January 18, 2023

I have been in the room with Brokaw, Rather, Costas, Winfrey.

But I have never been more excited to meet a television journalist than the day I saw him sitting in the library of the Poynter Institute. He was chatting with my colleague Kelly McBride.

I blurted something like, “Oh my God, it’s Kerry Sanders,” and bolted toward him like a teenage girl after the Beatles. He stood up and his eyes were wide in some level of comic alarm. I don’t remember what I said next but I recall what was in my heart: that of all the television journalists I had experienced in my life, Kerry Sanders was my absolute favorite.

Here are some of the reasons why:

Among generations of well-groomed and impeccably dressed anchors and reporters, Kerry came across as an authentic person. He is listed as 5 feet, 5 inches tall, portly at the age of 62, with a round face and blue eyes, the friendly guy who lived down the street all these years, who was also in a crisis your most reliable neighbor.

As a reporter, he projected physical and moral courage. He would travel anywhere for an important story, from the North Pole to Antarctica, Haiti to Australia. He covered two wars on the front lines: Desert Storm in 1991, then in 2003, he was embedded with Marines during the Iraq War. He covered many other stories on the conflicts in the Middle East

Kerry may be the most experienced bad-weather general assignment reporter in American history. With his home base in Florida, he covered countless hurricanes, including Andrew, Ivan, Katrina and Ian. I never considered him foolhardy, but he did survive blustery encounters with the rain, wind and storm surge where it looked like he was coming close to being washed away. The point was never: Look how brave I am, viewers. It was always: Take this storm seriously, folks.

That would be enough to crown a great career, but Kerry’s brilliance lies in his versatility. In an age of specialization, he could move from week to week from the most serious stories in the country to the most offbeat and whimsical. He would swim (in scuba gear if necessary) with any sea creature on the planet, or pose with the most exotic birds or invasive reptiles. His news judgment seemed impeccable, with an ability to cover things that were of vital importance, things that were super interesting. He was at his best when the interesting and important came together.

Kerry attributes his success to his editors, “Who would give me the extra seconds I needed on air to make the story something special,” he told me.

Scamp the Tramp celebrates after taking top honors in the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma, Calif., on Friday, June 21, 2019. At left is Kerry Sanders, who served as one of the judges. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Occasionally, a reporter will parachute out of a plane or go up in a hot air balloon to see what it is like. Small potatoes. Kerry’s form of “participant observation” always had just a touch of derring-do in it, including rappelling down the side of a cliff the height of the Empire State Building. My response to these stories was never, “Why is he doing that?” It was always, “That’s so cool. Thanks, Kerry, for showing me a corner of the world I would never otherwise see.”

We may have been conditioned as television viewers over the decades to prefer male reporters who look more like Tom Cruise than Tom Sawyer. In spite of the awards he has won, and the obvious respect he has earned from his co-workers, Kerry Sanders may also be one of the most underappreciated reporters of his time. I hope his retirement — after 32 years as a correspondent for NBC News — will inspire a more fervent retrospective.

He was born in New York City and educated in New England. (Hey, just like me!) He graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa, and worked his way up through various broadcast stations but came to consider Florida as his home, and also his home base. There were plenty of great stories coming out of the Sunshine State, from the climate, to the environment, to the Everglades, to crime, to strange politics (remember hanging chads?), to tourism, to iguanas that fall out of trees in cold weather, to always bizarre exploits of that character known as “Florida Man.” Kerry was ready to go at a moment’s notice.

In retirement, Kerry said he hopes to learn “how to relax,” which means learning how not to jump on every phone call and head for an airport. He expressed a desire to become more reflective about the journalism craft, and to be able to communicate with students and young professionals the strategies and values that made him among the best in the business.

Dear Kerry, thanks for your service, young man. Enjoy your retirement. It’s hard work. I can’t imagine that you have a bucket list. After all, you’ve already seen it all. And shared it all with us.

This article was updated to more accurately characterize Sanders’ coverage in the Middle East.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

More News

Back to News