Deborah Roberts was on the set of “20/20” reviewing her notes before an on-camera chat with show hosts Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. She had recently joined the ABC News magazine program as a reporter and was anxious to make a good impression.
Just before the cameras rolled, Walters — Roberts’ friend and mentor — snatched her notes and tossed them aside.
“She said, ‘You don’t need them. You know what you’re going to say,’” Roberts (ABJ ’82) recalls. “And I did.”
Eleven years later, Roberts is as comfortable on camera as off, as skilled in the anchor’s chair as in the reporter’s seat, and as warm and gracious in person as she is in her newscasts, which have taken her to war-torn Rwanda and the Persian Gulf.
“This was my dream,” Roberts says. “By the time I was a student at Grady (College of Journalism and Mass Communication) I knew I wanted to work in television, and on a network.”
Raised in Perry, where her parents still live, Roberts moved to Columbus, Ga., after she graduated and went to work for WTVM-TV. Her career carried her from there to Knoxville, then Orlando before she broke into network television with NBC in 1990, reporting news from Atlanta and Miami, and covering the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Her first news magazine job was with NBC as a reporter on “Dateline NBC,” where she was noticed by Walters.
“I still look to her for inspiration,” says Roberts, who was lured to ABC by Walters in 1995. In July and September, Roberts was a guest host on Walters’ morning talk show “The View.”
Her job and her family — Roberts and husband Al Roker, the NBC weatherman, have two young children — keep her on the move.
On a recent fall Tuesday, Roberts was able to work in a little quality time with her son at home before rushing into her office on New York’s Upper West Side for a meeting with her boss. That afternoon she interviewed Geralyn Lucas, 35, who wrote a book about her battle with breast cancer. A movie version of the book, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, aired on Lifetime television in October.
It is the kind of emotion-filled story that Roberts is adept at reporting. Earlier this year she traveled to Africa to report on the plight of orphaned children with HIV and AIDS. In August, she went to Salt Lake City to spend time with Maliyah and Kendra Herrin, twins conjoined at their abdomens, who were to be separated at age 4.
She was with the family before and during the surgery. Video showed the two happy girls crawling across the floor, one on top, the other underneath.
Once the surgery was completed, Roberts was the only reporter to gain access to the ICU to see the twins begin their recovery. Roberts says she plans to follow the story as the children adapt to their newly separated bodies.
“These were just beautiful, sweet little girls,” Roberts said. “That’s what really drives me. I get to do these stories that really grab people, and I get something as a human being.”
Though travel takes her around the globe, Roberts says she enjoys getting back to Georgia to visit family and expose 8-year-old Leila and 4-year-old Nicholas to a slower pace in the rural neighborhoods she grew up in.
“I appreciate it so much more than when I was growing up,” she says. “I want my children to absorb some of that Southern spirit and charm.”
(above) Deborah Roberts is a shining star at ABC News, where she is a reporter and substitute anchor. She also hosts a live daily news show, “Lifetime Live,” on Lifetime television. She won an Emmy Award for her report on a woman’s search for her mother in Ethiopia.
Photo by Dot Paul