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Author: Holly Morris
An Interview with…
Holly Morris, Television Reporter and News Anchor
Holly Morris Photo
RON LATANISION (RML): Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
HOLLY MORRIS: My pleasure. Thank you for the interest.
RML: We were absolutely delighted to learn we could talk with a television journalist who has a civil engineering degree.
MS. MORRIS: Well, it’s one of my favorite things to talk about, so I’m glad you asked.
RML: How did a civil engineer become a television journalist?
MS. MORRIS: I was always really math and science oriented, and when I was going off to college and trying to decide what I wanted to major in, what I wanted to do, I had a conversation with my dad. He said, “Holly, go to college and get an education, and then be anything you want to be. You want to get an education that’s really going to teach you something but that’s going to be applicable in many ways and at the same time provide you with a real profession if you want it.”
So I looked at different things. I was applying to Duke and really loved chemistry so I originally thought I might go into chemical engineering. But at that time Duke had only four disciplines in its engineering school: biomedical, electrical, mechanical, and civil and environmental. When I read about the disciplines, civil and environmental engineering piqued my interest the most—that’s what I thought I would enjoy working in if I chose to go the engineering route.
But I always had an interest in television news. I had talked with a news director in the Cincinnati area—that’s where I’m originally from—and he said, “Holly, I can teach you how to do a newscast. You don’t have to go to school for that. But what I can’t teach you is how to think and how to solve problems. So you need to go to school.” He basically said exactly what my dad said: get an education, learn about as much as you can because that will serve you better in a journalism career—knowing about a lot of things besides the nuts and bolts of how to do a newscast. Take courses in writing to learn how to be a good writer, and learn how to be a good thinker.
One of the things that drew me to Duke engineering specifically was that it was “philosophy” based. Their approach was, for example, ‘NC State might have a 16-week course in surveying, but at Duke we want to teach you the importance of surveying, why you survey. What do you get out of it and how does that help you do your project? The technology of surveying is always going to change, so we don’t need to teach you specifically how to use today’s tools because by next year they’ll be different. What you need to know is the philosophy behind surveying.’
That really appealed to me. I say all the time, the best thing I have is my engineering degree because it teaches me how to solve problems. I have used the process of solving a problem every day in my life since I graduated with my degree.
CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): That’s wonderful. What kinds of problems? More generally, how do you apply your engineering background in your current life, professional or otherwise?
MS. MORRIS: Two ways. One, in engineering when you’re going through your education you have to take in massive amounts of information and process it. And you have to process it quickly, to be able to pick out the things that are important, that apply and will help you find the right answer. In journalism, a lot of times you get a ton of background or other information and you have to be able to sift through it, often very quickly, and you have to be able to pick out the pieces of information that are important that you need to tell the viewer, that make the story, or that can help make your case if you’re doing some kind of investigative journalism, for example. You’re constantly sifting through information and picking out what’s important.
The other thing I would say I use all the time, at work and on boards that I’ve served on and with nonprofits, is working in a group—doing group projects, determining what your strengths are, what other group members’ strengths are, and how you can work together to come up with an answer to the problem. We did that a lot at Duke. With a city transportation planning project, for example, we learned that some people are better at some things than others—you have to be able to figure out your strengths and weaknesses and others’ as well, and how to come up with the best group to get the best product. I use that all the time both at work and in my personal life.
RML: That’s a very good description in a broad sense of what engineering is all about. It does involve team effort. Typically engineering problems involve more than one discipline—like mechanical and chemical—and there are often many facets to an issue. So learning how to work as a team is very important.
Your mentioning your professors at Duke reminds me that one of the people we have interviewed in this series is a Duke professor named Henry Petroski. Do you recognize that name?
MS. MORRIS: Yes, definitely. I didn’t have a class with him, but a very good friend of mine did.
RML: Your philosophy sounds very much like his.
MS. MORRIS: I would say it was pretty much the philosophy of the school.
RML: Turning to another topic, you anchor a show called Good Day DC, is that right?
MS. MORRIS: Yes. I do two different shows. I anchor the regular early morning news, Fox 5 Morning News, from 4:25 to 6:00 a.m., and then I’m a cohost of a talk show, Good Day DC, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. So I work from 3:30 in the morning to about noon.
RML: I understand you won some Emmys for reporting and an Edward R. Murrow award for live reporting. Which do you prefer, live reporting or the role as an anchor? What’s the distinction from your point of view and which do you prefer?
MS. MORRIS: If you’re talking about doing only straight anchoring I would prefer the live reporting because I like being out in the mix. I like doing live interviews, talking with people, seeing things as they are happening, or helping to create good live TV out in the field. I really enjoy that. I also like the technical process of putting on live shows from the field, and the creative process of it too, having to try to tell a compelling story and make good TV from your surroundings. Good Day DC affords that.
The early morning newscast is your regular “crime and slime”—you sit and read the news that happened overnight. On Good Day DC, we have live guests, we get up and move around, we interact, so I get to try to create good live TV and do live interviews, to think on my toes. I like to interact with people and not just have a set format where they are telling you what to say. I did live reporting in the field for a long time before I moved into the studio, and Good Day DC kind of affords me both the prestige I guess that comes with anchoring a show and the opportunity to use the skills that I really enjoy using.
CHF: Do you have some say in the topics that you comment or report on?
MS. MORRIS: Definitely. We have an editorial meeting every day, and everybody has a say, from the writers to the segment producers to the planners to the executive producer, news director, reporters, anchors, everybody. It’s like a brainstorming session every morning (after our shows, obviously, because we go on so early). We reflect on what we did today and then we brainstorm about what do we want to do tomorrow? How do we want to cover it? Who do we want to talk to? That kind of thing. Everybody can be a part of that process, which is great.
CHF: What topics do you most like to cover?
MS. MORRIS: Everything. I always say I like to be a jack of all trades, master of none, to tell you the truth, because I think knowledge is power. I have intel-lectual curiosity—and my husband and I really love to see that in our son. I like to know about things—how they work, why something is happening the way it is—and I think that also naturally draws a person to engineering. Actually, it applies to everything. If you have a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity about things, you’re well suited to be an engineer.
RML: Yes, I think curiosity is a major feature of science and engineering. Your background is in civil and environmental engineering, right?
MS. MORRIS: And with my knowledge of the environment has been very helpful when certain stories come along. If you’ve been educated in a field, you have the ability to ask informed questions. And having a scientific mind is helpful.
RML: Yes. I was thinking particularly about issues associated with the infrastructure. This is something you understand probably better than most people in Congress do. I think there is some bipartisan agreement that our country’s infrastructure needs attention, but the question is always how to pay for it. That’s where things get hung up. Do you have any features or discussion of issues of that kind on Good Day DC or on the news that you anchor?
MS. MORRIS: Sometimes we do. The DC region is an interesting market because it’s local yet at the same time national news is local news here. It’s the only place in the country that’s like that.
Whatever topic comes up, we always try to talk about the different angles and opinions and to get everyone represented. We may not come to any conclusion or an answer but we definitely try to have the discussion of what we think would work best with the people in the know so they can inform us.
I will say that there’s been a huge shift in news reporting. It used to be the Walter Cronkites of the world just did straight reporting. Even Fox’s slogan at one time was “We report, you decide.” Don’t get involved, just present the facts.
Now we’re encouraged by our management to give our opinions and say what we think. So if someone were to ask my opinion, I would say, ‘Well, I agree with that’ or ‘I don’t agree with that, what about this?’ This is a shift, but it does get discussion going and if people are watching maybe they have their own discussions as well.
RML: Do you have members of Congress on your show?
MS. MORRIS: Oh yes.
RML: When you talk with them about, for example, infrastructure, what is your sense of whether this Congress is likely to do anything on that, given the polarity we’ve seen over the past 8 or 9 years? Do you think there’s any likelihood that something will move forward in terms of funding for infrastructure renewal?
MS. MORRIS: I sure hope so. I don’t know if that will happen given the climate, which, unfortunately, is a bit obstructionist now. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, it’s just not going to happen. So I think that even though some members of Congress may believe that something needs to happen, if it doesn’t fall on the side they want to be on, they’re not going to go for it.
RML: Yes, that’s an unfortunate characteristic that we’ve seen all too often for the past 10 years or so. Something has got to change though. There is a general agreement that things like the infrastructure in this country really need attention.
I often think that a television journalist is not only reporting the news but shaping the news. I wonder whether from your perspective you see opportunities to shape the news in the following sense. Let’s suppose you have taken a position that ‘We need to do something about the infrastructure and I want to get members of Congress to think about this seriously.’ Would you be in a position to actually try to shape the thought of members of Congress by making a very pointed argument about the infrastructure, or is that beyond what a television journalist should or could do?
MS. MORRIS: Well, I don’t know if a television journalist should do that. I personally don’t believe that journalists should shape the news. I don’t think I should shape your opinion for you. I should give you all sides of an argument. Even if I interject my opinion, all sides should be represented and you should make your own decision.
But I think there are a lot of media that shape the news. If there’s an hour-long newscast, there’s only so much of a story you can tell, and newspeople make decisions every day about how they are going to tell a story, what information they’re going to share, what information they’re not going to share—and that very much shapes people’s opinions.
I even find it frustrating as a journalist when I’m going to interview someone and I’m trying to research a topic—it can be hard to find articles that aren’t slanted one way or another. I have to be on my toes to realize that this one is coming from this point of view or that one’s coming from another point of view and how do I see it from all sides.
I also think we’re in a bad place right now where it’s ‘everyone’s entitled to their opinion unless you disagree with me, then I don’t want to hear it.’ That doesn’t help anybody. And it doesn’t intellectually stimulate any kind of productive discussion. That’s what I was alluding to earlier—it seems our politicians have drawn lines in the sand more than ever. And the American people are hurting as a result, because things don’t get done—even though both sides might agree that something needs to be addressed, just for the sake of saving face they won’t. I think that’s really unfortunate.
CHF: If you had the opportunity to speak with some members of Congress would you challenge them on exactly that?
MS. MORRIS: Sure, if I had the opportunity to speak with any member of Congress—or I would argue that same point with someone in the media in terms of shaping someone’s opinion and that not being the whole story, being biased. I think bias comes from both sides, from the politicians and from the media.
For example, someone asked me ‘If you’re of a conservative nature and you feel like the media is being liberal, how do you fight that at work?’ I think you have to realize the battles you can fight. You can’t fight every battle.
In our editorial meetings I think that’s the best time to bring up another side. When we are shaping our coverage, when we say we want to talk about a topic and someone says, ‘Okay, we need to have so-and-so on,’ it’s my responsibility to say, ‘What about the other side? We also need to have this side on. Even though you guys may overwhelmingly feel this way, don’t you think it’s fair that this side is represented as well?’ I feel like that’s how I can make a difference.
RML: You are one of probably very few television journalists with a technical background to be able to respond in real time to discussions like the one you’re talking about. Are you aware of other television journalists who have a technical background?
MS. MORRIS: I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head but I’m sure they’re out there. I do have a pretty funny story. When I was trying to get the permission to do this interview with you, my news director said to me, “Why are they asking you to do this interview? Are you an engineer?” Now, on my desk at work I have a Duke Engineering placard and other things about engineering. I said, “Yes, I graduated with a civil and environmental engineering degree from Duke.” He said, “I did not know that.”
CHF: You mentioned a moment ago having to do research. How much research do you do to prepare for each show or for a particular topic?
MS. MORRIS: It depends. I do as much as I can. There’s not always much advance notice but I always try to do as much as I can to be well informed. Our live interviews last about 4–5 minutes, not very long; I would do more research, obviously, if I was going to do a taped interview where we’d sit down and talk for 20 minutes. But I do a lot of research on whatever the topic is or whoever the person is that I’m talking to. Sometimes I want to ask questions that are thought provoking or challenging, but generally speaking I do research so that I don’t ask a question that I don’t already know the answer to.
RML: Who has been your most interesting interviewee? Who have you spoken to that you most enjoyed or thought was the most provocative?
MS. MORRIS: Wow. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have talked with so many people that it’s hard to narrow down. It’s been people across the board. People get caught up on the famous people that you talk to, but I find that the more fascinating person might be the one who has the keys to the gems at the Smithsonian, where you have to go two levels back to even get into the vault to see the gems that they don’t put out, like a tiara worn by the queen of Spain in the 19th century. I think people with those kinds of jobs are fascinating.
I also remember one time sitting on the floor of the Kennedy Center, on the big red carpet with stages at either end, and chatting with pianist Marvin Hamlisch. He was such a delight and told amazing stories. He was so unpretentious and would play a little something on the piano and then talk some more. He was very down to earth. It was great.
We did an interview with Patrick O’Connell, the proprietor and chef at the Inn at Little Washington. Off camera he told fascinating stories about things that happened at the restaurant. I really enjoyed talking with him.
Once I had the honor of flying with the US Air Force Thunderbirds. I walked out onto the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews and there was my name on the side of the plane! The pilot and I flew for about an hour. That was a joy!
I also did a series for about a year and a half called Pay It Forward. We did stories on people who were doing just that—making a difference in this world, they’re just selfless people. I felt honored to meet and spend time with every one of them.
One woman started a business giving birthday parties to kids in homeless shelters, mostly with single moms. She does custom birthday parties and makes it seem like the mom in the homeless shelter is throwing the party for the child, so the child thinks their own mom is doing it. She’s providing this service for moms who can’t, making a difference in these people’s lives.
I felt so blessed to meet people like that. If I were a practicing engineer sitting behind a desk designing dams or bridges, I wouldn’t meet those types of people day in and day out. That’s one of the things I love most about my job: I meet people I would never otherwise meet. I go places I wouldn’t otherwise go. That’s what I liked about working live in the field: I went someplace different every day. I feel like that has been such an amazing opportunity that I have been blessed with.
CHF: But the Pay It Forward series has been discontinued?
MS. MORRIS: Well, I got promoted to the anchor job and, because I work from 3:30 to 12:30, I don’t have time to go out and shoot stories as much as I used to. The station still does some Pay It Forward stories, just not regularly.
CHF: You talked about some of the perks of being an anchor here in Washington and certainly your conversation with Marvin Hamlisch at the Kennedy Center sounds quintessentially Washingtonian. I want to know, Holly, was that you on stage with Steve Martin and Martin Short at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts on September 15?
MS. MORRIS: It was! Oh my gosh. I get to do a lot of things but this was definitely a highlight—going out on stage and giving champagne to Martin Short and Steve Martin. My husband and I got to meet them and they were delightful and funny.
It’s funny because I don’t really get nervous—I’ve been doing this for so long—but before I walked out there I was thinking, ‘I cannot trip. I cannot spill this champagne.’ I didn’t have to even say anything, I literally just walked out and gave them two glasses of champagne. But I was a little nervous. They’re comedy legends!
One day I got an email from the PR person at Wolf Trap. Over the years I’ve done many, many live shots at Wolf Trap and helped promote them. I was so honored that they thought of me to do this. I asked them, “Do you want me to share this with somebody—I could do one night and someone else the other night?” They said, “Nope, we want you to do both nights.” That was a real treat. It was a great show. My husband and I laughed for two hours straight.
CHF: My friends and I did too. It was just wonderful.
MS. MORRIS: They said they travel for five days doing shows and then take a couple of weeks off. I asked how long they’re planning on doing this show, and they said at least another five years. I’m going to tell everybody I know to go see this show because it is great.
CHF: Did you mention it on your broadcast?
MS. MORRIS: Oh yes. I mentioned it before I went to do the appearances, and they took pictures while I was there, and then of me with them, and I talked about it on the show afterward. It was definitely super fun.
RML: I understand you also like sports.
MS. MORRIS: I do love sports, especially basketball. You can’t go to Duke and not like at least college basketball.
RML: You’ve been to some pretty important games. A feature about you from the Duke School of Engineering, in August 2011, mentions that you were at that great game, the Eastern regional game that everybody remembers if they watch basketball –
MS. MORRIS: Yes. I was at the game because I was a cheerleader. I was there in a short skirt, with a big bow in my hair and pompoms. I was the only cheerleader who was an engineer. My fellow cheerleaders made fun of me because we’d be traveling for basketball and there I was sitting on the sidelines doing my problem sets. They would have papers to write but they could always get extensions. None of my professors said, “Oh yes, Holly, you can have an extension.” It was more like, “No no no, your stuff is due when it’s due.” So I always had my homework with me when I traveled at games and I was always the only one doing it, although I would try to talk to my professors. I wrote a paper called “All Blondes Aren’t Dizzy.”
When the engineering school was trying to get donors or get people to come, they would have me come in and talk, or if they had young people, especially girls, that were thinking about the school, because 25 years ago not a lot of girls went into engineering and there was a push to get girls interested. There still is today, but even more so back then. So they would have me talk with kids and try to recruit girls to come to the engineering school.
Truth be told, I probably would not have even gotten into Duke if I hadn’t applied to the engineering school because Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences is so much more competitive, at least it was back then, and I was coming from a public high school in Fairfield, Ohio.
RML: Were you born and raised in Ohio?
MS. MORRIS: Yes, a suburb of Cincinnati.
RML: And you’re not a Buckeye –
MS. MORRIS: No. Two things. One, all my family (except me) went to the University of Cincinnati, and Cincinnati and Ohio State don’t like each other. And two, I wanted to go away to school. Half the kids in my high school went to local schools. I was valedictorian and I wanted to go someplace where I accomplished something by getting in. I wanted them to choose me. I was very fortunate, my mom and dad said I could apply anywhere and we did the whole college tour thing and I fell in love with Duke, where, as I said earlier, I studied civil and environmental engineering.
CHF: Did you ever do any kind of engineering work, maybe in a summer job?
MS. MORRIS: No. I did internships. My dad is an architect and one summer I did an internship at his company and did some project-based work, but my -other summers I interned in television. In fact, the summer before my senior year I interned at CBS network in New York City. It was very competitive to get an internship there but one day a lady there called me and said, “I just have to talk to you. I have a stack of resumes here but I pulled yours because I want to know why in the hell an engineer wants to come work at CBS News!” I told her and she said, “You’re hired.”
RML: Holly, it’s my observation that of all the engineering majors, the folks who choose civil engineering usually have a much broader perspective on, let’s say, social needs. I guess it’s because in a way you’re dealing with items like the infrastructure, which obviously serves a great social purpose, or transportation or communication systems. It strikes me that there must be something in your thinking as well as in the thinking of other civil engineers that focuses more on the -broader public good. So it doesn’t surprise me, given all the things you’ve told us today, that civil engineering might have been your choice.
I also want to mention our first interview, with a poet named Richard Blanco. He’s a civil engineer as well, so he’s both a poet and a professional engineer—he has a PE license. He told us that he puts PE after his name as most professional engineers would do. Then he explained that when he speaks to a group of civil engineers, “I’m Richard Blanco, PE, Professional Engineer. And when I speak to a lay audience about poetry, I’m also Richard Blanco, PE—Poet Engineer.”
MS. MORRIS: Oh, that’s funny.
RML: I thought that was a hilarious comment. Actually, we seem to keep running into civil engineers who have a great social awareness and concern. That’s the connection I’m trying to make.
MS. MORRIS: I like that. I will gladly be in that group.
CHF: It seems like your career has been evolving. Where do you see it evolving to in about 5 years?
MS. MORRIS: That’s a great question. I often think about that. I’m an “old” mom; I have one son who is 5 years old and I had him when I was 40—I established my career and then had my family. So I’m very happy where I am right now and with the life that it affords me with my family. Yet, at the same time, I often think, ‘What more can I do? What’s my next thing?’ I’ve been at this particular station 19 years, which is a long time.
CHF: Is that unusual in that field? Is there a lot of bouncing around?
MS. MORRIS: There is, but once you get to a top 10 market a lot of people stay. I used to think I might like to go to the network but I just don’t know. It would have to be the right opportunity because right now my focus is my family and being able to be very engaged and involved with my son, which my husband and I both love because we both were comparatively old when we had him. My husband went to Duke too, he’s a year younger than me. We did what we wanted to do so now we never look back and think, ‘Oh, gosh, I wish we had done this.’
So we’re in a good place right now, but at the same time I don’t want to get complacent. Of course, the thing about the news is it’s always changing. Who would have ever dreamt the news cycle we had with the presidential election? The news is always new and different and that keeps it fun and interesting.
So it’s a great question, but I don’t know where I will be 5 years from now. I would be totally content staying right where I am. I really love my job. It’s intellectually engaging, it’s good for my family, and I love living in Washington, DC. I love what this area affords.
RML: It would certainly seem that you’re on the pulse of the nation’s news and policymaking so I can’t imagine a much better place to be.
Do you ever speak to young women about engineering and your choices and the direction of your career?
MS. MORRIS: Yes, I love to talk about it. Whenever people ask, I go out and speak to schools and colleges and even professional groups. Or if someone says, “My daughter is interested in that, will you call her?,” sure, absolutely.
So many people gave me great advice and helped me along the way that I think it’s important to do the same. I wouldn’t be where I am if someone didn’t stop and take the time to have a conversation with me. And you always hope the next generation is even better, right? Isn’t that the hope?
CHF: So that might be an area for further exploration and development for you.
MS. MORRIS: Yes, that’s true. Actually, a friend of mine asked on behalf of a girl who was going to do a live interview. My friend said this girl’s dad was willing to pay for her to have a media consultant, who cost about $3,000. I said, “For heaven’s sake, tell him not to spend his money, I’ll do it for free,” and I went and talked with this girl. She’s in high school and has started a nonprofit, and she was going to be interviewed on the news. I went in with the idea, ‘Let me just work with you for about an hour and we’ll be good.’ My friend said, “You know, you just gave away this money.” But I don’t really need it and I would rather give the advice for free.
CHF: That’s your own way of paying it forward.
MS. MORRIS: Yes, exactly.
RML: It’s been interesting to me to watch the changes in the enrollment of young women at American universities, especially in engineering and science fields. It’s changed dramatically. I taught at MIT for about 30 years and when I joined the faculty maybe 5 percent—or less—of our undergraduates were women. Today in both the science and engineering schools it’s nearly parity—nearly half of the population of undergraduates are women. And they have a multiplicity of interests. I’m sure they would feel inspired by your story because it’s a unique one, and it’s been such a pleasure to have this conversation and to get an idea of how you’ve gotten so involved with television journalism.
MS. MORRIS: Thank you. I really appreciate your interest. Like I said, I love talking about it. And I’ve enjoyed my time with you.
RML: We do have a final question. We always ask the folks we speak with in these interviews if they have a message they would like to deliver to the members of the National Academy of Engineering and the other readers of The Bridge, which is circulated to members of Congress, schools of engineering throughout the country, libraries, professional organizations, and others.
MS. MORRIS: I think we are a very polarized nation right now and it’s up to all of us to learn how to come together for the greater good. And while this may seem like a leap, I think the Academy can lead the way by example. We have some significant problems that need to be solved—aging infrastructure, global warming, the list is long. These are issues that need to be addressed with answers that, realistically, only engineers can come up with. Thus we need the most brilliant minds coming together and not fighting over data that can be skewed to support certain answers but rather objectively looking at all data and then brainstorming to find the best answer. If that happens, I believe real discoveries will be made and then, perhaps, others can see that selfless teamwork is truly the only winning formula.
RML: Holly, thank you so much.
CHF: Yes, thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you.
MS. MORRIS: Thank you all and have a great rest of your day.