Media People: Linsey Davis, ABC News Live Prime and World News Tonight Sunday Anchor

Linsey Davis may have found her calling at the bottom of a Champagne glass. It’s not what you think. Davis’ deep resonant voice, talent for storytelling and unflappable demeanor have earned her a steady stream of promotions at ABC News since joining the network in 2007 as a New York-based correspondent for affiliate service ABC NewsOne. But long before she got her first job in TV news (at CBS affiliate WTVH in Syracuse), she had distinguished herself as a memorable wedding toaster.

“I’d given two wedding toasts, and both times I was approached by people in the TV news business, one of them owned a lot of local TV stations,” she said. “They asked me, ‘Have you ever considered being a reporter? You have such a great delivery. Such a great voice.’ And I would just laugh it off.”

Davis is careful not to imbue these encounters with too much weight, but they are undeniable anecdotal evidence of her innate ability to command a room — and an anchor desk.

Last year, she was tasked with helming the news division’s first streaming newscast, ABC News Live Prime. In February she was named anchor of the Sunday edition of “World News Tonight,” only the second Black woman to anchor the program since Carole Simpson exited the chair in 2003. A frequent correspondent across ABC News shows and platforms, Davis has a knack for digging out overlooked stories, like her 2009 “Nightline” report “Single Black Female,” about why Black women are the least likely of any race or gender to get married. At the time, it was a rare mainstream media segment from a Black female perspective. And she’s been at the forefront of the network’s coverage of America’s current racial reckoning.

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She has also distinguished herself as a deft political reporter. She moderated two debates during the Democratic presidential primary. She earned plaudits during her debut as a debate moderator, in Houston in September 2019, for her tough questioning of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in particular. Dressed in a crisp suffragette white suit by Burberry, Davis grilled the then-presidential candidate and former prosecutor about her shifting stance on criminal justice reform. Last year, she led a roundtable discussion with Black female mayors of Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge and Tacoma and anchored the domestic terrorism documentary “Homegrown Hate.”

All the while, the married mom of seven-year-old son Ayden has found time to write three bestselling children’s books; the most recent, “Stay This Way Forever,” was released in February.

Despite the pandemic, she has mostly been in the office at ABC News studios on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, though she does occasionally avail herself of virtual meetings. “There are a lot of interviews where it would have been an hour commute each way, but instead I can go down to my basement and press record,” she said.

Over cappuccinos on a warm afternoon last month at Tavern on the Green — her first face-to-face with a reporter since lockdown lifted — Davis talked with WWD about her start in the business, where she writes her children’s stories and her new boss, ABC News president Kim Godwin.

WWD: Who were your TV news role models when you were coming up?

Linsey Davis: Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Oprah Winfrey; there was something that I leaned into [because] they were women in the field. They left an indelible mark early on. But I wasn’t thinking, as a young person, about going into journalism. It really wasn’t until my third year of college that I really started thinking, “I want to be a journalist.”

WWD: You were a psychology major as an undergrad at University of Virginia. Was that good training for a career in journalism?

L.D.: I think psychology helps with everything, as a general understanding of human nature, who we are as people, what our inclinations are. But it was actually not psychology that led me to journalism. Early on in college you have to pick a major, you’re 17, 18 years old, and I didn’t really know. It was like eeny, meeny, miney, moe. And I thought maybe I’d want to be a psychologist. I think that the heart of what we do is still a lot of listening, is still a lot of like, “what I think I hear you saying is….?” So I think that psychology is still applicable to what we do as a journalist.

WWD: So when did it occur to you that you wanted to be a journalist? Did you have a career epiphany?

L.D.: Oh, yeah. So there was a moment; you’re going to hear this story, and you’re going to still think well, what was the epiphany? But when I studied abroad in London [at the University of Westminster], it was the first time that I had the opportunity to take any classes that I wanted. I was taking British literature classes, and writing classes. I felt free to move away from psychology, and I was probably a little too anxious to do that. That’s when I realized, OK, so [psychology] is not necessarily right. From London, I went to Sevilla to visit a friend and one day I was in her room all by myself watching the news in Spanish. It was like the teacher in “Charlie Brown;” wah wa wa wah wa wa. I could not understand anything they were saying. So I was able to focus not on what was being said, but on the act of what was happening. And I just decided in that moment, I want to do that. And I never wavered.

WWD: And these wedding toasts, that happened to you twice?

L.D.: That happened to me twice, twice! It was kind of uncanny, that random people thought I had this delivery and the voice. [My voice] is really low.

WWD: Which is very effective for a newscaster, especially for women.

L.D.: Carole Simpson has said that she has a really high-pitched, mousy voice normally. She trained herself to get into this really low voice.

WWD: How did you land your first job in TV news?

L.D.: A family friend connected me with Don Cornwell, [the founder and chief executive officer of] Granite Broadcasting. He set me up with the general manager of WTVH, the CBS affiliate in Syracuse. We had breakfast in New York, I came without a résumé or tape or anything. We talked about what I wanted to do. A few months later, when I was about to graduate [with an MA in communications] from NYU, he called me up. He said,” why don’t you come to Syracuse for a year?” It was kind of like a paid glorified internship position. So I was writing voice overs, bumpers, readers for the anchors. I would conduct [man-on-the-street] interviews. Then on Columbus Day they were short reporters. So they said, well, “Could you go out and do a report about the holiday?” And I did. It was terrible. I wrote it and voiced it. But I was on the air. And after that, whenever they were short a reporter, I’d end up on air. And before you knew it, I was on air every day.

WWD: You covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (for WTHR in Indianapolis), a story with significant racial inequality dimensions. What was that like for you?

L.D.: Because I was still in local news at that time, we were following this group of doctors from Indianapolis. We weren’t really doing the larger theme of race and the implications of it. We were doing the day-of stories with these doctors. I vividly remember this bridge out of New Orleans; a lot of people had gone there because it was higher ground and they waited there for the buses to come and get them. I did a whole story on what was left behind on this bridge, things that people had found valuable enough to take with them from home, but for whatever reason didn’t end up making it on the bus. A stack of family pictures, letters, diapers. And it was this trail all across this bridge. It was thick. I mean, it wasn’t just some paper here, paper there. It was just packed with these things. There were a lot of Bibles, and pages from Bibles. It was just really heavy.

There were only two stories that I’ve ever done that had a physical impact on me. The aftermath of Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. You read about the stench of death, right. But you don’t really know what that is until you smell it for yourself. And in Haiti, it was like, this is it. This is something that I only until this point, read about. And seeing dead bodies on a mass [scale]. Haiti was even more intense than Katrina. I remember one lady who said, in French, “I am my family now.” I think we as Americans can’t understand that. We might lose a house, or a job, we may lose some aspect of who we are. But in this scenario, this woman had lost everything, her family, her job, her house, her church, everything. Haiti really had an impact on me. It has stayed with me.

WWD: YourNightline” feature “Single Black Female” was a very eye-opening look at the achievement gap between Black women and Black men. How did it originate?

L.D.: It was something that hadn’t really been talked about a lot. But it was based on my own single Black female friends who I was noticing, if you will, settling, and really struggling to find a partner. With any good news story, it’s based on something that you have experienced. And I was able to pitch it and provide the statistics, so that it was not just anecdotal. Like, look, we’re the least likely of any race or gender to get married. And let’s take a look at why. It was something that resonated with a lot of people in the Black community, and people I knew personally. There was a lot of pushback on it, too. Some people felt it was airing dirty laundry, or based on a misnomer [promoted by] the media. But no, it’s all factual, there are numbers to back it up.

WWD: What was it like to interview Bill Cosby in 2015, after roughly two dozen women had accused him of sexual assault? 

L.D.: I grew up watching “The Cosby Show.” I was the only Black person in my grade in middle school (in Moorestown, N.J.). Many of my friends would say, “Your mom looks like Mrs. Cosby. You look like Rudy. Does your dad look like Bill Cosby?” We were the only Black family that they had interacted with. And at that time, “The Cosby Show” was this Black family they were seeing on TV. So there were all of these parallels drawn to me as a child with Rudy Huxtable. The magnitude of how far [Cosby’s] star had fallen at the point of our interview was clear. But with the Pound Cake [speech, given during an NAACP event in 2004] there had already been this falling from grace in the Black community. So it was this interesting dichotomy of distinguishing between the character and the man. And I think that quite often people had blended them together; the Pudding Pop guy, this funny family man that people love.

It was a difficult interview in that he was really there to talk about something else. He tried to put some parameters on what I could ask or how much he would answer about the accusations against him. My hands were tied a little bit. But I still felt I was able to ask him about the allegations in roundabout ways. Either way, he was going to give a legal denial. And that was kind of what we got.

WWD: So much media is being re-evaluated through a post-reckoning lens, whether it is glowing magazine profiles of now-fallen men or insensitive dialogue in TV shows. Do you have any regrets about doing that 2015 interview with Bill Cosby, because it could be interpreted differently now that Cosby has been convicted?

L.D.: No, I would have asked questions differently. But I would not have not had the interview with him.

WWD: You interviewed many politicians during the 2020 presidential campaigns. Is there a tactic for knocking them off of their talking points?

L.D.: They are practiced at giving answers and avoiding things they don’t want to talk about. The trick there is to try to figure out how many times am I going to go back for a bite at that apple? Clearly, they didn’t answer my question, should I let this go? Are people going to just hear how loudly they didn’t answer the question? Or am I not doing my due diligence if I don’t say, you know, with all due respect you didn’t answer the question, let me go back at it again.

WWD: Who gave you the best debate prep advice?

L.D.: Martha Raddatz [ABC News chief global affairs correspondent] was very helpful. She actually gave me a big three-ring binder of her past debate prep questions. She talked me through everything, even like, OK, so figure out your outfit, something you’re going to feel confident in. For that first debate, I was feeling a little bit nervous, and she told me basically it’s OK to feel nervous. In that, she did me a really big service.

WWD: So you have a new president at ABC News, Kim Godwin, who started in May. What’s she like?

L.D.: She has a very refreshing style of leadership that is empowering with a focus on team building. It strikes me that her vision for the direction of the news division is all-encompassing and goes beyond just the viewership and all the external aspects that measure success. She is also looking inward — at how we can work and relate and be better to each other to ensure that we are effective and efficient as a team from the ground up.

WWD: The narrative when Disney executives were trying to hire a new president was that ABC News was a toxic place to work. Is it toxic?

L.D.: What I have experienced has not been toxic. But that’s not to negate the experience of my colleagues who may have a different point of view. I think that there has been a machine that has continued to kind of chug along. One word that Kim did bring up during her introduction was kindness. People are optimistic that she’s cognizant of that; let’s be number one, let’s continue to be number one, and let’s be kind in the process.

WWD: Speaking of toxic, social media can be a very nasty place to dwell. Have you experienced social media nastiness aimed at you, and how do you deal with that?

L.D.: I really try not to read a lot of the comments about myself. Some people might have valid points to make, but I think that sometimes, you can be doing yourself a disservice by just scrolling through nonsense. I don’t do it.

WWD: How have you found time to write children’s books?

L.D.: When I put my son to bed, he likes me to stay in the room. And so, I would lie in bed with him, spending that time as he was falling asleep and working on the book on my phone in the dark. Especially for my most recent book, “Stay This Way Forever,” which is a collection of the moments that I wanted to memorize before they slipped away. I kind of turn my phone away so the light doesn’t shine on him. And I would write during that time. I was multitasking really, being a mom and putting him to bed.

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