Last December, CBS's Russ Mitchell left New York, his home of 16 years, to bring his considerable talents to Cleveland as lead news anchor and managing editor for WKYC, the local NBC affiliate. His portfolio spans 30 years and includes work in local news at points across the country, not to mention 15 years anchoring CBS news programs like The Early Show
and CBS Evening News
. Add a grab bag of substitute stints on other shows such as Up to the Minute,
and nobody can deny that Russ Mitchell knows news.
He's covered events as significant as the Space Shuttle Columbia
disaster, and as modest as tips on muscling the assembly of a toy castle on Christmas morning. He's followed the serious-as-can-be Pat Buchanan on the campaign trail and has taken cues from the queen of comedy Joan Rivers. In 2001, the Society of Professional Journalists recognized his work on the heartbreaking Elian Gonzales story with a Sigma Delta Chi award, which is just one of many accolades Mitchell's reporting has garnered over the years.
At the center of it all is a man who is not only approachable and personable, but one who already feels like one of our own. When Mitchell talks about his move to Cleveland, you'll observe none of the averted glances or sniffing you might expect from a New York transplant.
"Being from St. Louis, I kind of know about underrated cities," says Mitchell, who often describes his hometown as being similar to Cleveland. "I never saw Cleveland as 'The Mistake on the Lake.' I came here knowing that this was a great town," he adds, citing our vibrant dining scene, local treasures such as the Cleveland Orchestra, and indications of things to come as major construction projects flourish across the region. Mitchell also notes that while our professional sport teams often leave something to be desired, the fans are patently unsinkable.
"It really says something about a city when people still go to games and support the teams even when they're not winning," says Mitchell.
While the Cavs, Browns and Indians occasionally drop the ball, Mitchell has high hopes for Cleveland, particularly in the collective effort to improve the schools. With a mother who taught in the St. Louis public schools for 30 years and four kids ranging in ages from four to 22, Mitchell understands the importance of education for both students and communities.
"The fact that everybody's on the same page is encouraging," says Mitchell, adding that while difficult issues still loom between City Hall and the Teachers Union, a collective effort is underway. "I see people here saying, Look, we've got to make our schools better if we're going to make our city better
, and then going out on a limb to do that whether it's on the political side or the union side. I think that's fantastic."
While Mitchell has set up temporary shop in a downtown apartment, his wife (CBS freelance contributor Karina Mitchell) and children still are in New York completing the school year. In the meantime, they're enjoying weekend visits -- would-be reconnaissance missions.
So, which way are they leaning: East Side or West Side? So far, it's East, where the stately homes and generous lawns will be a significant paradigm shift for his family.
"My wife and three of my kids have never lived anywhere outside of New York," says Mitchell, recounting how the couple's four-year-old daughter struggles to convert miles to blocks, or how their 14-year-old son waxed incredulous when Mitchell told him it was free to park at the shopping mall.
"I said, 'Dude, it doesn't cost anything. They want
you to come here. In fact, when you go in, they may give you something.' He could not understand that."
Although Mitchell clearly is accustomed to such laid-back logistics, the move to Cleveland did require a nimble leap from the national to the local stage. Even so, Mitchell is a familiar face to many Northeasterners, who have been fans of his tireless reporting and long history at CBS.
Case in point: Clevelanders surely partook in the collective national tragedy that unfolded on September 11, 2001, but we also felt disconnected -- New York was 500 miles away. Above all, we wanted to stay informed. So we turned to trusted national news anchors like Mitchell, who co-anchored the live coverage on that fateful morning alongside the legendary Dan Rather. Together, they helped us make sense out of an otherwise inconceivable situation. Mitchell also reported live on May 1, 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed, giving a unique perspective on the two events.
"It was like bookends," says Mitchell. "To be a part of telling America about those two events? That was special."
Less than a year later, Mitchell would face a more intimate audience with news that in some ways cut closer to the bone. On February 27, 2012, a young man at Chardon High School indiscriminately fired 10 rounds that would kill three and profoundly injury another. When he got the call, Mitchell was on a plane returning from a weekend visit in New York.
"By the time the plane landed," says Mitchell, "everyone was talking about what was going on in Chardon." While the 52-year-old news veteran reported the story with his usual professionalism, he does not deny the personal aspect of it. "You take a much more personal interest because it is where you live now," says Mitchell. "These people are part of my community."
Mitchell waxes proud over WKYC's coverage of the story, recalling how he and the rest of the team fielded comments of appreciation from community members during on-site shoots. Mitchell was equally impressed with the people of Chardon.
"They handled this incredibly well," says Mitchell. "I'm still amazed at how swiftly the school district, the police department and all the different agencies out there were able to get that school open again; how they were able to provide counseling for the students; and how they were able to get their lives somewhat back to normal in relatively short order."
So, what does the career newsman think of the deprecating label "Lamestream Media"?
"People blame us for everything," says Mitchell, who concedes that while the media does make mistakes, they mostly are a responsible lot. "The cheapest, easiest thing people can do when they get in trouble and say something they shouldn't say, or if they are not prepared, is blame the media. It isn't fair and I think it's lazy. I hope more people see through that. It pisses me off."
Lame insults may irk Mitchell, but they haven't interfered with his ability to ease into a new life here on the North Coast and tap into the pulse of Cleveland and its people.
"This has been an incredibly easy transition because the people at this station have made it easy. The people of Cleveland have made it easy," says Mitchell. "This is a city that's on the move. It's having a renaissance of sorts. There's a vibe here that is electric. I feel it."
Photos Bob Perkoski