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The Interview: Breaking and Making News

with Janet Reilly

Photo courtesy of Spencer Brown
For more than three decades, Carolyn Tyler was a fixture in Bay Area news, reporting and anchoring at ABC7. Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Cheyenne, Wyoming (with 10 siblings!), Tyler watched the civil rights movement and the historic events of the day come to life through the family television set. Like many women of that era, she thought she would become a teacher or a nurse, but when Tyler was in college she met a Black anchorwoman, changing the trajectory of her life and career. The rest, as she says, was history.

Tyler retired from her day job in 2018 and is now enjoying the simple pleasures in life that a full-time reporter in a top media market has little time to savor. I caught up with her recently, over a leisurely lunch of salad and sparkling wine. Our conversation ran the gamut, from the power of her mother’s influence to the most memorable stories of her career to her latest starring role as a San Francisco film commissioner.

Meet Carolyn Tyler.

You and I have something in common: We both lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. My first on-air job was a reporter and weekend anchor at KGWN-TV, the CBS affiliate in Cheyenne.

Oh my goodness. Well, it was the only television station in Cheyenne, so I’m sure my mom saw you.

I’m sure. What was it like growing up in Cheyenne?

It’s a very safe place, very clean. Everybody went to public school, so the public schools were very good. My father was in the military, and there is an Air Force base there, Francis E. Warren Air Force Base. So, that’s how we got there. My mother was a homemaker. I was one of 11. I have eight brothers, and I’m one of three girls.

The former TV anchor with her mom and her siblings, of whom she is the third-oldest.

Wow.

I’m the oldest girl, and I’m the third-oldest, so I did a lot of taking care of children. Growing up I was always trying to keep up with my older brothers, and so I was a bit of a tomboy, much to my mother’s chagrin. She was trying to teach me all the things she thought a girl should know — crocheting, knitting. I don’t remember how to do either of those.

And did you go off to college?

I was the last of the children to go to the University of Wyoming. After that, everybody went off to other schools.

That’s wonderful.

My parents did not go to college. My mother is one of the most intelligent people I know, and could have, should have gone. But, she grew up in the segregated South, so it just did not seem like an option. My mother was such an influence for me and my brothers and sisters, that all 11 of us went to college, and some to the Ivy Leagues, like Harvard and Duke and MIT. She would read the newspaper from cover to cover every day. She really instilled in us how much education matters. And she did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk — literally — because she did not know how to drive.

That could be a problem with all those kids!

Let’s say there was a PTA meeting, and with 11 kids, maybe you had a student-parent conference at high school, at junior high and at grade school. It could be all on the same night. She would walk from one to the other to make sure she heard about her child, that she knew what was going on.

That’s incredible.

Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, I remember somebody came selling encyclopedias, and she bought them on layaway. She still has those. And we used them all through school. If we were up till 2 or 3 a.m., doing homework, she was up. I practiced my speeches in front of her. She would say, “Oh, you should emphasize this a little more.” Or, “You should do this or that.”

Carolyn Tyler with her mother, Mary Ann Tyler, who instilled the importance of education in her children.

How did you get interested in the news business?

My mother did not let us watch a lot of television. One thing we did watch as a family was the news. I saw the civil rights movement really unfold on television, with the lunch counter sit-in, the dogs sicced on Black people, the protest marches, Dr. [Martin Luther] KingJohn Lewis, who is a personal hero of mine. And I saw the reporters, like Dan Rather, interviewing people. Those were very vivid memories, but I was not really thinking about that as a career.

When I went to college, I thought I would be a teacher. My mother’s sister was a nurse. I thought about that. For African American women, I did not know all the opportunities that may be available. And then I turned on the station in Denver, and I saw my first Black anchorwoman. And that made all the difference in the world. … I wrote her a letter. Back in those days, [there was] no email. She actually responded and said, “Come visit. Come to the station.” And she was just so gracious and so lovely. And she was encouraging. And that’s all it took. When I got back to school, I changed my major, and the rest is history.

What was your first job in broadcasting?

When I got out of college, I went to Minneapolis, where I had some relatives. I did not realize it was going to be as hard as it was to find a job. This was the land of Mary Tyler Moore, and I was Carolyn Tyler! My first job was at KSTP TV, and I was a part-time production assistant, which was basically about the lowest job you could have. But it was a foot in the door. And it wasn’t even in the news department. It was in the promotion department. So, I could see the news department over there, but I couldn’t access it. They were not interested in somebody right out of college. … But I was so happy to have that job, and that’s how it started.

What was the path to San Francisco?

The path to San Francisco came through Austin, Texas. That’s where I first began to anchor, at [a] station owned by “Lady BirdJohnson. In fact, I think she lived upstairs in the building. I think there was a penthouse.

You said you didn’t see many female Black broadcasters at that time. What obstacles did you encounter in those early days? You were one of the trailblazers.

I actually came in the second wave of Black newscasters. Because after the civil unrest of the ’60s, Congress commissioned the Kerner [Commission] Report [on “the causes, events and aftermaths of the civil disorders of 1967”]. One of the areas they looked into was the portrayal of African Americans on television. They also looked at news, and they saw a lack of coverage. One thing I thought was very interesting was the lack of coverage of African Americans as ordinary people. We were either criminals or entertainers or something like that. But just ordinary families going about life and merriment like everyone else — you rarely saw those portrayals. They also found that news really had an impact on people’s perceptions. That was a clarion call for the networks to start hiring African Americans. And that’s when people like Ed Bradley came in, and Renee Poussaint and Belva [Davis]. That was the first generation.

LIGHTNING ROUND
I’m happiest when … I’m surrounded by family and friends.
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is … Many years ago I left a bad marriage, and I had no money and no job, and I had to bet on myself.
My biggest regret is … I have too many regrets to even mention. Without the choices I made, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Erase racism and sexism.

What did you like most about being a reporter in the Bay Area?

I like the variety of people and stories, and there are so many different neighborhoods and identities and characteristics. You could never get bored. You do a story today on something going on in San Francisco and the next day maybe you go to Vallejo. The people that you meet are just extraordinary. You’re constantly learning something new.

Do you have a favorite or memorable story?

Quite a few stories really struck a chord. I went with a group of high school kids from San Mateo, [where] Jeff Steinberg started a program called the Sojourn [to the Past]. He took high school students he felt had no knowledge that the civil rights movement was not just Dr. King and Rosa Parks, and that the movement is still alive. … He would take these kids all along the Civil Rights Trail. We went to Mississippi, to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Alabama] to where Dr. King was shot at the Lorraine Motel [in Memphis]. And just seeing these kids’ transformation. Most of them were non-Black, and they said there was really nothing in their history books. This was living history.

Incredible.

We talked to what I call foot soldiers. There was a woman who made meals for the marchers. That was her contribution. There were other people who opened their homes. We were meeting all these unsung heroes. We also met the father of Denise McNair, who was one of the four Black girls bombed in the church in Birmingham. And he talked about that pain. And to see the students cry … I went back and did stories with them two or three years later to see if they still resonated, and they did. It was life-changing for them. And that’s where I first met the late Congressman John Lewis. Because he was one of the people who would come and talk to the kids.

What a great program.

So, that was one. And then the other was the same-sex marriage debate in San Francisco. My beat was City Hall, and I was covering [Mayor Gavin] Newsom at the time. I remember that day, because it was every Valentine’s Day for years, where members of the LGBT community — there wasn’t a Q or an I back in those days — they would go to the city clerks around the nation, and they would ask for a marriage license. It was an act of civil disobedience. They knew they weren’t going to get the license, but they were trying to make a point. And so Gavin Newsom had alerted the media that the coming Valentine’s Day he was going to have the city clerk issue licenses. And that started the whole ball rolling. To see the word of mouth spread, and the people come from all over for days … And it was a rainy period and people would pitch tents. Some people would bring their children. They’d be wrapped around the blocks. And strangers were sending flowers to City Hall. It just was such an amazing time. I followed that story all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and got to sit in the chambers and listen to the oral arguments.

Tyler on assignment during her three-decade tenure with ABC7.

You’ve reported on stories in San Francisco, but you live here as well. What do you think of the state of the City right now?

It really concerns me. I know some people say that it’s just a perception that crime is increasing, but I feel the change. I see a lot of the homelessness. I’ve had my car broken into twice. Nothing to take; just crimes of opportunity. But I love the City. I think it is very special. I don’t care where I go in the world, when I come back, it’s like, “Ahh.” I mean, it’s so beautiful, and the diversity, and it’s just a very special city, unlike any other in terms of what we offer to people. Things for free, places to go, things to do. It’s very creative. I’m worried that with the lack of affordability, we’re squeezing people out. Artists and creatives are moving to Oakland, or they’re going to other places. Nurses, teachers, housekeepers, gardeners … they can’t afford to live here. I think that’s a shame, and something that needs to be corrected. There’s a lot of NIMBYism, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. I think people have good intentions, but something isn’t working.

You were recently appointed by Mayor London Breed to sit on the San Francisco Film Commission. What do you hope to accomplish?

I hope to bring moviemaking back to San Francisco. This used to be a place where a lot of that occurred. Going back to Vertigo, The Maltese Falcon and Mrs. Doubtfire and Pacific Heights and Dirty Harry and The Pursuit of Happyness. Now we’re losing out to places like Vancouver or Atlanta that have sound stages or aren’t union, so they’re less expensive. Which, God bless the unions. I’m a member of the union. But we have a perception now of being too expensive and having a lot of red tape. And we have some incentives from the state and from the City, and I believe the mayor just added some money as well into her budget. So we’re trying to get back on track. During the pandemic, Governor Newsom made filmmaking a necessity, or an essential business, not a luxury, so that things could continue if they could. … And there’s nothing like seeing the City on the silver screen.

For her May swearing-in ceremony as a San Francisco film commissioner, which was presided over by Mayor London Breed, Tyler selected John’s Grill, where parts of 1941’s The Maltese Falcon were filmed.

What’s next for Carolyn Tyler?

I got elected to the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. … There’s an arm here that deals with mentorships and education scholarships for high school and college students. I think that’s the area that I want to be involved in. In a way, when you’re retired, and you have all this time, you can see the City with fresh eyes. I live in the Marina now, and I love walking to Crissy Field and just hanging out. … I can remember [working with a] photographer, we’d be somewhere, and it’s a Wednesday at noon, and people are sitting … It’s just like, “Who are these people that get to sit down and have lunch? What do they do? What are their lives like?” And now I’m one of those people who can go sit at the Rotunda and just have caviar with somebody.

Looking back on your career, what advice would you give young people who are thinking about a career in journalism?

Be sure it’s something you want, and recognize what it takes. I think a lot of young people … are under the misperception that it’s going to be glamorous. They need to understand you need to know how to write and have some critical-thinking ability. You have to realize you might be working nights and weekends, and you’re not going to have holidays off . There’s going to be enormous deadline pressures, and you’re going to have to work your way up. And you’re going to be under a lot of scrutiny, more scrutiny than ever before because of social media. Especially women, about your appearance, not just what you have to say. So make sure you know that this is the path you want, and understand that it may not be point A to B, that you may have to take some detours to get there. Be willing to go to someplace like you did, to Cheyenne.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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