Sam Donaldson earned national recognition as a White House correspondent and the anchor for such shows as ‘Primetime Live’ during his four decades with ABC News.
Born in 1934 in El Paso, Texas, Sam Donaldson began his broadcasting career in college. He rose to fame as the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, eventually moving to the anchor desk for such programs as World News Sunday and Primetime Live. A four-time Emmy Award winner, Donaldson stepped down as a full-time contributor to ABC News in 2009.
Samuel Andrew Donaldson Jr. was born on March 11, 1934, in El Paso, Texas. His father had passed away before he was born, and Donaldson grew up on the family farm in Chamberino, New Mexico, with mom Chloe and older brother Tom.
Intrigued by the radio coverage of World War II, Donaldson developed an interest in broadcasting. After graduating from the New Mexico Military Institute in 1951, he enrolled at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), where he majored in telecommunications and became the station manager at KVOF-FM.
Following a year of graduate school at the University of Southern California, Donaldson returned home to work for President Eisenhower's reelection campaign during the summer of 1956. That autumn he reported to Fort Bliss in El Paso to fulfill his ROTC obligations, rising to the rank of captain before earning his honorable discharge in 1959.
Early Broadcasting Career
Donaldson landed a job with CBS affiliate KRLD-TV in Dallas in 1959, and after a year he resigned to pursue broadcasting opportunities in New York City. Life in the Big Apple proved a humbling experience as Donaldson was unable to secure any work, but in 1961 he received an offer to join WTOP-TV, the CBS affiliate based in Washington, D.C.
Donaldson honed his reporting chops through coverage of local news and also tackled stories of national interest such as President Kennedy's funeral in 1963 and the Senate's passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He became weekend news anchor and earned a promotion to weeknight anchorman before accepting a position with ABC News in 1967.
Rise to Stardom
As ABC's Capitol Hill correspondent, Donaldson reported on such significant events as the Vietnam War and the Watergate hearings. He also covered the presidential campaigns of major candidates, including George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
After becoming ABC's chief White House correspondent in 1977, Donaldson developed a reputation for his pointed questioning of President Carter. His notoriety for that type of aggressive journalism peaked during the following administration, as cameras often captured him yelling questions at President Reagan across the South Lawn of the White House.
Donaldson's national profile grew after he was named anchor for World News Sunday in 1979. He also became a regular guest on This Week With David Brinkley after the show launched in 1981, eventually assuming a permanent role as a panelist. He recalled his rise to the top of his profession in his 1987 autobiography, Hold on, Mr. President.
In 1989, Donaldson stepped down from his roles as World News Sunday anchor and White House correspondent and was named co-host of Primetime Live, alongside Diane Sawyer. The veteran newsman experienced some of his biggest successes during this time, including a report on former Nazi SS Captain Erich Priebke that led to his extradition and imprisonment. Donaldson in 1996 also began an eight-year stint as co-host of This Week, alongside Cokie Roberts, and from 1998-99 he reprised his role as ABC's chief White House correspondent.
After 10 years with Primetime Live, Donaldson proved capable of adapting to the changing media landscape by helming "[email protected]," the first internet-only live newscast, from 1999-2001. The Sam Donaldson Show – Live in America radio program ran from 2001-04, and in 2004 he embarked on a six-year stretch as host of Politics Live on the digital network ABC News Now.
In February 2009, Donaldson announced he was stepping down as a full-time employee of ABC News. Over his four decades with the network, he won four Emmy Awards and was named the Best Television Correspondent in the Business by the Washington Journalism Review four times. In 1998, he was honored by the National Press Foundation as Broadcaster of the Year.
Personal Life and Controversies
Respected, if not beloved, for his dogged investigation techniques, the longtime journalist occasionally found himself a subject of less-than-flattering news stories. In 1994, Primetime Live reported on a congressional junket sponsored by the same insurance company that had paid Donaldson for a speaking engagement. A few years later, the revelation that Donaldson had received generous federal subsidies for his New Mexico ranch became a focal point of Congressional discussions about reduction of the national deficit. However, Donaldson also generated positive headlines during this time by successfully enduring a battle with Stage 3 melanoma.
In 2004, Donaldson discovered three dead bodies at his New Mexico ranch. An investigation revealed that the foreman's teenaged son had shot his father, stepmother and sister.
In 2012, after nearly 30 years of marriage, Donaldson separated from wife Jan, a former television reporter. He had fathered four children from two previous marriages. Donaldson was arrested late that year for DUI, though the case was dismissed in November 2013.