Mollie Cooney’s co-workers call her a 'legend' and a 'pioneer.' She only wanted to be known as 'fair.'
Longtime KCCI reporter and anchor Mollie Cooney is retiring after over 40 years on the air. Throughout those years she has told countless stories and now she looks back and defines the term that defined her career. Brian Powers/The Register
Mollie Cooney isn’t good at sitting still.
Even when she’s helming KCCI’s anchor desk for the noon news — for which staying seated is sort of a requirement — she keeps a folded New York Times just out of the camera’s view and browses international news during commercials and the weather.
Cooney isn’t good at resting on her laurels, either.
For 42 years, she’s been breaking news on TV, voraciously beginning each day by chasing the next story. Largely considered the first female news anchor in Des Moines, Cooney started at KCCI by covering desegregation in the public school system. She tracked presidents and policies from Jimmy Carter through Donald Trump and saw neighborhoods and suburbs swell. She secured the first interview with the parents of the McCaughey septuplets just hours after Bobbi gave birth — beating out network anchors such as Ann Curry. And she was a pillar of calm when disaster struck, earning the nickname “Iron-pants Cooney” after spending close to nine hours on set during the 1993 floods.
On Friday, Cooney is signing off for the last time, leaving behind shards of the glass ceiling she shattered for female broadcasters in central Iowa.
Cooney was the first pregnant anchor at KCCI and, consequently, the first anchor to ask for maternity leave. She rebelled against image consultants, who focused on eyeliner instead of exposés, smiles instead of scoops and dresses instead of deadlines. And when she found herself with three little kids and a husband who worked nights, she stayed in the business, wanting to show her daughters “that they have a place in this world.”
“She paved the way for women at KCCI,” said former Channel 8 reporter Kim St. Onge. “She was a mentor to me and plenty of other women in the newsroom. She helped me more than she knows.”
Even though Cooney’s impending retirement means she won’t be in the office every day, the impact she’s had on her fellow reporters, viewers and the station writ large won’t soon be forgotten, those who know her said.
Her co-workers describe her with words such as “legend,” “trailblazer” and “pioneer.” But Cooney said she never sought those accolades and, frankly, they embarrass her a little. She only ever wanted to be known for her work, her “nose for news” — not an easy task in the early 1970s when there were still “anchormen”’ and “weather girls” and misogyny ran unbridled at some Iowa news stations, according to Iowa State University professor Tracy Lucht.
“This is not the easiest profession in the world — the hours, the demands — and some people get burned out,” said longtime KCCI photographer Donna Smith. “Mollie never tired of it. She never lost that eagerness, that enthusiasm she had when I first started in 1983. She wanted to serve her community, and she worked hard to make it look effortless.”
As for why she’s leaving, the woman who’s relied on words her whole career falls short. It’s hard to explain, Cooney said after taping the noon news recently, but she wanted to go out while she was still at the top of her game. While she "could represent the fact that people in their 60s could still contribute to their profession.”
“It’s only just hit me that I’m leaving, and it will probably be harder than I think because I’ve done this since I was 20 years old,” she said. “But it’s got to end sometime, so better to go out on a good note and on my terms.”
Cooney isn’t good at mediocre
And she won’t stand for it in her newscast.
“It would be really easy to do the noon news as sort of a repackaging of the morning’s stories and just go home,” said Dana Cardin, KCCI’s assistant news director. “But Mollie fights for the noon to be fresh every day, and she lets us know when she doesn’t think we are pushing hard enough or going after the hard angles on stories.”
Cooney’s love of investigative reporting sprung from two world-changing events: the rise of television and Watergate. As a child in the 1950s, television was coming of age right alongside Cooney. She saw journalism visually, as an amalgamation of words and moving images.
She’d already expressed her interest in the fourth estate when the Watergate scandal hit, but the Washington Post’s tireless reporting marked a “never-look-back moment” for the future anchor.
“That inspired an entire generation of young journalists,” she said. “...I remember being in awe of those headlines and reporters,” she said. “It was good versus evil, it was the little guy versus the powerful, and journalists were in the center of it all trying to find truth and getting to the bottom of it.”
Just after starting at KCCI, Cooney, her soon-to-be-husband, Kevin Cooney, and Phil Witt, who’s anchored in Kansas City for decades, formed “the young professionals.” They got to anchor on a rotation and soaked up everything they could from respected stalwarts such as Russ Van Dyke and Paul Rhoades.
“She was a tremendously talented reporter,” Phil Witt remembered. “Her stories were right on the money in terms of the questions they answered and their thoroughness. Like all of us, she focused on being a watchdog.”
To her co-workers, Cooney represents “old-school” journalism. The kind where you don’t take no for an answer. The kind when a crisis strikes, you don’t wait for a call to come in, you just show up.
“We would regularly have Mollie help anchor during a big winter storm,” remembered Cardin. “I’d call her and hop in the station’s four-wheel-drive car to pick her up. But she wouldn’t wait, she’d start walking to work through the winter storm and just hope to be found along the way.”
Cooney isn’t good at playing the 'chick role'
Before Cooney taped the noon news on a recent weekday, she dipped into the ladies room to apply her makeup. All those lights, and the high-definition broadcast, mean lots of makeup. This is her least favorite part of the job, she said with a sigh.
“Men can age on TV, but you don’t see many women aging on TV,” Cooney said. “I mean, this is what mid-60s looks like, guys. Age is not a factor for me, but the landscape is changing…there’s a fine line between entertainment and information, and I’m still in the business for the information part.”
Cooney started at KCCI the same year Barbara Walters became an evening news anchor. There’d been women on TV previously — most notable for Cooney was Nancy Dickerson, who she watched religiously — but they weren’t many, and they were regularly relegated to “chick roles,” Cooney said.
Heidi Soliday, a former KCCI sports reporter who worked with Cooney, said the pair weren’t keen on playing ladies in waiting, but they also weren’t rabble-rousers.
“You couldn’t let yourself think, ‘Oh my God, there are hardly any of us,’ because then the pressure was overwhelming,” Soliday said. “You just knew you wanted to do this and you liked it, and so you did it and you focused on the next story and the next scoop.”
During the late ‘70s, misogyny was still fairly pervasive, but the Midwest seemed to be a respite from that norm, said Lucht, the Iowa State University professor who studies women in the media.
“My working theory is because of the tradition of women working in rural areas and in trades or professions in the Midwest, the work environment was more conducive for women taking on prominent roles in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “But I also want to emphasize that it wasn’t easy for the women pioneering these roles.”
Cooney didn’t receive any direct harassment, she said, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t bumps along the way. When Cooney approached her then news director, Paul Rhoades, about maternity care, he said he honestly didn’t know the corporate policy because the station had never had a pregnant anchor. (Rhoades would go on to be "more than accommodating" throughout her pregnancy, Cooney said.)
Cooney and Soliday’s careers started before TV consultants, people regularly brought in to give today’s reporters and anchors tips on how to make themselves more attractive to viewers. After a pause, Cooney said on second thought, TV consultants might be the worst part of this job.
“I’ll never forget one of the first TV consultants came in and told the female reporters not to wear yellow because yellow was a ‘submissive color,’” she said, air-quoting. “So Heidi and I wore yellow the whole next week.”
But Cooney is good at passing the torch … she thinks
When Cooney announced her retirement last month, she wore yellow. When that’s pointed out to her, she offers a hearty laugh. At least consciously, she said, that wasn’t a choice. She just went for what was comfortable and clean.
“I’m announcing my retirement from this business, a business, a profession that I love so much,” she said in the last 30 seconds of her regular newscast. “But after 42 years in news, it’s time to fly the nest.”
Cooney has received countless cards, emails and well-wishes since then. Most people don’t get to hear about the impact they made while they still walk this earth, but one glance at the handwritten notes scattered all over Cooney’s desk show just how much she’s touched this community.
“Dear Molly, I feel you are a friend because you are the one I trust most for my news,” one postcard started. “I’m 83 and I’d hoped you be there for me the rest of my life…Des Moines was lucky to have you for so many years.”
“I write for thousands,” the card’s author signed.
Ultimately, truth was all Cooney was ever searching for in this job, she said, and if she leaves a legacy at all, she hopes it is to seek fairness and be true to yourself.
“I’ve always wanted to give viewers the story and let them make their own decisions,” she said. “To be able to do that for so long was an honor, truly, but I looked around the newsroom and saw all these wonderful young people and I just thought, ‘It’s your turn now. Take over. Take this profession to the next level.’”
As Cooney exits KCCI, she won’t have much time to rethink her position on sitting still. Her son and his wife, who already have a 5-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, are expecting twins in October.
But don’t worry, even with her responsibilities as “Gollie” — a portmanteau of Grandma and Mollie — she promises to make time to tune in to her beloved Channel 8.
“I don’t know where the industry or the station is going next, but I will be watching,” she said as a wide smile spread over her face. “That one thing is for sure: I’ll be watching.”