CNN Newsroom anchor John Berman is rhapsodizing about his three passions: politics, elections, and sports, while sipping black coffee at Tazza Café, near his home in Armonk. The 2016 election season certainly provided a lot of fodder for discussion. “I loved politics and elections as far back as I can remember,” he says. “It’s the same reason I love sports. It’s the competition, the twists, and the turns, ‘the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,’ to quote Wide World of Sports. There is strategy: trying to guess what your opponent will do while also trying to surprise him or her.”
A low-key presence in jeans, sweatshirt, and hiking shoes, Berman mentions another, newer passion: his lawn. “I’m obsessed,” he admits. “It’s very green. I massage basically every blade of grass. It’s a sickness, and I can’t say it brings me joy; it’s mostly that I can’t stop.”
That’s typical John Berman — smart, serious, and sometimes irreverent, leavening his conversation with the same dry, wry humor and quick wit he displays during his hard-hitting work as coanchor of CNN Newsroom with Poppy Harlow and Early Start with Christine Romans. “I think people want to see who you are,” he says. Recently, Berman was seen pulling prime-time duty, anchoring the network’s Hurricane Harvey coverage.
Berman traces his passion for politics to his family, including mom Jane Lewis, dad Gerry Berman, and older sister Mindy. “No one in my family was ever involved with politics, but everyone was interested in current events, and I loved it — so that’s what got me interested in the news.” Raised in Carlisle, MA, Berman’s other love, sports, stems from his family’s longtime devotion to Beantown teams, despite a surfeit of losing seasons. So devoted, in fact, he says, “In 1978, the Bucky Dent game with the Yankees, the one-game playoff, was around the time my parents got divorced, so I was convinced that nothing works out the way you want it to. That’s when I learned that life isn’t fair,” he comments candidly. “It teaches you lessons. But now its all good: The Red Sox win; the Patriots win; I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Berman attended Carlisle schools through eighth grade and boarded at Phillips Academy Andover before taking up Social Studies at Harvard, where he wrote his thesis on elections.
Unclear on a career path after graduation, in 1995, he moved to New York City to be near his college sweetheart and attend Columbia Law School. He decided to defer school in order to cover elections, finally getting an interview at ABC News as an intern. He was able to parlay that launchpad by persuading a woman named Amy Entelis to hire him as an overnight desk assistant (Entelis also brought him to CNN in 2012), where he began as coanchor on At This Hour with Kate Bolduan before moving on to Early Start and now CNN Newsroom. In addition to his current duties, he frequently fills in for Anderson Cooper, among others.
A career in journalism was not originally on his mind. “When I was at ABC, I went there for the politics, but I ended up falling in love with the journalism and learned it there,” he shares. Not a bad training ground. “I got to sit next to Peter Jennings for a few years.… There is nothing that would rattle him on-air, and it was so important to watch him assimilate the information as it was coming in.”
Berman elaborates, using, naturally, a sports analogy. “Ted Williams used to say that when he was at bat, the pitch would slow down, and he could see the stitches on it. That’s what Peter was like with news: The news would slow down, and he could see the stitches in it in a way no one else could, and that was incredible.”
Eventually eschewing law school, Berman worked as a researcher in the 1996 elections political unit and for World News Tonight before becoming a writer on the program. “After a week of sort of trying out, I just never stopped doing it,” he recalls. The third member of the show’s writing staff, he was serendipitously promoted to senior writer three months later, at age 23, when one writer left for another job, and the other retired.
Next, he was an off-air (embedded) reporter on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. “An amazing gig because your job is just to be there every second. You end up being the keeper of all campaign knowledge, not just for your own network but for other beat reporters who rely on you journalistically,” he observes. “That was an incredibly rewarding experience.
“The one thing it wasn’t great for,” he adds, “is that I had always planned to ask my then-girlfriend to marry me after the election. Then, there was a freaking recount!” He finally proposed during the transition.
Berman and wife Kerry Voss were members of the famous Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard. “I was in that [show], and my wife was a costumer. I’m one of the few people who can say they met their wife while doing a drag show,” he says, straight-faced.
Parents of 10-year-old twin sons, the couple moved from the city to Armonk during 2011’s Halloween nor’easter. Closer to family in New England, they were “happy to have a yard, and it’s a great school district,” he says. He notes that both his hometown, which is next to Concord, and Armonk have lots of Revolutionary history. “It seems I’m only going to live in places where George Washington slept. I draw the line there,” he jokes.
Berman is more serious when he talks about relishing living in Westchester. “Most of our life around here is centered on the boys, soccer, baseball [he’s an assistant coach], and school.” In February, he moved from coanchoring Early Start, which airs at 4 a.m., to CNN Newsroom at 9 a.m., now rising at 4 a.m. instead of 1:33 a.m. (yes, 1:33). Unless he’s subbing on another show, he’s home in the afternoons to spend time with his kids. “It’s great for me; I think it’s good for them,” jokes Berman.
“We’re discovering the various parks, Westmoreland, Ward Pound Ridge — there seems to be an endless supply,” he raves. They love the Armonk Art Show, restaurants Zero Otto Nove and Truck, and the North Castle Library. “You can check books out digitally; you know that?” he asks. “You can read books for free on your phones and devices. Yay, Westchester Library System!”
He and Kerry have run in the Bedford Turkey Trot, and he’s served as the emcee at the fundraising gala for The Friends of Karen in North Salem. In 2015, he won $50,000 for the charity on Celebrity Jeopardy.
In 2001, Berman transitioned to on-air work, a natural progression of the writing and reporting he was enjoying. “But it wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t good. I mean, really; I wasn’t,” he says. After plenty of on-camera assignments following 9/11 and a tour embedded with Marines out of Camp Lejune during the Iraq invasion, he felt he could make a go of it.
At ABC News, Berman won an Edward R. Murrow Award for best team broadcast coverage (2004), as well as a James Beard Award (2010) for a story about hamburgers and the recession. Reporting highlights include covering the World Cup in South Africa and interviewing Stephen Sondheim.
Berman reads The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and the New York Times “completely and thoroughly” nightly, then checks into CNN. “I love live news, breaking news, and live events. There’s just so much stuff going on in the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. period,” he says, “so my favorite shows are when we’re really just guiding viewers through this moving circus of events.” During commercials, he’s writing and rewriting copy, reacting to incoming information, talking with coanchor Poppy Harlow and producers or posting a newsworthy nugget on Twitter.
Discussing the current state of journalism, Berman is thoughtful and measured yet energized. “I think what we do is important,” he reflects. “Our job is to report the facts, get as much information as we can and hold powerful people to account. It’s a simple goal. Getting there is hard. I don’t think there is ever a more exciting time to be doing it.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and sons in Briarcliff Manor.