Rita Cosby, '89
Originally published in July 2007
The term homecoming is one that is so often associated with alumni, conjuring images of parade floats, reunion get-togethers with classmates from years gone by, and the allure of a football matchup as the premiere event at which all the festivities culminate. For award-winning journalist Rita Cosby, ’89, homecoming is all of this… but also much more.
As someone who supports the University of South Carolina in countless ways, Rita may experience homecoming in the spring, such as this year, when she returned for the School of Journalism’s I-Comm Week as a featured speaker to inspire hundreds of students. Or it can be in the form of returning as a special guest teacher, such as in 2004, when Rita took part in the hands-on education of future broadcasters through the school’s Senior Semester program. Rita’s Carolina homecoming also took place when she returned as an honoree when the Alumni Association recognized her with the Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 1998.
Whatever shape they take, the visits Rita Cosby makes when she returns to her alma mater are with great attention and time paid to the people involved, displaying a deep affection for the school she calls “the USC.”
“My goal in coming here is to learn as much from the students as hopefully they learn from me,” Rita explains. “Every time that I come here is also just such a great experience for me, to see these great students, and see future broadcast stars and be able to pick out who I know is going to succeed in the business, and that’s really inspiring and fun for me. I’m also thrilled to be able to give something back.”
To the hard-hitting journalist known for her investigative questioning on cable news powerhouses MSNBC and Fox News, feeling the inclination to give back to Carolina has been as natural as digging for answers.
“I have always remained in touch with USC,” Rita explains of her early decision to continually stay connected to her alma mater. “I am so grateful for the fantastic education and friendships that I developed here. I know that I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the fantastic base that I got here at USC.”
Crediting the Carolinian magazine as one of her favorite member benefits, Rita says she enjoys leafing through it to catch up on the lives of her classmates.
“I remember when the Alumni Association contacted me soon after I graduated, and at that time, I think I was interning for Dan Rather. Of course, I said, absolutely, I want to be a part of this. It’s always a neat way to reconnect with some of my old colleagues and friends, and also to find out what the institution is doing, because I so much believe in USC. I think this is one of the best colleges in the country. I think it has so much promise. It has such a wonderful past, and I’m so proud to have been a graduate of this school and will always do what I can to help it.”
The Reachable Star
That sense of gratitude to Carolina and true commitment to the school might just be what’s so surprising about the alumna made famous by her work ethic, ability to ask the tough questions and, of course, that voice – the one that distinguishes her from all other broadcasters in the business.
“It’s exciting for me to see the growth and the attention that USC has gotten, and the respect that it’s also gotten,” Rita says of the constant evolution of Carolina.
“When I was coming to college here, a number of people knew about the university, but now when I walk around and say, ‘I’m a proud graduate of the USC,’ people really know what I’m talking about, and I think it’s nice to see the great reputation that it’s gotten throughout the country – not just the journalism school, but other schools, as well. And I’m trying to do my part to get the word out!”
For its part, the School of Journalism itself has benefited from Rita’s enthusiasm for the breeding ground of her exceptional career.
“For all the places Rita Cosby has been, Columbia, this university, and especially the School of Journalism and Mass Communications remain special places for her. It shows every time Rita comes home and shares her experiences with our current students,” says Dean Charles Bierbauer of the College of Journalism and Information Studies. “That’s just about the most valuable thing any of our alumni can give back to us.”
In fact, Rita has been so engaged with the goings on at Carolina that in 2005, when Dean Bierbauer asked her back on a whim to celebrate a former dean’s birthday, she changed her plans without a second thought.
“I was coming to Columbia the next day to join with the WWE wrestlers and go with them over to Afghanistan on the front lines and, ironically, Dean Bierbauer messaged me and said, ‘We are having a surprise birthday party for Dean Shoquist, your old dean, and we would love for you to come. Is there any chance?’ And he just thought there was this remote chance.”
It turns out the timing was perfect.
“I ended up flying in a day earlier and surprising my dean, and that was a really wonderful experience. After, it was funny, like old times, because my dean was giving me advice, telling me to be safe because the next day I was leaving for the war zone in Afghanistan. It was really great to be able to see him and wish him a happy birthday.”
For all the big-name public figures with whom Rita Cosby has spent time over the years in the form of work assignments, perhaps her most shining moments have been those captured not by a video camera, but by the influence she has had on young people.
Spotting future talent has long been a favorite pastime of this country, and now television shows such as Fox’s “American Idol” prove that it’s still riveting to watch stars rise right before one’s eyes. Rita herself has had the firsthand opportunity to spot excellence in young journalists, and she found one here at Carolina three years ago when she taught a class in the Journalism school.
“Sometimes you can almost tell right away,” she says of the star-search phenomenon. There’s one standout in particular to whom Rita points when backing up this declaration: Kenneth Moton, ‘04.
“I remember when I was here, I could just tell that he was full of questions, full of enthusiasm, and that he really, really cared about his work,” Rita explains. “He was one of those folks that asked me so many questions about the writing and the news gathering. Kenneth not only seemed to have a great enthusiastic attitude, but he also was sharp, bright and very much dedicated to high ethical standards. He really cared about the important things in this business, and I thought, ‘This guy is going to go far.’”
It turns out that Rita’s prediction has proven quite on target, and that her influence on Kenneth has been a driving factor in his young, successful career to date.
Currently a general assignment reporter for News 14 Carolina in Raleigh, Kenneth has accepted a comparable position in the larger Orlando market for WFTV beginning in August. Sharing some of his Rita Cosby moments with us, he clearly values the alumni-student connection that began when he was a senior at Carolina and has since blossomed into a professional relationship with one of the most recognizable broadcasters in television news.
“Meeting Rita Cosby was one of the best experiences that could have happened to me,” Kenneth explains. “She was inspirational and motivational to my broadcast class. She told us we could call or e-mail her any time and ask advice. When I took the initiative to do that, she kept her promise, helping every step of the way.”
Kenneth has since sent resume tapes to Rita for review, and she has served in a mentoring capacity for him in his career, even still today.
“Rita has continually given me sound advice about the next move I should make when it comes to TV news markets. I appreciate her, and any time I see her aggressively go after a story on national TV, it makes me proud to say we went to the same school. Rita proves the journalism program at USC has been top-notch for a long time and that the school is graduating professionals who are making a difference in this world.”
Clearly, there’s something special about Rita’s dedication to Carolina and her involvement with the broadcasting contingent it graduates.
“So sometimes you can tell,” Rita reiterates. “I think journalism is such a demanding job and such a crazy, frenetic job with such unpredictable hours and unpredictable cities that you are living in and traveling to that you have to really love it. Usually you can see in their eyes – in the students – who really loves it and who is really ready for the tough, but great, road ahead.”
With her constant attention to grooming others, has Rita ever seen herself in these future broadcasters? Not surprisingly, it turns out she had quite a few encouraging leaders herself when she was an undergraduate, toiling in the Coliseum during the day and editing The Gamecock in the Russell House after school.
“I felt my student life was good preparation for my career life because I think I was even a workaholic back then. I was usually the first one to class, doing tons of internships, serving as editor of The Gamecock, doing stuff for WUSC Radio, taking part in a couple different honors societies, and getting a Spanish degree at the same time. So I think I was one of those people who really took advantage of everything that USC had to offer. I remember my teachers back then saying, this is good preparation for you, for your future life. And I don’t think I really realized what they meant, but now I really do.”
Gamecocks in High Places
A certain other high-profile journalist from Carolina was recently seen kicking up her heels in ABC’s reality smash “Dancing with the Stars.” Not too far removed from Rita’s graduation date, former Entertainment Tonight host Leeza Gibbons, ’78, and Rita Cosby have danced in the same circles for much of their careers. So do the two share a Carolina bond?
“I actually met Leeza soon after I graduated when I was out in California, and we hit it off instantly. Both of us were obviously bragging about our time at the University of South Carolina, and we both had the same teacher who was our favorite, Dr. Lee Dudek.”
In 1990, both Rita and Leeza, along with former CNN correspondent Karen Maginnis Murray, established a perpetual scholarship in honor of their most esteemed professor. Today, that scholarship continues to help fund the education of promising journalism students.
“So the two of us became instant friends, and we also have the same dedication to USC. We have run into each other a number of times where she had done interviews on Fox News and NBC when I worked there, so our paths have crossed a lot and we have maintained a friendship and also a mutual respect for this place.”
Another honor the two share is having been awarded with the Outstanding Young Alumni Award at Homecoming. In 1998, when Rita received it, she saw a familiar face on the stage.
“It was terrific to come back and receive an award from the place that I love so much, and I received it the same night that Sterling Sharpe, ’87, also received an award. Sterling and I were friends in college and have remained friends since, so it was really special to have the two of us walk up there together, as I remember many days walking through the Horseshoe with Sterling, talking about different things.”
Rita met the Gamecock and NFL football great as a reporter and editor of The Gamecock, interviewing him for stories. Neither knew the other would be presented an alumni award on Homecoming Weekend 1998, and the moment served as a reflection of their successes.
“It was a real blessing,” Rita concludes. “I was really honored to have been chosen amongst all the terrific graduates from all the different areas here at USC. I’m proud to say there are a lot of people doing great things here.”
As Rita shines in her career accomplishments, she has proven that the exemplary attention she shows to her alma mater–especially the students–is an admirable characteristic that makes her so revered by those at Carolina today.
It’s safe to say, then, that Rita herself is one that stands out among many doing such great things for the University of South Carolina.