: What kind of stories did you get assigned to in that first period?
Simpson: First period, everything. By that time, I had established myself as a hard news reporter, so I had the fires, I had city hall. I wasn't the city hall reporter, but I was often there covering
* After a fifty-one day standoff with the FBI, David Koresh and dozens of his cult followers perished when their Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, was destroyed by fire on April 19, 1993.
Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. I did all the accidents, the murders. I can't tell you how many times I was sent to the families of dead children, children who had been found floating in the Chicago River, or found cut up in oil drums. I became the "sob sister" kind of thing on those kinds of stories, which I rejected, and after a while—I went one time and called on the family of a sixteen-year-old girl who had been found murdered, and, of course, they wanted me to go to the family. The first time I went up there, I rang the doorbell. I left the cameraman—he was on the porch, but he was with me—and I rang the doorbell and I said, "I'm Carole Simpson from Channel 5," and this man, this father, the rage on his face, "How dare you bother us at a time like this?" I'll never forget that. He slammed the door in my face, and I felt horrible. Having a child of my own, I could put myself—of course, who wants? I'm always amazed at the things people will tell us and allow us to do with cameras, which I would never, as an ordinary citizen, permit.
But after that, they would send me out to the houses, and I just thought it was ghoulish, and I didn't want any part of it. If somebody calls us up and said, "My child is missing and I want to find its murderer, and I'd like to use your television cameras," fine, I'll go do it. But I was never again going to do that. But I never told the office. So I would go to the vicinity of the house and say, "Nobody's here." We might shoot an exterior of the house, but I would never again do that. I couldn't do that. I still can't do that. I think it's really horrible.
I covered the board of education, and that was a period of time when there was lots of turmoil in the public schools and lots of integration problems, and whites were fleeing the public schools in the city, and there were school boycotts and teacher strikes, so the education beat was a hot beat, and I did a lot of that. Everything—the University of Chicago sit-ins. There was all the anti-war stuff. The colleges and universities at Northwestern and University of Chicago, there were long sit-ins that went on for days and days with students occupying administration buildings. You name it. I mean, I was a general assignment reporter.
Moorhus: When you went to cover something like the University of Chicago or Northwestern, did you talk to the students, or did you talk to the administration, or both?
Simpson: Both, yes. If the students would talk to us. Often they wouldn't, and often the administration wouldn't. There were sieges. These were long sieges.
Moorhus: Did you find it an advantage being a woman or being black?
Simpson: Sometimes, on some stories. There were black students that occupied Northwestern University. They knew who I was, so I could get to them where perhaps a white reporter might not. I can't think of any advantages to being a female, because there weren't that many. We weren't doing stories about women or concerning women at that period of time. But, yes, being a black reporter certainly had its advantages.
I covered the Black Panther party raid when Fred Hampton was killed and the police went on trial.* I covered Governor Kerner's trial. Did a lot of trial stuff. Mercy killings. It was the whole gamut of big city news.
* After the December 4, 1969 raid by fourteen Chicago police officers on the Black Panther party, a special federal grand jury criticized police conduct. Investigations by representatives of local news media pointed out numerous discrepancies in the official accounts that police had filed in self-defense. Ultimately, $1.85 million was awarded to survivors of the attack and the families of those killed.
Moorhus: Did you ever have a story that you wanted to cover that they wouldn't let you cover because you were a woman?
Simpson: Not at that point, no. I was one of their what we call in the business "firemen." I was called a fireman—a person that you could send in to any kind of story. No. I later at the network level have [been denied], but I can't remember any there. I felt I was kind of pigeonholed by doing education, which was kind of an obvious choice for a female reporter, but since it was such a good beat and it guaranteed a lot of air time, it was good. But I wanted to do more political stuff.
Moorhus: Who was taking care of your daughter during this period?
Simpson: My daughter. I went back to work when she was four months old, and my mother, who lived in Chicago, took my daughter, which was great. I went back sooner than I had intended. I had planned to be on maternity leave a little longer, but WMAQ came knocking at the door and really wanted me to start as soon as possible, and they wanted me to cover education. It was September, they wanted me to be there when school began and so on, so I asked my mother if she would take care of her. My husband was in school, working on his master's in physics, so we were really, really busy with a young baby and this brand-new career. But my mother and father took my daughter during the week. We'd dropped her off on Monday mornings and pick her up on Friday evenings, and we had dinner with my parents every night and would play with her and put her to bed, and they kept her. We were living in an apartment, a small apartment. We knew we'd have to buy a house, so we bought a house that would accommodate space for a housekeeper, and when she was ten months old, we moved into our house and I hired a live-in housekeeper.
Moorhus: Where was your house?
Simpson: In Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago.
Moorhus: That's a long-time integrated neighborhood, so you didn't have any trouble buying a house?
Simpson: No. Because my husband was working at Argonne National Laboratory, which was affiliated with the University of Chicago, and I think the house we bought was owned by the university, so, no, no problems. I loved that neighborhood. It was great living in Hyde Park, just for that reason—I mean the intellectual community, as well as the integration. It was really the only integrated part of Chicago at that time. It really was.
Moorhus: You then had a live-in housekeeper for your daughter?
Simpson: Yes. She's twenty-three. For twenty-two years I've had to have a live-in housekeeper because of the job. I would work many nights late for the ten o'clock news, sometimes the shifts would be on the weekends, and, as I say, with my husband with a demanding job and going to school too, that's the only way we could have [managed]. I've been blessed by having good child-care providers throughout, and being able to afford it has made all the difference in the world. I never could have done what I have done without that.
It was very difficult leaving her, but the period of time that I was off, I really felt like I was vegetating. After you've had a job in which you're at the cutting edge of everything going on, and you're seeing it firsthand, and have the ability to tell the public what's going on, while I was at home, waiting to have the baby, and then taking care of her as an infant, I thought I was going
crazy. I felt so out of it, so terribly out of everything that was going on, and I loved her dearly, adored her, but I really was anxious to get back into being that eye-witness to history, which was so satisfying to me. I went through a long period, I suffered a lot of derision from family, my husband's family in particular, because it was unheard of. I kept my maiden name, as I told you, and he took a lot of flak for about that. And now here's this woman going back to work with a baby only three and a half months, four months old, and people [said], "What kind of mother are you?" I can remember hearing all of that stuff. It's not even thought about now. But it was like I was really this horrible person that would leave my infant daughter and go to work.
Moorhus: And you didn't have to work, because your husband was a "good provider."
Simpson: My husband was a good provider, and I didn't have to work. Exactly. So I got every book on child-rearing. I read everything—[Arnold] Gesell,* [Benjamin] Spock, Salk—every book about child-rearing that I possibly could. Not because I wanted them to tell me [it's okay], but just having the benefit of the knowledge of what's happening. I was so afraid that she would say her first word and I wasn't there, or she would take her first step and I wasn't there, or she would do some wonderful thing, or she'd have an accident and I wasn't there, and I suffered great guilt.
Somebody told me I should have written a "My Turn" article for Newsweek, because last year, when she graduated cum laude from Harvard University, I thought back on all the shit that I had put up with about being a terrible mother. What I was able to do for my daughter by my working was to expose her to things she never would have been exposed to, by having the wherewithal that we could take the trips, and that I could send her to the lab school,* and I could send her to National Cathedral School here, that we could take European vacations, and she was exposed to so much and became very much a part of my job. And I believed very strongly in quality time. The time that I did have with her was rich, rich, rich time.
As I say, through all of that and the guilt—"Oh, how much smarter would she have been had I been home? How much brighter would she have been, how much more independent?" And now my daughter's in medical school. My daughter's finishing her first year of medical school and she graduated with honors from Harvard University. I'm quite proud of that, that clearly, whatever it was my husband and I—and I have to give credit to him, I mean, because he was always there when I wasn't, and he was mother and father when I couldn't be there as mother because of traveling on stories and things like that. He was great. But whatever we did, we looked at ourselves and said, "Wow. Job well done." It was hard, it was tough. We felt all this guilt and all these other kinds of things, but it worked out. She's this great kid.
Moorhus: She also had the benefit of her having grandparents nearby.
Simpson: She did. She did. For a while. My mother died when she was four, and my dad, and we moved to Washington. So they weren't really a big part. Early on, but not for the rest of the time.
Moorhus: That's quite an accomplishment, to see your daughter graduate like that.
* Arnold L. Gesell (1880-1961). American psychologist, co-author of Atlas of Infant Behavior (1954) and The Child From Five to Ten (1946).
*University of Chicago Laboratory School.
Simpson: I just cried and cried and cried. As I say, it brought back all this stuff of people saying what damage I was doing to her.
Moorhus: Did some of that come from your colleagues, too?
Simpson: Sure! Absolutely. Remember, I'm the only female, so these men had wives, and their wives were at home taking care of their children. Their wives weren't working. So I heard all this doom and gloom of what was going to happen to her. I sent her to a Montessori school, and she went to nursery school early. "Oh, you're going to put her in nursery school?" As I say, all of this stuff that seems so natural and normal now was so unheard of at that time.
Moorhus: Quite ground-breaking. My notes on your bio say that you also started teaching at Northwestern [University] in this period.
Simpson: I did. As if it weren't busy enough, right?
Simpson: I had taught at Tuskegee Institute, as I told you. I enjoyed it very, very much, and I was called by Northwestern in 1971—I'd been at MAQ for about a year—said, "We'd like you to teach a course, be part of our part-time working faculty." And I thought this was a great idea. They'd bring working journalists in to teach students. Because I can remember in journalism school, when I was at Michigan, they [the faculty] hadn't been inside a newspaper office in twenty years. But here, Northwestern believed strongly in bringing print people and TV and radio people in to actually bring their work experience in as part of teaching their students.
They asked me to teach basic writing, it was Rhetoric 101, basic writing for journalism freshman, and I wanted to do that, because ultimately that is what I want to do some day, to teach. So for four years I was part of their part-time faculty and taught one course a semester. It would be like one evening a week from 6 to 9 p.m., or three times a week an eight o'clock class. It was hectic getting out to Northwestern, to Evanston, to do that and then come back to work, and having all the papers to grade, but I really, really enjoyed it. And some of my students are now all over the place. In fact, one of our producers here is one of my students, and he and I worked on the '88 [George] Bush campaign, which was kind of exciting. But they're at the New York Times, they're at the Atlanta Constitution, they're all over the place.
And what I saw was I took kids, very bright students, coming to Northwestern, to Medill [School of Journalism], who had written these wonderful theme papers and research papers, took them, with their sixty-four-dollar words, and turned them into mass communicators at the end of the semester. I would send them out, "Go out now, and by the end of class in three hours, I want a complete story. I want you to find the story, report the story and bring it to me," and to watch these people change. I loved watching that, just watching what happened from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. Having that kind of impact and influence on young people was just terrific.
The final exam I always used was to take the Christmas story from Luke and turn that into a news story. "You can do with it whatever you will." You would not believe the incredible treatments of the Christmas story as a news story that might appear in a newspaper. So I really,
really liked that. Even though it was very hectic and busy, it is in many ways much more rewarding than seeing one of my spots go by. It's out there on the airwaves, and it's gone, and you hope it's having some impact on people. But here you can really see a change and a difference. I do enjoy that. And I do a lot of speaking, and always go when I'm on a college campus, even request to go, if they have not requested, to speak to classes. I really enjoy young people and working with them and turning them into the journalists of tomorrow. I really want to do that some day.
Moorhus: Did the people who invited you to teach at Northwestern realize that you had been turned down for admission there as a student?
Simpson: This I don't know. This year I just negotiated a new contract [at ABC], and they [Medill] offered me, and are still coming back to me—the dean, Dean [Michael] Janeway, is planning to fly in next week to talk to me, still trying to persuade me. They've offered me to run their broadcast program at Medill. It's a really big job. It's a really big job. So, yes, I love that not only did they not accept me and want me to teach there, but now they want me to head up the whole broadcast program, and it's just the timing with my daughter still in medical school. It's a big cut in pay, as you can imagine. But they're trying to tell me, "You can do this, you can do documentaries, you can do commercial, you can do whatever else you can."
Moorhus: There's quite an irony in all of that.
Simpson: Isn't it? Isn't it unbelievable? It really is. Then they've talked to me about the Washington program. They really want me to do stuff for them. It's kind of satisfying. "Now you're begging me to come."
Moorhus: Were there black students and women in the classes when you started teaching in '70?
Simpson: There were women, a few. I think in the four years I taught there, only one black woman. It still wasn't a field that we were encouraged to go into.
Moorhus: Well, it sounds like in the period 1970 to '74, things were going very well.
Simpson: Yes. In 1972, I began weekend anchoring. I anchored the weekend news.
Now, I have to tell you some funny stories about this period of time. The NBC network news division was in with WMAQ. We shared facilities. So NBC News's Chicago bureau was part of the WMAQ facilities. They had a separate office and stuff like that, and separate crews. And typically what would happen, if you covered a major news story in Chicago, the network would have you do it for the network. If you covered it, and they didn't have their network correspondents available to do it, those of us that were local reporters would do it for the network. And I can remember being told—all of a sudden I had done a story and I saw them give it to one of my colleagues. It was a story he hadn't covered, but they wanted him to voice it for the network, and I'm going, "Wait a minute, what's going on here?" Because the O&O stations for all of the networks are seen as the farm team. This is where you pull your future network correspondents, [they] are from the big O&O stations in New York, L.A., and so on. So we're all looking to go to the network and be at the network some day.
I had done this particular story, and one of my male colleagues was told he was to do it for the nightly news. I went in to see the producer for "Nightly News" at the Chicago bureau,
and I said, "Why is he doing my story?" And I was told that they didn't want me to do it because I talked too precisely. I said, "Excuse me?"
He said, "You enunciate too clearly."
And I said, "I thought that was the whole idea." Right? [Laughter.] I said, "We want people to understand us."
He said, "But you sound like a school marm. It's just too precise. It's too perfect."
I said, "You want me to slur my words? What you are telling me? I don't get it." And he suggested—this is now after seven years of broadcast experience, five years in radio, and now it's like two years that I've been at the television station. I said, "You're telling me to slur my words?"
And he goes, "Well, no, it's just too perfect. Take a tape recorder and go home and listen to yourself and practice."
I said, "Practice what? Practice not speaking distinctly?" [Laughter.] "What are you telling me?"
And he said, "Yes," he said, "you know, and then let me hear some of your efforts."
I'm like, "But I still don't understand what you're telling me." Now, what I also didn't realize was there was another black male at the station, Russ Ewing, he's now at Channel 7 in Chicago, and he couldn't do his stories on the air. I went to him, and I said, "Russ, they're telling me I'm talking too distinctly, I'm talking too perfectly. What is this?"
And he said, "They won't let me do my stories, either." Because he talked too ethnic. He sounded too "black."
Moorhus: So he was too black, and you were too white?
Simpson: I was too white, I guess, for a black person to be talking this way. I never forgot that. This is the beginning when people start trying to futz with your delivery. Some people don't like my voice. Some people don't happen to like my delivery. Most people do, thank God, but I know that's a subjective kind of thing. But somebody else said, "Don't let them. You have to be what you are." As I say, I didn't take speech lessons. As I told you, I acted in high school and college so I learned how to use my voice, and then I had years of radio. That's me. That's what I am, and I can't make it slurry. I can make it more conversational, I can make it lighter, I can do things like that. But to say "Don't speak distinctly" was beyond me.
And, again, I thought back on this when, two years ago, I won the Alexander Graham Bell Award from the hearing-impaired as having the most lip-readable lips on TV. I beat out Peter Jennings, I beat out all the anchors on television. I get letters all the time from older people that are hearing-impaired that say they love to see me on the air because they can tell exactly what—I'm not aware of what's happening with my mouth, but apparently they can see it, and they said, "We understand everything you say, and that's rare," and you miss pieces of speech when you're lip reading.
Again, that was one of those things about being black. I think that was racist. I think he thought that I was trying very hard to talk "white," or whatever, and it was racism. That you talk
too clearly? Give me a break. That's the whole idea. We want people to understand what we're saying to them.
Moorhus: It's as if it would shake up people's image of the way black people talked, and he wasn't prepared to do that.
Simpson: Exactly. When I was in radio, and I don't know if I told you this before, I would have people stop me because they were shocked to find out that I was black after they'd heard me for years on the radio. I would have people say, "I never heard anybody colored talk like you before. How did you learn how to talk? How do you get your mouth—?" This was like so amazing to them. But as I said, if you heard my mother and my father and my sister, I never talked any other way but. This was not something to be worked at. But for many white people, they just could not believe that I could speak this clearly or that distinctly and pronounce syllables.
So anyhow, I now become weekend anchor.
Moorhus: In spite of the fact that he had told you you couldn't appear?
Simpson: Yes. I wasn't appearing on the network. I wasn't appearing on the network.
Moorhus: This was the local anchor.
Simpson: Yes. I'm doing the local weekend news. About this time, it was 1972, I got my first feeler from NBC News, the network, wanting me. I'd met with them. They wanted me to come to Washington—my dream—to come to Washington to be a network correspondent.
Moorhus: Why Washington?
Simpson: Because this is the news capital of the world. This is where it all is, and I loved politics. I really loved covering the city council and Mayor Daley, all of that stuff. And to come and cover the Congress and the president of the United States! I'm a political junkie. I really, really enjoy politics. So it was like a dream come true. But they came along in 1972, and I had just been two years now at TV, and they wanted me to move. Jim was still in school, my parents were still alive, and I was doing very well. I was very happy, because I was reporting during the week, getting to anchor on the weekends, and I liked that combination, which I'm now back to, but that's nice, having the visibility of being an anchor on the weekends and doing that. That's just fun. It's like dress-up and going on the air for a half-hour. [Laughter.]
Simpson: Exactly. Putting on a show. So I really was quite happy, and I said, "Maybe some day, but I'm not ready." And I kind of laid it off to, "My husband's still in school. This isn't a good time." I kind of put them off for the time being.
In 1973, I'd been anchoring on the weekends now almost two years, and I was called by my news director [Van Gordon Sauter] and told that they were going to have to take me off the weekend news because there was a guy from Schenectady, New York, Ron Hunter—I'll never forget this—and he was going to be a big star with the network, and they needed a vehicle to build him into this. So they were going to start him off on weekend news, he may some day replace Tom Brokaw, I don't know who was anchoring, maybe it was still [John] Chancellor and [David] Brinkley.
Moorhus: I've never heard of him. He seems to have disappeared.
Simpson: [Laughter.] Good point! I said, "You've got to be kidding me," because I had good numbers, I was the only black person anchoring in Chicago on anything, so I was a big deal. I was becoming a really big deal in Chicago. Now with the anchoring on Saturday nights, people would recognize me on the streets, and we were the number one of all the stations. Okay? I said, "You couldn't possibly be taking me off the news for this guy."
And he said, "Carol, it is not my—" and he really felt terrible about it, my news director. He was being ordered by New York. "We want to create this guy, and we want to start him on the weekends, and then he's going to become the every-day anchor, and then we're moving him to New York, and he's probably going to anchor nightly news." It's like—Schenectady? It was either Schenectady or Poughkeepsie. It was one of those. I'm not sure. It was a long-name city in New York. [Laughter.]
I was just devastated, and going, "This isn't fair. If I'm doing a lousy job, or if the ratings aren't any good, I could understand it."
And he said, "There's nothing to understand. My hands are tied."
Then I just went—you know, the capricious nature of this industry and this business that like that, you can be riding high one minute and, boom, your legs are knocked out from under you. So I was devastated, really devastated, because it didn't make sense, and it didn't seem fair.
The network kept saying, every now and then, every six months or so, "Are you ready to come to Washington yet?"
So this time they called, and I was ready. I said, "Yeah."
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Moorhus: So you said yes to the network.
Simpson: So I said yes. And then they said, "Okay, you've got to meet—" There were people to meet and all. Well, right in the middle of this, my mother, who we thought had a bad cold or pneumonia, turned out to have lung cancer. This was horrible. The network was saying, "Come," and I'm going, "No, I can't come now. My mother is terminal with lung cancer." "Well, you've got to come now or not at all." And I'm like, "Well, not at all. If you can't see me through this, I mean if you want me, but I'm not leaving my mother here, and my dad, with her being sick like this." It was radiation. So I just kind of put the network out of my mind. I was unhappy with local news, but now I am preoccupied with family matters.
It was a horrible, horrible time with her. She ended up being a vegetable. It went to her brain, and we had to put her in a nursing home. She didn't know us. For nine months, she was just a vegetable and in a lot of pain, and it was just a horrible, horrible experience going through that, trying to work with a young daughter, and then your mother dying, and propping up my father, and Jim still in school. He's now switched to an M.B.A., he's at the University of Chicago working on his M.B.A., and it was a horrible time. I just look back on that as one of the worst periods of my life, of trying to hold all of that together.
Moorhus: And that was sort of the '73-'74 academic year?
Simpson: '73-'74, right. We just kind of went along. We'd get a call from the nursing home, "It looks like she's going to go," and we'd race out there, drop everything, and she'd somehow managed to rally. Like five times. You kind of psych yourself up for it. I felt like I was at the edge of the cliff, waiting to be pushed over, never knowing when. Sometimes I'd get to work and get a call. Because I wanted to be there. Plus, visiting her. We would still go twice a week to visit her, even though she didn't know us, but talking to her and things like that. It was really awful.
Finally in March of 1974, she died, and I tell you, it was not—I came back to work, I took my dad to Florida after the funeral, and there was NBC calling. She wasn't cold in the grave when they called. [Laughter.] She wasn't cold in the grave! And they said, "Can you come to Washington now?" And I said, "No, my husband will be finishing school in August of '74," and they said, "Okay, why don't you work out of the Chicago bureau for the network, learn the system and begin covering network stories then," and that's what happened.
I went to work for the NBC network and worked out of the Midwest bureau until Jim finished school in August, and then we moved here in September of '74. And he was a tagalong husband. He finished his M.B.A., and the whole question of whether we should move to Washington was a tough one. But he had been working at Argonne, and they were cutting back scientific research he was doing. He was doing research on breeder reactors at Northwestern, and he saw the cutbacks in scientific research then, and that's when he switched from his physics master's into an M.B.A. So it was a convenient time for him to make a complete change, since he was going to get out of science. He didn't have a job when we came to Washington. We talked about whether we should do this or not, and he knew this was my dream, that I really wanted to do it. He knew that if I didn't take it, that I would always wonder, and I knew I would always wonder, too, what I could have been, or what I could have done if I had only taken this opportunity.
So we talked about it, and we made a deal. I said, "If you come with me now and let me pursue this dream, if some opportunity comes up in your field that you feel you must take, I'll go with you." That was the deal, and I still hold by that. If something comes up, I'll go with him, because I appreciate his giving me that opportunity. He could have stayed where he was, and we were happy in Chicago. But as I say, I was soured by that whole thing with that guy [Ron Hunter]. That didn't last. I think he was there maybe a year or something like that, and the last place I saw him, I saw him on the air not too long ago, was Columbus, Georgia. It was some small, out-of-the-way place. But had he not come along—right?—I might still be in Chicago today. You never know. But that, as I say, kind of soured me on local news, and I felt, "At the network they will appreciate—" [Laughter.] Silly me. "At the network they will appreciate talent and all that kind of stuff."
Moorhus: "All will be well."
Simpson: Right. So we moved. And again, he took more heat. "You're going to follow your wife to Washington? What is this?" It was his family that were just—
Moorhus: And yet you said earlier that his mother had always worked, and that his mother had brought him up in such a way that he was very supportive.
Simpson: Right. But she still was the wife. She still was Mrs. James H. Marshall. She was still the wife.
Moorhus: There was a limit to how far she would go.
Simpson: Right. She was a working woman and a working mother, but still very much "the wife of." So as far as having an independent—they worked for the government. They both worked at Wright Patterson air field, and he had the better job. She worked, but he was in charge, and I think she wanted her son to [be in charge]. And, see, I'd always made more money. Just strictly from an economic point of view, it made sense for him and us to move, just in terms of the amount of money they were going to pay me to move, and they were going to pay all the moving costs and sell our house and all that kind of thing.
Moorhus: How long did it take him to find a job?
Simpson: No time. I think we were here one day. He had been sending out feelers all summer long, and the job is at the company right now where he's now senior vice president for finance, and has a beautiful office overlooking the Potomac, and a secretary, things I don't have. [Laughter.] It turned out to be a very, very good job. But it was like the day after we—we stayed at the Washington Hilton when we moved here, waiting for our furniture to come, and I think the day after we arrived, he got a call asking him to come down. He had done interviews with lots of different companies, but this one came through, so he's been there ever since.
Moorhus: Coming to the Washington area, knowing where you were going to be working, but not knowing where he was going to be working, how did you decide where to live?
Simpson: I didn't want Virginia, just because of the South. I'm still thinking of Virginia as the South. Someone else had told me, "Don't have to cross a bridge to get into the city in the morning." And NBC was on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington, so we kind of looked in D.C., in that vicinity, because I have the job that's more demanding and likely to work the crazy hours, so it made sense for me to be closer to my job. His job is in Rosslyn, Virginia. It's right across the river. So we looked in D.C. and then heard about the schools, and ended up in Montgomery County, Maryland, because of the public schools. I was a big proponent of public schools and wanted my daughter to go to a public school, so we moved to Maryland with that in mind, but it was still close to the District, close in, Chevy Chase.
Moorhus: Do you still live in the house that you moved into in '74?
Simpson: No. We're in our fourth house. [Laughter.] We had a very beautiful I.M. Pei* townhouse in Hyde Park in Chicago, and we came here looking for an equivalent house in 1974, not realizing that $100,000 bought you nothing in Washington, D.C. So we had to settle for a tiny little house that cost way more than what we had gotten for our beautiful four-bedroom, three-story townhouse. We've been getting bigger houses as we go along. And with the lucrative real estate market in Washington, it has not been a bad investment.
Moorhus: Did your daughter go to public school then?
Simpson: She went to public school. She went to a Montessori school here. She was four when we moved here, and she was there for two years and then went to North Chevy Chase Elementary School, and I was shocked that she didn't have any homework. She read at four. We had always read books. I have always read books to my children, and they had library cards as soon as they
* I.M. Pei (b. 1917). U.S. architect known for innovative modernist structures.
could write their first name. That was one of the things that we'd do every night, and that was one of the ways that I could spend this quality time. We always read stories. Every night there was a story.
I can remember my parents babysitting for her one time when my husband and I went out, and she was maybe a year old, or thirteen, fourteen months, scarcely over a year, and they put her to bed, and she's going, "Toy." So they went and got this stuffed animal, and she kept going, "No! Toy!" [Laughter.] And they kept getting everything they had in the house that was some kind of toy, and she was saying "Story." Because from the time she was about seven or eight months, we had a story every night, and it was a chance to cuddle. I believed in making the reading experience this loving, wonderful experience so that your child would want to read. Something I read somewhere in one of those books. [Laughter.] But I enjoyed it, too, and it was quiet time. I could settle down from a tough day. My husband could. One of us would always read the story. Of course, with the picture books, by the time she got older it would be four or five stories a night. But anyhow, she went to sleep crying. They couldn't figure out what it was she wanted, but it was the story.
Anyhow, she had read early and had done very well in Montessori, and I put her in the public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, and she's making straight As, but there was never any homework. I used to give her homework. I think a kid in first or second grade could be practicing numbers or handwriting. There ought to be fifteen minutes of something you would do at home. So I found myself having to give her things to do. She wasn't being challenged at all. I would do that, and we went along, and the schools were nice.
Then one day when she about in the third grade, she said, "Mom, they've put me in the slow reading group."
And I said, "I beg your pardon?"
And she said, "Yes. I'm not in the reading group that I was assigned." They'd call them Cardinals and Blue Jays, they have all these different names, and she said, "I'm not in the top reading group."
I was furious, because if she was having a problem with reading, why wouldn't the teacher call me and say, "We think Malli needs to go back into this lower group," for whatever reason? I called the school, so angry, and I said, "What is going on? This child has been reading since she was four years old. Why would she be in the slow reading group?"
And the teacher said, "Well, because she doesn't read very fast. Her pace is slower than—"
I said, "Why didn't you call me? We can work on pace. What is the problem with that, and why wouldn't you call me and tell me that?"
"Well, we don't do that."
I said, "What do you mean, you don't do that?" And it turned out that—I talked to other black parents, and it's been a continuing problem in the Montgomery County schools, and exists to this day. Maybe it's starting to change, because there's a black superintendent, but I heard many very well-to-do, very educated middle-class blacks complain about the low expectations that there were in the schools for black children. They couldn't possibly be in the fast reading group. They couldn't possibly take advanced algebra and stuff like that.
I went crazy. And I said, "We will work with this, and I want you to test her in a month's time, and I want her back in that group as soon as possible." But there were constant battles like that, of dealing with the schools, not having the homework, not having the communication with the teachers, seeing that she was totally unchallenged, looking at the class size—at that time it was twenty-five, and it's a lot in a classroom—and I knew this was a bright kid.
So at fifth grade, I began looking around, and in sixth grade she went to National Cathedral School. My husband was treasurer of the P.T.A. We were very involved. As I said, having covered education, I was a big proponent of public schools, and I think too many middle-class parents leave the schools and they're left to parents and children that aren't making the best use of the schools. But when you look at your child languishing—I had to do something, and I'm certainly glad.
I did the same thing with my son [Adam], who I sent to Chevy Chase Elementary, and he was in there for three years and going nowhere. He's a kid not quite as smart as my daughter, and he needs a lot more, and needs a tighter hand, so he's at Georgetown Day School. I kept trying the public schools, but have ended up having to give up on them, because they're just not doing the jobs in many cases.
Moorhus: You mentioned your son, and you had said earlier that he is adopted. When and where and how did you adopt him?
Simpson: After my daughter was born—I had a horrible childbirth, so I wasn't real anxious to go through that again. But I had done many stories in Chicago about black children, that there were ten black children awaiting adoption for every one white baby. I talked to my husband about it, and I said, "I'd like to adopt if we have a second child." I really wish I could have adopted many more if I had had the time. "Why don't we take a child and do what we can for that child that might not otherwise have a chance?" Again, the heat we took from our families. [Laughter.] They said things like, "Why would you adopt? You don't know whether you're going to get an ax murderer." I mean, they just said horrible things. I mean, like how many of our own children turn out to be ax murderers?
Moorhus: Well, and the assumption was you didn't have to adopt. After all, you have had one.
Simpson: Right. "You could have had another." But it was something I felt if I have an opportunity to do that, why not give a kid a chance that might not otherwise? This kid is going to Venice and Florence and Rome and Zurich in two weeks with me. He's been exposed to a lot. And I wanted a boy.
So we started, when we were here—how long were we here? We had been here a couple of years, and we went around to all the agencies trying to find a child. They had older children and they had handicapped children, but I didn't feel with my schedule that I could take a handicapped child. And I really wanted an infant, someone that I could begin with. If there is nature versus nurture, I wanted early on to be able to impact on that.
We were approved for adoption, but had to wait two years before they called us. They called me first with twin boys that were two years old, and I said, "No, I don't think so." [Laughter.] They called me with a lovely, beautiful little girl, and I went down and saw her, and she was just wonderful, and I said, "I really want a boy. Are you sure that—?"
She said, "Oh, this girl will be snapped up."
I said, "Then fine. I'll keep waiting for this boy."
And we got a call one day, it was right before my fortieth birthday. It was like two days. He was a wonderful birthday present, because I was getting old. I was getting old and needed to get this baby, and we got this call and said, "We've got a little boy. His mother just signed the papers today."
And I said, "What?"
And they said, "Do you want to come hear about him?" So my husband and I went down to the social—we went through D.C. Adoption. It was a twenty-year-old college student. I was prepared to take a twelve-year-old welfare kid's baby. I was really amazed. I didn't know black families picked color and hair texture and all these other kinds of things. People are placing orders to adopt babies like placing an order for a dress. I was just amazed. "Does the skin color have to be a certain? Some people don't want dark babies, some people don't want nappy hair, some people don't want—" We did not care. We really did not care.
So she said, "We have a little boy. He's five weeks old. His mother was a twenty-year-old college student who got mad at her boyfriend, had never had sex before, and went out with his best friend and became pregnant." The girl wanted to keep the baby, but her parents leaned on her. Apparently she was an architecture student and had a promising future, and they wanted her to give the baby up. Her father was an M.B.A., her mother worked at a school, was like a school secretary or something. He came from a very nice family and they were both college students. She had had full prenatal care.
So they said, "Do you want to see him?" And we were there. We didn't know he was there at the place. He had been in St. Anne's Infant Home in Hyattsville. They didn't have enough foster homes for him. And we took one look at him, and I'm telling you, he was the ugliest baby in the world. When we look at the pictures of him, today—I took a camera when we got him, and he's like this ugly little—
Moorhus: Oh, dear.
Simpson: But when we saw him, he was like the most beautiful baby we had ever seen in our lives. Is that funny?
Simpson: Because we look back and we go, "How in the world?" [Laughter.] He's quite a handsome boy now, and he really was a beautiful baby, but when we got him, he was this funny-looking child. But we said, "Oh, yes."
And she said, "Okay, take him."
We go, "Take him?"
And it's like, "Yeah, yeah, you can take him now. Just sign the paper." I mean, we had nothing at home. We didn't have infant formula.
My husband's going, "Where are his things?"
And I'll never forget this. She goes, "He doesn't have any things." He was in a blanket and a diaper, and a little shirt.
Moorhus: And that's all there was.
Simpson: That's all there was. They're going, "His things? He didn't have any things." And he is my joy.
Moorhus: What year was this?
Simpson: This was 1980. He was born October 1980, and my birthday's in December, so I think we got him—
Moorhus: So you got him just before Christmas.
Simpson: Yes. And it was great. Malli was ten years old at the time, so she was great. He was like a real live baby doll for her, so she was a great help.
Moorhus: And his name is Adam?
Simpson: Adam Earl (which is named after Jim's grandfather), Simpson-Marshall. I'm the last of the Simpsons. And I didn't have a boy, so we wanted the name to continue, so Malli's going to stick it. A Simpson's going to end up in all kinds of things. But his name is hyphenated, it's Simpson-Marshall. That's on his documents. He goes by Adam Marshall, but it's in there if he ever wants to use it.
And he's great. He is great. He is all boy. I wanted to see. I didn't understand men—you don't until you have a little boy and you watch them grow. [Laughter.] He's twelve. He'll be thirteen in October. A year ago I ordered new mattresses for his bunk beds. I was home, and the man came from the store to deliver the mattresses, and I lift up from the trundle bed the old mattress, and underneath there are Penthouse, Playboy. [Laughter.] My baby? My eleven-year-old? You know where he'd gotten them? Out of Daddy's office!
Moorhus: Out of Daddy's office?
Simpson: Out of Daddy's office. Found them in Daddy's office. My husband had a Playboy subscription, and he reads them. I kept telling him, "Keep these things up," so he kept them in some drawer in his study, and Adam found them. So it's really quite—
Moorhus: Quite a challenge.
Simpson: Yes. And now the girls are calling all the time. He's very cute.
Moorhus: Was it hard to leave him and continue working?
Simpson: Yes, but, you know, they didn't give me any time off. That's why family leave is so important. It was the end of the year. I didn't have any vacation left. You need to bond with this new baby in the same way that you need to bond with your own child, and there are some companies that now give you leave for adopting a child, but at that time I had no time. So I just had to take a leave of absence. I think I took the rest of the year off, and maybe the first week of January, to spend time with him. But it really made me mad. This child needed that bonding
process just like the other, and I remember fighting that with NBC, and they just would not give me the time off.
Moorhus: How are we doing on time?
Simpson: I think I'm going to have to go.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.