Controversy? It's Old News to CNN's Catherine Crier

People, Oct. 23, 1989
Assignment: A quick look at Catherine Crier, a Texas judge who, to some controversy, had been appointed news anchor at CNN.

Pity poor Catherine Crier, television's Cinderella. Only last month the 34-year-old Texas judge was warming the bench in a Dallas courtroom -- a secure, prestigious job, and one Crier was good at. But in a hiring move that has thrown most broadcasting observers for a loop, Atlanta-based Cable News Network this month tapped Judge Crier, who has no newsgathering experience, to co-anchor its new nightly newscast, "The World Today," with veteran Washington correspondent Bernard Shaw.

Now Crier, once a respected professional, suddenly finds herself dodging the slings and arrows of outraged television critics. The Washington Post panned Crier as a "non-journalist," while several other papers described her, a bit inaccurately, as a "former actress and model." And a gigglesome Houston Post summarized her qualifications as co-anchor thusly: "As a college student, Crier was voted one of the ten most beautiful women at the University of Texas by actor and Farrah Fawcett fan Ryan O'Neal."

Which is, unfortunately, true -- as is the more serious charge that Crier hasn't a bit of journalistic training. Sitting in a barren, windowless office in what used to be an indoor amusement park at CNN Center in Atlanta, the blond, green-eyed Crier -- dressed in a bright red blouse and sharp black-and-white plaid business suit -- bristles at the implication that she is just so much window-dressing for "The World Today."

"It's frustrating if the focus is my appearance when I've spent my entire life pursuing academics," she says with a soft Texas twang. "I was asked in 1985 by a reporter what my favorite television program was, and I said the evening news. There's been no change in that position."

That hardly qualifies her to anchor a national newscast, of course, but Crier has maintained from the beginning that the legal world has taught her many of the skills necessary to a journalist. "So many stories in the news revolve around the law," she says.

As if a chuckling, incredulous press gallery weren't enough, the worst earthquake in decades rocked San Francisco during Crier's first week on the air. She was in another reporter's office, working on her first series, when she saw the devastation the screen. Like everyone else, she ran down to the newsroom to find out what was going on.

CNN was shifting into high gear, downlinking and uplinking footage, searching out earthquake victims and experts, deploying camera crews, pulling down wire copy and radio transmissions and anything else that producers could put on the air. For Crier, it was actually something of a relief -- for a precious few days, she says, nobody paid attention to her. "In a strange way, it relieved a lot of the personal pressure," says Crier. "You have to focus completely on such a story. It makes one's own nerves and concerns seem very small."

It's been a circuitous success story. Like someone out of a prime-time soap, Catherine Crier, daughter of Dallas banker William T. Crier, grew up riding horses on the Texas range and competing in formal exhibitions. Her parents, who still own 35 Arabians on a ranch in Plano, still can rattle off her titles: National Champion Saddle Seat Equitation Rider, 1971; Reserve National Champion Stock Seat Equitation Rider, 1972. Catherine was second of three horse-crazed girls; the oldest, Carolyn, now sells real estate in Dallas, while the youngest, Cynthia, works as an architect in New York.

"They were always very bright young women who knew exactly what they wanted to do," says mother Ann Crier. In 1971, Catherine's senior year in high school, the family moved from Dallas proper to a 30-acre ranch in Celina. "We were getting too many horses," says Crier. "It was wonderful. They just turned us loose in the country." Crier, who claims she didn't give up her jeans until looking for her first job, still is hoping to move a favorite Arabian to Atlanta.

Crier graduated from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1975 with a degree in political science. She got her law degree in 1978 from Southern Methodist University School of Law -- and headed straight for the Dallas County district attorney's office and its famous overseer, Henry Wade. "There was no question -- I wanted to be a trial lawyer," says Crier.

She got the job, and her first day at work Crier got her first jury trial, a case of alleged prostitution.

"These two fellows I was working with assigned the case to me with smiles on their faces," she laughs. "At that point, I didn't know where the ladies room was, and they said 'OK, you're going to try a jury case tomorrow.'" The punch line: Crier's chief witness was an undercover agent, and to get a conviction she'd have to get him to describe the nature of the agreement between himself and the alleged prostitute -- specifically, what services he'd asked for and what she'd agreed to. Crier's new colleagues thought it would be fun to see a newly minted female prosecutor undertake that delicate task. They were right.

"I was about the color of this blouse throughout the trial," Crier recalls. But she won -- and continued to win. By 1982 Crier was chief felony prosecutor, but that year she gave up the gritty life of a city DA for a position as trial attorney with private firm Riddle & Brown.

"It was mostly business and corporate litigation," she says, "but I find it fascinating. Criminal prosecution tends to be life and death -- tends to be real emotional. But civil law actually is more interesting academically. You're always learning about bridge collapses or brain surgery or plane crashes."

In 1984, at the tender age of 29, Crier ran for judge of the 162nd district's state civil court. She edged out a 22-year incumbent to become the youngest woman ever elected state district judge in Texas. "I felt in that court there needed to be a change," says Crier. The specific problem: the docket was too long, meaning that the judge wasn't clearing cases fast enough. Crier brought the docket down to the second shortest in the state. "There's a lot of truth to that saying 'Justice delayed is justice denied,'" she says.

Celebrity ensued. Before long Crier was teaching trial advocacy classes at SMU, speaking before business groups, presiding over ABA committees, popping up on The Today Show, in Ultra Magazine and in Vogue (as a "fast-track career woman"). In 1987 the legal experts at Glamour magazine voted Crier one of ten "outstanding young working women."

She was re-elected in 1988, but by that time Crier was beginning to find she liked the campaigning better than the job. "I was really enjoying the communications end of it," she says. "After my re-election, I just kept it up." Last spring, at the urging of a friend who used to be head of recruiting for CBS, Crier made a demo tape of herself interviewing two Dallas authors. Her friend sent the video to CNN execs, who decided Crier had potential for an issues-oriented talk show then in the planning stages. It never got off the ground, but by late summer CNN President Burt Reinhardt, who describes Crier as "a natural," had decided she had the right stuff for "The World Today."

And so at the end of September Crier put away her gavel and moved to Atlanta. CNN gave her just a few hours to find a condo before hauling her in to begin preparing for the broadcast. Her tiny office features barren walls and a flat, empty desk -- she hasn't had time to decorate. "I think Atlanta is beautiful," she says. "It's got more hills than Dallas, but there's the same feeling of energy and growth."

"The World Today" is going to need some energy and growth. Last Monday Crier found herself on prime-time television, head to head with Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw -- and co-anchor Bernard Shaw, who is said to be less than enthusiastic about her meteoric rise to broadcast stardom.

For a newcomer under considerable pressure, it wasn't really a bad performance. True, Crier lacks an authoritative cadence, and both her grammar and accent too often hark back to the ranch ("Gary, let me ask you, historically what are the odds of a team such as the Giants coming back, bein' two games down?"). But for the most part Crier read her lines confidently and managed to avoid gaffes. Most television critics grudgingly gave Crier her due.

"Afterward, half of me was glad the first one was over and the other half wanted to do it again," she says.

Shaw, though, is hardly falling over himself with praise. "I think her performance so far has been very adequate," he says evenly.

Did he expect someone with more news experience in Crier's position? "I won't respond to that," he says. He also has refused to comment on published reports indicating that he flew to Atlanta two weeks ago to voice his displeasure over the choice of Crier as co-anchor to CNN execs.

Whatever the controversy, Crier is pleased with her new job. "I'm beginning to do some reporting and to understand how a newsroom operates," she says. Her first project: a series on the victims of crime.

Catherine Crier