Host Sonya Gavankar (left) and Sam Donaldson

Inside Media: Sam Donaldson

March 28, 2009

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

On March 30, 1981, Sam Donaldson was standing five feet from President Ronald Reagan when shots rang out. Moments later Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady and two others were wounded, and John Hinckley Jr. — the lone gunman — was in police custody. Donaldson rushed to a nearby hotel to call ABC News.

"At that time we didn’t have cell phones, and [the networks] weren’t live. We still had a switchboard in those days and fortunately for me, the operator plugged me in. I was on the air with the first broadcast report," he said.

The veteran newsman also recalls being careful with his words. After all, it was one of the biggest stories of his career.

Initially, he "saw no evidence that Reagan had been hit. I didn’t know. There’s an old saying in news: ‘Would you rather be first or right?’ You’d rather be both."

It’s a motto Donaldson followed during his 42 years at ABC News. These days he’s pacing himself more — appearing occasionally on the network as a contributor.

As the network’s former chief White House correspondent, Donaldson developed quite a reputation for asking presidents the tough questions.

"I never asked a question of a president where I meant to be rude," he said. "You need to get answers, and that’s what reporters are out there to do — to hold their feet to the fire, ask them to explain in advance which country they intend to invade with American forces. That’s the job."

Having interviewed every president since Lyndon B. Johnson, Donaldson sees a lot of similarities between Presidents Obama and Kennedy.

"Obama’s exciting, young and vibrant. For my generation, it was JFK."

But Donaldson predicted an end to the media’s honeymoon phase with Obama.

"He’s going to have a bad time. It’s not because he deserves it or has done anything to bring it on. Look, presidents take it on the chin when things go wrong, and they get the credit when things go right, although they just happen to be sitting there," he said.

Donaldson pointed out that the vast majority of White House reporters "do a good job" and possesses what he calls aggressive inquisitiveness.

"If you sit in the back of the White House press room waiting to get called on, you’re never going to get called on. You have to be pushy in a way. You have to want to know things," he said.

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