An interview by Staff Writer Trey Dyer with ABC News Senior Executive Producer Mark Robertson. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity and content.
On October 25, Hendrix College awarded the Odyssey Medal to three Hendrix alumni at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. The Odyssey Medal is presented to alumni whose life achievements exemplify the ideals of the Hendrix Odyssey Program. Medalists are selected by the Hendrix Board of Trustees for their accomplishments in one of the six Odyssey categories: artistic creativity, global awareness, professional and leadership development, service to the world, research, or special projects.
One of those alumni was Mark Robertson ‘79. Robertson is currently a Senior Executive Producer at ABC News, and I sat down to talk with him in Bailey Library on a sleepy Friday morning the day after the awards reception.
DYER: What brought you to Hendrix in the first place?
ROBERTSON: I either wanted to go to Rhodes College in Memphis or to Hendrix, and a friend of mine really pushed me this direction. I still think it’s the best decision I ever made.
DYER: Good. That’s the right answer.
ROBERTSON: I really do! We’re all cotton farmers where I’m from, Caraway, Arkansas, and my family is very happy and has done very well being cotton farmers. But until I got to Hendrix, I just didn’t think beyond that. Being around smart and curious people and different kinds of people gave me a lot of courage to reimagine myself.
DYER: So, in this environment of smart people who encouraged you, what were you involved in? What did you study? What are some things that you remember from your time here?
ROBERTSON: I loved it. I loved everything about it. You know, curious people are like adrenaline to me. I didn’t know much, and I wasn’t exposed to much in my high school years. We didn’t travel that much. It really did wake me up. I was woke after this s—. It woke me up and made me reimagine myself. It showed me the power of possibility.
DYER: And what did you study while you were here?
ROBERTSON: I took a whole lot of biology courses because they said I was a biology major, but I wasn’t. I was some combination of English and Humanities. I studied abroad two different summers.
DYER: Where’d you go?
ROBERTSON: I was in Greece for three months, and then I was in Austria for three months. I was taking German here [at Hendrix] and that made me interested, so I did that. Plus, it was fun! I had a lot of fun here, and the friends I made here are still my best friends, still the people that know you the best. They saw you struggle, saw you hurt. They know all of your secrets!
DYER: Do you have any friends that are in the business you’re in now?
ROBERTSON: Not from Hendrix.
DYER: For being as small as we are, it seems like they [Hendrix alumni] are everywhere.
ROBERTSON: They’re everywhere! I’ve spent a lot of time in Hollywood because there are a lot of stories there. When you do broadcast television, you have a responsibility to do something that’s going to get a number, that works for the network, and a lot of that is often a Hollywood-related story. We did Michael Jackson live, which was 50 million people watching and Marie Lisa Presley. Diane did the defining interview with Whitney Houston, Mel Gibson, everybody you can think of, and so it’s been really interesting.
DYER: How did Hendrix and the education you got here enable you to go on and do what you’ve done?
ROBERTSON: Like it’s supposed to, it taught me something about everything. It taught me how to think, how to strategize. It just made me feel more like a competitor in a bigger world because I felt more prepared. It gave me real courage and a real sense of accomplishment. It meant something to me to graduate from here. This lovely woman who introduced me last night was so smart. I said to one of my old friends from Hendrix, I’d have been at UCA if everyone would have been as smart as she was. They wouldn’t have let me in!
DYER: Where’d you go after Hendrix?
ROBERTSON: I went to Washington D.C. and worked for David Pryor, which was great fun. He was a great senator and a great Democrat. That taught me a lot too. I read somewhere that luck is where preparedness meets opportunity, and you feel a little better prepared after Hendrix to intercept opportunity and do something with it.
DYER: What’d you do for David Pryor?
ROBERTSON: Oh, f—, everything! When you’re a junior, you do everything.
DYER: Did you right speeches for him?
ROBERTSON: I did some. I didn’t write that bio that [Hendrix] did on me. I don’t know who told them that, but I did. I helped with his schedule and his speeches. I did whatever they asked me to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever been the junior staffer in a Senate office. When they tell you sweep up, you sweep up. And I loved it until I didn’t, and one day I thought politics wasn’t my thing.
DYER: From there you went where?
ROBERTSON: I met Diane Sawyer, and she was so wonderful. She said, you’re smart, why don’t you come work for me. I was like, let me think about that, and I did. I was ready for a change. I never really thought about doing broadcast. I’d dreamt about it, and I disappeared for ten years. I don’t even remember the first ten years.
DYER: When was that when you left with Diane?
ROBERTSON: The year I went with her  was the year of OJ Simpson, so that was my first story to cover. Diane and I kicked some butt. We got the first interview with the Brown family. His [Simpson’s] girlfriend was Paula Barbieri. We did the first interview with her. It was fun. It was really competitive and really fun. We were at the same time learning a lot about our country, watching this race you play out on television every day. Then we did Michael Jackson. We had a lot of great stories right off the bat, and Diane always said, what we do is about peoples’ lives, so it has to be exactly correct. There’s no room for error. She is brilliant. It was just so exciting. I sound like an idiot.
DYER: No, no, I imagine that’s what it is—exciting.
ROBERTSON: God, it was fun, still fun! I said it last night, I found that magic thing. I want to go to work every day after 25 years. I’m still surprised constantly, and there’s always that opportunity to change something. With Caitlyn Jenner, Diane started a conversation as a country, certainly at the kitchen table in homes that we hadn’t had before.
DYER: Do you find yourself shaping the national conversation in your own way?
ROBERTSON: Yeah, you can give it direction sometimes, when you’re lucky—when you hit it at the right moment and get it just right.
DYER: What’s an average day for a Senior Executive Producer at ABC News, if you dare try to put it into a statement?
ROBERTSON: There don’t seem to be any average days, which is the thing that I like. There’s a lot of breaking news, which pulls the rug out from under everything. If you’re not working on a big story, you’re looking for one. You’re out reporting and looking and thinking. We’re a team, Diane’s team. I also work for Good Morning America, just talking about what happened that day and which part of it we want to focus on. Now Diane does bigger more thoughtful hours. She doesn’t have a daily show anymore. It’s more documentary style. It’s just all over the place, it’s what I like.
DYER: Being in the upper echelons of the TV News industry, could you tell us a little bit about what the Me Too movement, the fall of so many stars and powerful people, what that was like?
ROBERTSON: The first person we heard from was Ashley Judd, the first from Hollywood that stepped forward and pointed a finger at Harvey Weinstein. Diane did that interview, and it’s not surprising but it’s shocking. Do you know what I mean? People talk and you hear things, but you never hear anything on the record. In our business, you can’t deal with anything but fact, and it’s not a fact until it’s confirmed. Somebody like Ashley Judd steps up and says this is what happened to me. It’s changed a lot, but I read something the other day that says statistically, nothing’s changed. I just think it planted something in all of our brains, that we’re all going to be more aware of and at least the people I work around want to be more inclusive. They want to usher in some change because it’s way past time. The reason I’m hesitant [to say things have changed] is because I saw the statistics, but it’s in our brains. I think change will come because we’re all thinking about it differently. I love all those women that stand up, the Reese Witherspoons and those people who put a lot on the line.
DYER: Is the shocking quality of this because of the scale of it or the widespread aspect of the misconduct?
ROBERTSON: No, that it just happened! I’m just stunned that somebody actually says these things. I’m from Caraway! I just can’t imagine saying that to somebody. Women were not shocked. They were like, yeah! Personally, I just hated myself for not being aware. It’s way past time. Hollywood sort of magnifies everything, but those wonderful women who spoke up that are willing to put their name and their lives on the line to change things, I think they’ll get it done. I’m hopeful.
DYER: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
ROBERTSON: My pleasure!