Norma Quarles: “I Fought To Dispel Stereotypes. I Fought It In My Work”

By Alissa Krinsky 

Where Are They Now? A TVNewser Series

As we continue TVNewser’s ongoing series “Where Are They Now?”, we talk with former NBC and CNN newswoman Norma Quarles. Next week: former ABCer Steve Bell.

It was October of 1984, and then-NBC News correspondent Norma Quarles was resting in a New York hospital bed the night before elective surgery when she got a message from the League of Women Voters. Could she, they asked, be a last-minute replacement panelist for the George BushGeraldine Ferraro Vice Presidential debate in Philadelphia the next day?

“I had an agonizing time deciding,” Quarles tells TVNewser, and the hospital staff “didn’t want to let me out!” But she did check out, driving through the night to Philly, where she stayed up prepping until dawn. The veep match-up was watched by “the biggest audience I ever had”, Quarles says, calling the experience “daunting” but also “an honor”.

It was an unexpected opportunity, one of many along the way for Norma Quarles.

A native New Yorker, Quarles, 72, made her first on-camera appearance at the age of ten, as an extra in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street. She and her father — a Macy’s employee at the time — appear in a scene at the store.

Nearly twenty years later, Quarles was 29 and living in Chicago when she decided — as “a lark!” — to answer an open call for talent at a local radio station, and was hired as a news announcer. Quarles made the jump to television reporting for NBC station WKYC in Cleveland, before going on to work at New York’s WNBC then Chicago’s WMAQ. Later she served as an NBC News correspondent in both cities.

After more than two decades with NBC, Quarles moved on in 1988 to anchor and report for CNN. She stayed until 1999, when she became a reporter for PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Quarles retired from television two years later.

Inducted as a charter member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Hall of Fame in 1990, Quarles says she was cognizant over the years of her role as a pioneer. “I was always aware of what I was doing, and I was always aware of how I was doing it. I fought to dispel stereotypes. I fought it in my work.”

She cites as an example a report she once filed on welfare recipients. “I interviewed a white welfare mother. So the powers-that-be,” Quarles says, “called me [and shouted], ‘Where did you get that woman?’

“Why didn’t I have a black woman [they wondered]…because welfare is synonymous with black women. And I said, ‘There are more white women on welfare in this country than black women.’…I know the power of a picture, and the power of words. And I wanted to dispel stereotypes. I wanted to change views.”

As she watches news these days, Quarles is glad to see greater diversity on the airwaves. “I think it’s wonderful. I’m seeing more people — not just black and women — but I’m seeing people of all ethnicities on TV. And I’m delighted to see it.”

Now living in Pennsylvania, Quarles is busy pursuing a number of projects and interests. She’s archiving her lifetime of reporting work and writing her memoirs. She speaks at women’s conferences, grows orchids in her garden, and is learning country-western line dancing. Most importantly, she enjoys spending time with her family, which includes five grandchildren.

“I’m happy to be retired,” Quarles says, “but I loved what I was doing. I really did. It was exciting, it was fun, it was a learning experience…It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”