All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up

24 July 2010

A Beloved Enemy-In Appreciation, Daniel Schorr

"How can you be a journalist if you want to have everybody love you all the time?" Schorr asked.

During the Nixon administration Daniel Schorr was CBS' chief Watergate correspondent. He himself became a part of the story when in June of 1973 Schorr rushed on to a live broadcast of the CBS Evening News with yet another of his famous scoops-this time a copy of the Nixon administration's "Enemies List". Schorr read the list of 20 on the air only to come across number 17 on the list-"Schorr, Daniel. Columbia Broadcasting System. A real media enemy."  He was stunned but continued reading the remainder of the list. "I managed not to gasp," he later wrote. "I broke into a big sweat. This was the most electrifying moment in my career."

"What I learned about that was, first of all, that power exercised in secret is frequently exercised in the stupid -- most stupid possible way,"

"He had a great way of irritating government officials because he always came up with the truth," said CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer

In well over 60 years this broadcast pioneer never stopped to think about making friends among those he covered, or those he worked for...he was about telling the story, telling the truth and he did it with a characteristic bluntness that wasn't necessarily tailored to the flash and style that would become television reporting. He was combative, often irritating and arrogant at times, as he broke major news stories and spoke his mind.  He provoked Presidents, foreign leaders, the KGB, the CIA, and his own employers at CBS and CNN. His style may not have always gone over well with those he covered and even those he worked for--he was  barred  from the Soviet Union when as CBS Moscow bureau chief he garnered a rare interview with  Kruschev and publicly condemned the Soviet Union for their censorship. Presidents from Eisenhower to Gerald Ford were not pleased with him - LBJ  called him an S.O.B. because he reported info that the White House wanted buried. From the CIA and the FBI, to network executives from William Paley to Ted Turner he battled with the best of them. Even his own fellowship of journalists bristled at Schorr's "tell it like it is" style.  In a speech at Duke University he implied that CBS had pressured his own colleagues, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite among them, to be easy on Richard Nixon the night of his resignation. This of course did not sit well in the halls of CBS.

Schorr started his impressive career very young at the age of 12 when a woman fell from a Brooklyn building near his home and he called the tip in to the local press and was paid $5. He went on to become one of Murrow's Boys, open the first Moscow Bureau, famously cover Watergate, become CNN's first personality and become NPR's senior news analyst.

Daniel Schorr always remained true to himself and his belief in the right way to report news. In l976 he found himself the "story" again when he published a previously suppressed congressional report on CIA assassinations leading to his resignation at CBS because he felt the network was too timid. When CBS would not broadcast the full documents He then gave the story to The Village Voice and was condemned by his colleagues for accepting money for the leaked papers. Speaking before a House Ethics Committee Schorr said, "To betray a source would be to betray myself, my career and my life...I cannot do it."

In his memoir Staying Tuned Schorr wrote "It must mean something that, unable to accept the dictates of my bosses, I ended up in confrontations with Bill Paley after a quarter-century at CBS and with Ted Turner after six years with CNN...It may be that I am just hard to get along with, but to me it always seemed that some principle was involved."

Through all the turmoil that he reported on and that his career survived he never lost his tenacity or his determination to reveal the truth and speak his mind. After the Supreme Court ruled against continuing the Florida Presidential election vote in 2000, Schorr called it "a judicial coup . . . . led by a Gang of Five."

Throughout a career that saw so much change in not only this country but also how the news is reported Daniel Schorr stayed true to who he was and never tip toed through a story. He was a strident defender of Free Speech even when he didn't agree with what was said.

"If even in America, a president can conspire," against reporters, "then God knows what happens" in other nations, he said.

For the past 25 years Daniel Schorr has been a commentator and senior news analyst on NPR, a role that allowed Schorr to breathe as a journalist and he became a beloved voice each week as one of the very few journalists that could honestly reflect on the history and stories of this country from 1950 to the Twitter age-he recently gave up his typewriter and got a Twitter account.

"Nobody else in broadcast journalism – or perhaps any field – had as much experience and wisdom... He was playful, funny and kind. In a business that's known for burning out people, Dan Schorr shined for nearly a century...Scott Simon, NPR "He had no boss but the First Amendment," Simon said. "He felt his duty was to the news."

In a 2003 interview, Daniel Schorr talked about  his role at NPR and called it "a satisfying home for the evening of my career. I no longer pursue scoops, but concentrate on the context and the meaning of things. I interact with journalists a third to half my age who seem to regard me as a walking history book.

"If asked, I tell them what lessons I have learned over the past 60-odd years. And since there are today more pressures than ever to conform, to avoid rocking the boat, I'm prone to advise: At least once in your lifetime take a risk for a principle you believe in, even if it brings you up against your bosses."

For those of us who missed his Murrow and CBS years, and only really came to discover his "voice" through NPR, it was a joy to listen to him each week as he reported and commented in a style that was uniquely his but that also reflected a period of American journalism, and an extraordinary generation of reporters, that we will not see again. That voice will be missed.