Monica Pearson, renowned Atlanta journalist, discusses her career, leadership, and health challenges
When Monica Pearson first stepped into the offices of WSB-TV Atlanta in 1975, there were few women behind evening news desks across the country. While she didn’t explicitly set out to change that reality, an unwavering dedication to excellence and overcoming obstacles led her to become one of Atlanta’s most prominent leaders. Among other accomplishments, Monica became the first woman and the first minority individual to anchor the daily 6 p.m. news.
She remembered her early days and said, “Failure meant closing the door for others. So, I wasn’t willing to allow that to happen. Although I made mistakes, I tried to honor those that were trailblazers before me and to be a trailblazer for others.”
By the time she landed at WSB-TV, Monica had worked in a few other industries. She explained, “I had to be a bank clerk because women were not allowed to be tellers. Can you imagine? So, I worked hard.” She was then selected to attend Columbia University’s summer program for minority groups at the Graduate School of Journalism. Following graduate school, she worked as a reporter for five years.
“I knew I wanted to work in television, but I needed a degree. I was writing speeches, but I was not allowed to present the speeches. I knew that I wouldn’t be happy having men take credit for my work. So I found a way to go back to school. I looked at the national trend and saw that television was opening to women and people of color.”
She graduated with an English degree from the University of Louisville and later earned a master’s degree from University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Monica was initiated into the Emory University Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa in 1995.
The thing that strikes you the most when talking with Monica is a straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to life and work—a skill that seems sculpted from years of finding the truth in her stories. She has a genuine warmth and sincerity which cuts through to the simple realities of a topic in conversation.
She explains the challenges in her career: “I have always been honest with myself. When in doubt, I ask myself, ‘Why do you think you’re not cut out for this? What is holding you back?’ The answer may hurt your feelings. But, it is usually something you can fix. It may be that you’re still dressing like you’re in college. Or, that you’re writing for a newspaper, but now you’re in television. Growth is about constructive not destructive criticism. You must ask yourself ‘How can I get good at what I’m doing?’”
This desire to consistently improve her work has earned her 33 local and regional Emmys for reporting, anchoring, and Closeups—her segment of intimate interviews with national leaders. She has interviewed leaders from Dolly Parton to Hank Williams, Jr. and from Georgia Congressman John Lewis (who changed his presidential support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during her interview with him) to Oprah.
Adding to the Emmys are awards like the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame, Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Georgia Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the Presidential Vanguard award by her sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, and countless others.
BECOMING A STAR
Maintaining a positive image for more than 30 years in the spotlight is no small feat. As a leader in the community and a public figure, how does Monica handle the world of social media, fake news, and celebrity personas?
She said simply, “Authenticity—to be real—is the only way to truly connect with people. My unique background made me stand out. I embraced what made me different.”
She goes on, “If you are a leader, you cannot always be a part of the pack. You have to know your strengths and be careful who you listen to about your weaknesses. If someone is not telling you how to do something better, it’s not worth listening to.”
Separating yourself from the pack can be an intimidating endeavor especially with the abundance of anonymous and often cruel online comments, or the tendency to reduce full stories to soundbites and click bait hiding a situation’s or person’s complexities. Cal Newport, Georgetown University professor argues in the New York Times that social media can damage one’s career ultimately by undermining the ability to concentrate and the ability to produce work that truly matters.
Monica, who maintains an active social media presence, shares her viewpoint on these platforms. She says, “Social media helps you extend your friends. It’s about sharing who you are and promoting the things that you are invested in. Also, I do not tolerate unkindness. I will block people in a minute if they share inappropriate comments or behavior.”
Even before people in Atlanta were following her, she had long-established the force that is Monica Pearson. Much of her drive and identity was developed under the watchful eye of her mother, Hattie Edmondson. Monica describes her as a “character” and a woman with a saying for everything. Her mother was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and Monica is the first in her family to graduate from college.
Monica recalls, “I called the [sayings] Hattie-isms. She said, ‘Don’t make excuses— make work and all work is good work as long as it is honest work.’ ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from. God gives you everything that you need.’” Her favorite, however, is, “It’s what you do with what you have that makes you what you are.”
The ever-engaging journalist, Monica laughs and says, “did you notice it’s not who you are, but what you are.”
What she means is that you can be a good person on the inside, but if you don’t get to work developing your strengths and sticking to your commitments, you cannot achieve your dreams. Who you are might never change, but what you are? That is what one can develop.
Monica is heavily invested in the Atlanta community, and her service is endless. She has served on the board of Meals on Wheels Atlanta and Go Red for Women as well as supported organizations across the city, including the Girls Scouts, the YMCA, The Sisters of Promise of Susan G. Komen, and The Metropolitan United Way of Atlanta. William Finch Elementary School, where Monica has given books to children and volunteered for many years, named a corner of their library after her.
As passionate as she was about her career, she considers community involvement more important than her job. She has strived to define herself by what she does away from work.
When asked how she determines how to devote her time considering the many needs in society, she said, “There are so many demands on your time. I chose how to be involved in my community based on two things: first, I always volunteered for something that I was passionate about. Second, I choose community organizations that would allow me to meet other community leaders.
“I first started volunteering by reading to first grade students in elementary school with a project called Kids Connection. I spent an hour a week volunteering and working with the kids. This also allowed me to be a role model in the community. As you try to build a career and be involved in your community, pick organizations that you are passionate about and set aside a reasonable amount of time for them.”
The television industry does not quite have the reputation for being the friendliest or easiest industry to work in, but Monica was strict about setting expectations in the office. She says, “Only allow people to see good things from you. People will pull you into all kinds of things. Stay focused and only engage in issues about your work that matter.”
Her biggest lesson about leadership over the years? Recognize the leaders around you. Real leadership is about developing the talents within your network.
“You have to take responsibility for your decisions good or bad,” she says. “A leader is able to say, ‘I was wrong. I made a bad decision and here is what I learned.’ I always think good leaders give credit where credit is due. They also have a sense of ethics that they live by no matter what.”
Monica adds, “I know that I had a moral responsibility to do the right thing in my work. If it gives you a feeling in the pit of your stomach, you shouldn’t do it.”
She faced new challenges later in life and survived both breast and liver cancer. In 1998 when she received her breast cancer diagnosis, she, in typical Monica fashion, did two things: first, she refused to let the disease define her. She plowed through recovery and came out the other side. Second, she became involved in the support community and encouraged all women to get screened.
She said, “I think it’s really important to have a network—a community family that is separate from your work family. You need to be able to share challenges and successes with people who care about you outside of your office.”
In 2015, her doctors found liver cancer during a routine checkup. She had surgery, and more than 50% of her liver was removed. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, “I don’t want flowers. You can pray for me. Prayer is always welcome. But the best thing people can do is go to the doctor and get checked. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. Don’t be afraid.”
In 2014, she launched The Monica Pearson Show—a two-hour radio show of interviews and historical profiles. She also hosts A Seat at the Table, the first Georgia Public Broadcasting television show that gives voice to African-American women from their diverse experiences and perspectives. You can be sure that Monica will continue telling important stories and serving the Atlanta community in countless ways for years to come.