NEW YORK — Bernard Shaw, a lead anchor for CNN during its 20-year history, said Friday he will leave the cable news network when his contract expires in February, to write his autobiography and spend more time with his family.
Shaw, one of the first African American network anchors, has been part of most of CNN's coverage over the years, from the attempted assassination of President Reagan to this year's election drama.
His departure comes at a time of soul-searching at the network, which has been under intense pressure to maintain its dominance amid aggressive new competition from Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNBC, and a pending merger of its parent company, Time Warner, with online service AOL.
CNN USA President Rick Kaplan was pushed out in August, and a new management team has been scrutinizing programming and budgets. Although the network, and Shaw, received some harsh reviews of its recent election coverage, its average number of viewers on election night was more than Fox News Channel and MSNBC combined.
Shaw, 60, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he decided four years ago, at the time he signed his most recent contract, that it would be his last stint at the Atlanta-based network. He said he informed CNN founder Ted Turner on Nov. 2, after running into him outside Atlanta's Omni Hotel restaurant.
"We peeled off to a corner in the lobby and we talked," Shaw said. "He was shocked but he said he understood. And he said, 'You will always have a place here.' "
Turner echoed that sentiment in a statement Friday, also noting that Shaw's "commitment to quality journalism and plain hard work have played a tremendous role in building CNN's reputation."
Shaw said CNN management didn't try to get him to change hismind. "They know me better than that," he said.
Noting that "If I don't do it now, I'll never get it done," he said his departure "has nothing to do with anything other than I've stated." He said he told his bosses: "I don't have a long list of grievances. . . . I have no employees I can't stand to be with anymore. I'm simply stepping back from the table."
About the sense of impending changes at CNN, he said: "All of us are still waiting for whatever changes there will be to be announced. At my favorite network, the only constant is change."
Shaw, who co-anchors "Inside Politics" and "CNN WorldView" with Judy Woodruff, has been one of CNN's most high-profile anchors over the years. In 1988, while moderating a presidential candidate debate, he was thrust into the spotlight for asking Michael Dukakis: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" He was also part of the team whose live reports from Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War put CNN on the map, and he was on air during the tense student demonstrations in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, before authorities pulled the plug on the network.
CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson said in a statement that "Bernie has led with his heart, his intellect and with his soul. He is revered within the walls of CNN and throughout our profession."
Shaw's autobiography will cover his decision to leave ABC News in 1980 for the then-untested CNN, which earned the moniker "Chicken Noodle News" before becoming the respected organization it now is.
"I left ABC because I thought CNN was the last frontier of news. It was a walk of the plank, but I've never looked back," Shaw said.
Before ABC, Shaw worked at CBS News, a post he had aspired to from the age of 13.
Shaw said he also plans to write a book of essays and a journalism primer, because "I want to help save young reporters from making unnecessary mistakes."
In a statement Shaw was preparing to read on air Friday, he said, in part: "I am leaving to give back to my wifely friend, Linda, her husband and to our adult daughter and son, their father. . . . Harder than entering this business is leaving it and leaving CNN, especially after 20 years here. But you know, some roses are so fragrant. And as a gardener, I want to grow and smell them more, when I'm not writing."
Shaw's last day will be Feb. 28, 2001, although he said he expects to return "from time to time, doing special reporting and anchoring." CNN said Woodruff will anchor "Inside Politics" and "WorldView" solo once Shaw leaves.