It's quite a leap from being the spokesmodel for the Ed McMahon vehicle Star Search in the 1980s to co-anchoring the 10 p.m. weekend news at the No. 1-rated news station in the third largest U.S. market. But ABC 7's Cheryl Burton has made the transition with apparent ease. The personable and outgoing Burton has been a strong and well-respected link in the formidable chain of WLS-TV's news team, currently the No. 1 ensemble in the greater Chicago area. Burton's striking appearance underscores her resonant voice and near flawless presentation. She has proven staying power as one of Chicago's best-known weekend evening anchors and delivers live shots that hit home as she exercises her well-honed skills as a street reporter weeknights to an audience that keeps coming back for more.
But there was a time when Cheryl Burton didn't envision herself in front of the cameras. Indeed, the record shows that Burton's early passion was psychology and biology, with the young Burton considering a move to premed with an emphasis on pediatrics or anesthesiology. The native Chicagoan, born on the South Side at Provident Hospital, went to Lindblom High School and took her degree from The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Cheryl's reporting skills were exercised in Peoria at WNDB-TV and she is very proud of the fact that it only took her two years and seven months to return to her native Chicago and her position as a general assignment reporter and weekend anchor at ABC 7. She began her career at WLS nine years ago, and recently sat down with me to share her world, her views and her hopes for the future.
DAVID GUARINO: Cheryl, it's really such a pleasure to be visiting with you, having watched you on Channel 7 for so many years. My first question regards your early ambitions. I read in your background that you were a premed student at one time, correct? What field were you interested in?
CB: My first choice was pediatrics. Yeah, because I like children. I really do like children. And then I thought anesthesiology might be a better route. Those were my two choices when I was thinking about going into med school. And somehow, look where I am! ( Cheryl laughs )
DG: And what was your very first job in broadcasting?
CB: My first job? Well, I was on Romper Room. ( We both laugh very hard )
DG: You're kidding! You were?
CB: Yes! I see Cheryl, I see Merrill. You know, are you from Chicago, David? ( I nod yes ) Then you know Romper Room. So that was my first television appearance. I was on Kiddie-A-Go-Go, Bozo's Circus I did several times. But broadcasting, I have to go back, I'm not sure which qualifies. If you mean commercial television news, 'cause I did Star Search and I won several times. For the spokesmodel category. So I was on that.
DG: When was that?
CB: That was in November of 1986. Yeah, in November of 1986 I began my first show. In the spokesperson category for Star Search which was a dream. Because prior to taping the show in November, they flew me to New York in August, the previous August. You tape five shows in case you keep winning. So that was fun, I spent a week in New York. And all these beautiful clothes and hair, and shooting these vignettes … it was a lot of work, but it was fun. So that was my first huge television thing that I did. 1986 was a very wonderful year. The Bears won The Super Bowl. That was really just a wonderful year. And then after that, my first television job was a cable show I did for free; I didn't get paid a dime. It was for three years. It was called Simply Elegant. And it was an hour talk show with no commercials. So that's where I learned to ask good questions, and my interview skills were perfected on that show. It was like a lifestyle show, we did news-related items, consumer things. Sometimes we'd take the show out on the road and go out to Water Park and show summer fashions at the Water Park and that kind of thing. But it was a lifestyle show. We were nominated for an ACE award. While I was doing that show, I was teaching school as well.
DG: Really? What level?
CB: I was teaching Special Ed. And elementary. Because my sister, who went to get her Ph.D., had Special Ed children. And she didn't want just anybody taking over her class for a whole year. So I took her class for the time she was gone. And that was very enlightening. That experience changed my life, I think. Yes. Because I realized how blessed I was to have two parents who loved me and fed me and clothed me every day. And who gave me self-esteem and confidence and nurtured me because not every parent does that, I just thought it was normal. Until I began teaching these young people and that wasn't the case. And most of them were underprivileged, Special Ed children.
So it was really an eye-opening experience. In fact, I wrote my parents a very long letter after that and told them how grateful I was to them for giving me life because we don't get to pick who becomes our parents. The only difference between the kids I was teaching and me was chromosomes. It really gave me a different perspective on life and taking things for granted.
DG: Have you always been interested in children, Cheryl?
CB: I must have been. I think I really like them. I don't have any. ( Cheryl laughs heartily ) You know? I have always enjoyed them; I'm very good with children. And my Mom said I had compassion probably as young as eight years old. She could remember that I was very compassionate towards nature and children. I don't know how that came to be. Yes. Children are my greatest joy. And elderly people. Those are the people that I really get into. Probably 70 and older. And I go and do speeches, and I see them on the street. They're the ones who are just so loving and warm and they just kiss you and that kind of thing. They're always so warm to me. Older people have so much that we can learn from. My Mom couldn't even get a job in Wyoming and she had a master's degree. Because they told her that there were no Black students in Cheyenne, Wyoming to teach. So she couldn't teach. So she had to begin her career in the army. My parents just up and left the South for a better life and parlayed it into something wonderful. So the stories and experiences of older people are priceless and we can certainly learn from those. My father died almost nine years ago when I was here in Chicago interviewing at all three stations, 7, 2 and 5. My Mom's still here, she just turned 70 and we had a big 70th birthday party for her.
DG: You used to co-anchor the ABC 7 10 p.m. Weekend News with Jim Rosenfield. What happened to Jim and what is your working relationship like with your present co-anchor, Rob Johnson?
CB: Jim's a great guy. He's from New York and he's an excellent journalist. And an even greater person. He's just a great guy, I miss him. Because we were more than colleagues, we were friends. And it came upon that his contract was coming up and he needed a different challenge. And the opportunity wasn't here ( at ABC 7 ) . He really liked it here; he liked the people and the relationships he had built. But an opportunity came out in New York and it was a great opportunity. They were offering him a Monday through Friday job in his hometown where his parents still live, to do two shows, the noon and the six p.m. news. So in New York, the No. 1 market in the country. He couldn't pass that up. He would have loved to have had that offer here and he would have stayed here in a minute if that offer were made here. So he took that offer and now he's just flourishing.
The rapport between Rob Johnson and I is very good. Rob is different. He's younger, a newlywed, a fun guy, always joking. But very tight on his game though too. And he's been very nice, and that's all I prayed for. When I knew I was going to get a new person, I thought, "God, just bring me someone nice." And He answered my prayers. Rob is nice and he's a good journalist too. Very hard working. Keeps it real. Down to earth.
DG: How do you feel that your continuing interest in the psychology of people, particularly children and the elderly, has helped you both in the pursuit of a story and in your presentation of it?
CB: I always say, because I didn't take the route that most people did who are in this business; you know, they grew up, they knew they wanted to be in television and communications, they go to college and have a journalism degree. I have a degree in biology and psychology, that is the human body. The spirit, mind and the physical. So I know it pretty well. So I always say I'm human first. No story is anything first to me but a human story. You're telling a person's story. And the only difference between them and me is that I'm on the side of the camera today and I'm telling their story. It could always be reversed. And that could be my story. So I always approach every story from the human perspective first. Not, "I've got to get this story!" Because everyone has feelings. Everyone has a heart. And when you have to go knock on the door of someone whose daughter was just sexually molested in college, and murdered while in college. You know, that's hard. You don't just put a mike in their face, you have to go, "Hey, I feel you. I've been to college. I know. I know what it's like to be there and be a woman and be afraid in parking lots and things like that." So you think of the families. So I always think of everybody's feelings before I tell a story. I don't want people to feel bad. They're already feeling bad. I want to do the best I can to maybe shine a positive light on whatever has occurred. I think that people look at me and they know I have compassion. That might be something that gets me in trouble, but I'm not going to treat people any other way. I just don't have it in me.
DG: Cheryl, many people say that the next presidential election may well include the unprecedented inclusion of the first female candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. My question to you i, are the American people ready for a female President or is this an eventuality whose time is long overdue?
CB: I don't know if you want to say long overdue. Because I don't think you can look at a gender and say we should have had this or we should have had a Black or we should have had a Hispanic. Because the best qualified person you hope is the person that is elected, eventually to get to The White House.
I think it's definitely possible. People were talking even before she ( Clinton ) ran for the Senate. This is just a formality, run for Senate so that you have a political record so that when you are running for president, you can have something to campaign with. So she is thoroughly qualified, extremely smart, notwithstanding all of the stuff that's been going on. But she's very confident and she knows worldly issues. I think you need to be very well rounded to run the most powerful nation in the world. And she's very capable. Even if it's not her. Someone is capable. I mean, Ferraro ran for President, and we've had some very good probable candidates, that were competent and smart. And they have the support of men and women, and crossed the racial lines. But it's just, I think people have to feel comfortable with their choice. And can this person that we choose do something for me, for us? And if they feel like that person can, whether it's a woman or a minority, I believe people will vote for them. So at least you hope that that is what, as a voter, you vote for somebody who's going to fight for you. That's who you want in The White House, somebody who's going to make your life better. A vote is a very powerful thing. If you truly believe in your heart that a woman who is qualified, if it is Hillary Clinton, should be elected on her ability, then so be it.
DG: Are racism and homophobia still latent in the broadcast industry? And how serious of a problem is this today? Is it a problem at Channel 7?
CB: Gee, I don't think it can be singled out. Because everybody's life is different. And of course I see my life through a Black person's eyes. And a female. Totally different from you or anybody else walking up in here. For me, the experience has been good. I've learned a lot, I've worked hard, and I think people have respected my work. I hope that forever we won't have homophobia and racism. But it always seems to hop up. Now here in this building ( WLS ABC 7 ) we are a family. And we support our own inside this building. And it's like, you know, we are not biologically connected, but this is us. And it's us against the rest of the people ( competitors ) . So I'm supporting whoever is on my team. Whether it's a woman or a man, blue, black, green, it takes all of us working together to be successful. And that's why we're No. 1 because of all collectively, the cast members we have here. Blacks, whites, males, women, minorities, whatever we've got. It wouldn't have worked unless all of us were here. And if we weren't here, we might not be No. 1. But because collectively we all bring something to the table ( our life experiences are different because we are different: Black, white, girl, boy ) , we are the better for it. Here at 7 we welcome diversity. And it shows. You can turn on the TV at any point and see. At least, that's the way it seems to me. I can look around and see our writers, our cameramen, our producers, our executive producers, our managers, our on-air talent. I think we're very diversified. The world is moving forward. The times they are a' changing. And all you can do is hope for change and acceptance and tolerance. And all you can do is educate people. I fear the ignorant, not the uneducated. We are all basically made up biologically the same. What and whom you love is different, and that's what is so beautiful about life. You don't want clones. But you want diversity. I want choice, I want option. I want to see all the colors of the rainbow. We've still got a long way to go. But life is about progress. And when you don't make progress, you don't need to be here.
DG: Cheryl, what habit would you like to see yourself eliminate?
CB: Not being so hard on myself. I'm a work in progress on a daily basis. If I could give myself a break and say "Cheryl, it's okay."
DG: How important is it to have a solid background in general assignment reporting before assuming an anchor position? Are there successful anchors out there who never made it as street reporters?
CB: I doubt it. You generally don't become an anchor unless you've been on the street. And I think that is a criterion. In my book, you need to be on the street. To get a pulse of the city, to get a feel of the people. Be out there seeing these people so that when you're anchoring you know, they'll ( the viewers will ) say "she's/he's real." Because you have to be believable. They're not going to watch people who are fake. But if they know you've been out there in the trenches, she/he is a real reporter. She/he has been on the scene after a drive-by. She/he has had to knock on the doors and ask the hard questions of a victim's family. I think it's crucial to be a reporter before you anchor.
DG: How important is it for women of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations to continue the fight for equality not only in the field of broadcast journalism but across the board?
CB: See, everything for me is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement. You know, equality. Justice for all. The Constitution says that. So it didn't break down man/woman. It said the human being. The person, the American. So we are equal. You know, physically we're going to be different. Our bodies are different. When it comes to equality in the workplace and you are bringing the same exact talent, skill level, and experience to the table, you should be paid the same. There should not be a difference in what you are doing; you might have been there longer than me, so of course you're going to be compensated for your experience. But sometimes the newer person might still do a better job. I'm a staunch woman supporter, I'm telling you. I will get out on the limb for women because if I work hard and that's my ethic, I know if I do a good job I should be rewarded for that. You should be compensated for what you bring to the table and not less because of your gender. I want equal treatment and I'm going to give it back to you. You can't jump on that "woman wagon" and say, "Oh, I can't do that because I'm a woman." If you're going to stand up on that soapbox, be prepared to back it up.
DG: Tell me this, Cheryl. Did the O. J. Simpson trial push race relations in this country back ten years or more? What role did the media play in the three-ring circus atmosphere that was created?
CB: It played a huge role. Because cameras were allowed in the courtroom. So we could see and hear every bit of the action on a daily basis. I don't know if it sent race relations back, it opened people's eyes to a lot of stuff they had not experienced or seen. Because, see, O.J. had crossed the racial line. He was a star. But then again he got arrested and got sent to a jail that everybody else goes to. And things all changed. And race did play a huge, huge role in all of that. Because of his wife, who was a white woman. And his main attorney was a Black man. The prosecution was a white woman and a Black man. And then we had an Asian judge sitting on the bench. So it opened people's eyes. It had a huge impact on race definitely. It was about two people who were savagely murdered and now there are two children without a mother. Here are the things I took from the trial. Here are two children who didn't ask for this. Their parents had them, and this is what they found themselves in the middle of. So that's what I found very difficult.
Interviewing Cheryl Burton was about as pleasant an experience as one could hope for. I will never forget when she told me she has the words "unique" and "worthy" written on her mirror so every morning when she wakes up she is reminded that she is both of those things. Her vibrant spirit is shared freely, and perhaps her unique ability to put people first makes her not only a noteworthy journalist and TV personality, but also more importantly a teacher of merit in the school of life.