Famed anchor Bill Kurtis reflects on facts versus opinion, key moments in journalism at KU event

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Bill Kurtis delivered the 2024 Dole Lecture at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas on April 16, 2024.

It was a brief journalism lesson Tuesday evening from Bill Kurtis, a Kansan who has had anything but a brief journalism career.

Kurtis — who delivered the 2024 Dole Lecture to a capacity crowd of more than 200 people at the Dole Institute of Politics on the KU campus — has covered the Charles Manson murder trial, the riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, and the 1966 Topeka tornado that led to him exhorting listeners of WIBW-TV to “for God’s sake, take cover.”

Kurtis shared memories from those and other big stories that he’s covered over the last 60 years, but he also gave a little advice to today’s news consumers: Understand the difference between a news report and an opinion piece.

“Take CNN,” Kurtis said. “Go home tonight, you will see Jake Tapper or someone with a panel of three experts. Each one has a perspective.” For example, in a segment about a war, “they may be generals to give their opinion of what is happening and what is going to happen.

“But they are not there. You are not getting facts. Getting facts is a difficult thing because you have to go and observe and see. The ones I really pay attention to are the front-line reporters.”

Kurtis — who was raised in Independence but came to KU after his dreams of playing football succumbed to injuries — said he gets frustrated by the “fake news” label that often gets attached to American journalism.

“In 60 years, I don’t know anybody who is in the news business to create fake news,” Kurtis said.

But Kurtis said journalists do open themselves up to the criticism when they stray from the basics of reporting.

“Now, fake news can come in through your speculation that you point out because you have to fill things, and it is opinion,” Kurtis said. “Most of my career has been on the three networks, reporting facts. To give an opinion was fireable. Today, I’ve been a guest on shows, and they want to know what you think.”

Kurtis was a national anchor for CBS News, serving as a co-anchor of CBS Morning News with Diane Sawyer, and he was one of the most prominent television anchors in Chicago for large parts of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. He’s now a producer of documentaries.

To a younger generation, Kurtis may best be known as the narrator of the movie “Anchorman,” a Will Ferrell comedy that pokes fun at television news. Kurtis, who quoted the opening monologue of the movie from memory to start his talk at the Dole Institute, remembers being conflicted about taking the role in the 2004 movie.

“Nobody knew whether it was going to be a success or not,” Kurtis said, noting that the movie came before Ferrell and his troupe of actors had become box office stalwarts. “But I knew that I was standing on the edge of my career. I was very worried. It turns out after the movie had played for a little while, every anchorman in the country had wanted that job.”

The movie, though, was far from Kurtis’ big break. Kurtis said the 1966 Topeka tornado unquestionably changed his life. He was a law student at Washburn University, working part-time for WIBW-TV. He was filling a shift for the station’s regular anchor, who had left early to start a vacation, when the tornado struck.

Kurtis recalled how reporters in the field would use two-way radios to relay information back to the station. During the early part of the storm, Kurtis and others at the station assumed the tornado would not be much of a news story because there was a long-held belief that Burnett’s Mound on the southwest side of the city would deflect the tornado upward and prevent it from being on the ground while going through the city.

Thinking changed when they got a message over the two-way that there were Shetland ponies impaled on a fence — the after-effects of the tornado hitting a horse ranch on the edge of the city. Then word of two apartment complexes being leveled followed. The station’s general manager told Kurtis to prepare to go live on air and provide a warning to Topeka residents.

Kurtis said he didn’t know what to say. He knew he needed to get people’s attention. He thought about cursing, but thought that would be too shocking and people may not take him seriously. He thought about crying.

“But you’ve got to say something. You can’t just break down in tears,” Kurtis said.

He settled on the phrase “for God’s sake, take cover,” but decided to almost shout the words “God’s sake.”

“That got the message through,” Kurtis said.

Tape of that tornado coverage landed him a reporting position in Chicago, where he covered the trial of mass murderer Richard Speck and the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic convention, among other topics.

Later in his career, his journalism has focused on climate change. He told the crowd that if they own a house on either U.S. coast, they should sell it. He also wondered what journalists must do to better get the American public attuned to climate change.

“Why isn’t the message getting through that we aren’t waiting for the crisis? We are in the crisis,” he said.

Kurtis also told the crowd he’s interested in renewable energy issues. He predicted the next two years will be big years in the development of major transmission lines that will make it much easier for southwest Kansas to produce wind and solar power for export throughout the country. He said there are energy executives betting that the region can become the “energy capital of the country.”


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