Television Journalism as Oxymoron
A century of metaphysics
Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
ONE MARK OF A SON OF A BITCH is the pleasure he takes in pointing out how many people think he's a son of a bitch. By this measure, to judge by his new memoir Staying Tuned, the former CBS News correspondent Daniel Schorr is one first-rate, top-of-the-line, gold-plated -- but let him tell it.
[President] Johnson awoke me at midnight to say, on the telephone, "Schorr, you are one prize son of a bitch."
"You know," [CBS Washington bureau chief Bill Small] said, "I think you are one prize son of a bitch."
"Yeah," [President Nixon] mused, "the only exception, of course, was that son of a bitch Schorr."
His face ashen from fatigue and strain, [CIA chief Richard Helms] turned livid. "You son of a bitch," he raged.
I could go on, but you get the idea. (And I'm passing over John Ehrlichman, who said Schorr was a "prick." A distinction without a difference, as the scholars say.) Is it any wonder, then, that Walter Cronkite, in his back-cover blurb for Staying Tuned, describes the memoir as "Schorr's detailed report on why numerous heads of state and other officials have called him a son of a bitch." Trust Walter: That is exactly what Staying Tuned is.
Tell Me a Story, by Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes and a former colleague of Schorr's at CBS, is a different matter. Nowhere does he admit to being a son of a bitch, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. Though different in tone and style, and in quality too, the two memoirs are worth considering together as windows, fixed at different angles, into the world of television journalism, which seems to be filled with sons of bitches.
Youngsters familiar with Daniel Schorr only from his association with National Public Radio may be surprised to discover that so many people, over so long a span of time, have considered him a jerk. Since the late 1980s Schorr has been NPR's "senior news analyst." At NPR, where all political commentary must fall into one of two categories -- the obvious or the untrue -- Schorr tends to specialize in the former. Whether he's chewing the fat on Saturday mornings with his interlocutor Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition, or offering one of the several on-the-spot homilies he produces throughout the week, Schorr is usually content to summarize the same news stories the rest of us have already read and add a sprinkle of his own leftish sarcasm. He's hardly ever offensive. Sometimes he even sounds as avuncular as Cronkite himself.
Still, the disdain of his acquaintances seems to have been constant from his childhood onward. He was born to impoverished immigrant parents in 1916, and his father died when Schorr was six. To this gloomy childhood he attributes his own emotional remoteness and his uncommon sense of self-sufficiency. As managing editor of his high school yearbook, he allowed his staff to write the blurb that appeared under his class picture. When the books appeared he discovered that they had written a bit of doggerel in his honor: I love me, I love me / I'm wild about myself / I love me, I love me / I've got my picture on my shelf. He reprints these lines without comment or contradiction.
Together with his admitted egotism, an eerie detachment seems to be Schorr's primary personal attribute, and he describes it with -- no surprise here -- an eerie detachment. His first experience as a journalist came at age twelve, when he saw a woman fall to her death from the roof of his apartment building. He immediately phoned in the story to his neighborhood newspaper and got $5 for his tip. "I felt no particular sense of awe or emotion about the first dead body I had ever seen," he writes. Bright, bloodless, with a curiosity about human beings that never intensified beyond the purely clinical, Schorr had the makings of a good reporter.
Which he was -- certainly when measured against the standards of TV journalism, where most of the practitioners are happy to piggyback on the work of their colleagues in newspapers and magazines. He got a job with a Danish news service after the war and became a stringer in Europe for the New York Times. His ambition had always tilted toward newspaper work, but when CBS and Edward R. Murrow offered him a job, in 1953, he took it, and remained ever after transfixed by the "exposure and remuneration" that television uniquely offers. He began his network career covering the Army McCarthy hearings in Washington, followed by a decade abroad, first in the Soviet Union and then in Germany, returning at last to the Washington bureau in time for the launch of the Great Society. He had some scoops along the way.
There are a few good stories in Staying Tuned, and one or two funny ones, but for the most part Schorr recalls his experiences with the same talent for the obvious that has made him so indispensable to NPR. Joe McCarthy, just in case you didn't know, "brutalized people who may have had left-wing leanings at some point in their lives." Khrushchev was cunning, Adenauer imperious, Jack Kennedy ironical, Bobby passionate, Nixon devious, Agnew vulgar, and so on. He quotes often from his own broadcasts; the passages don't advance the narrative, but they do give a reader the impression that he thinks them rather finer than they are. What lends Schorr's career some special interest, though, was his own knack for creating controversy -- not a talent that TV news executives, of that generation or this, highly prize.
Nowhere in his memoir does Schorr discuss his personal politics, but anyone who has followed his career from CBS to NPR will know that they are the standard-form liberalism of the professional journalist -- that tidy little packet of principle and prejudice that gets issued along with the press card. But Schorr's views had a sharper edge, and unlike his colleagues he was clumsy about disguising them behind the niceties of journalistic convention. His first serious bout of trouble came during the presidential campaign of 1964, when the national press corps was seized by anti-Goldwater hysteria. The contagion was strong enough that Schorr caught it in Germany.
On the eve of the Republican convention in San Francisco, Schorr was asked to prepare a report on German reaction to Goldwater's impending nomination. Why German reaction? In the nation's news rooms, if nowhere else, the relationship seemed obvious: Goldwater means right-wing, right-wing means fascist, fascist means Germany. Schorr did not disappoint. The morning after his report aired, Goldwater's political enemies placed a transcript under the hotel room door of every delegate in San Francisco. Goldwater denounced CBS at a press conference and barred its reporters from his campaign. Even some executives at the network, notably its founder William Paley, grumbled privately about Schorr's reporting. (Like many great media honchos -- from Henry Luce to Harold Ross to David Sarnoff -- Paley was a Republican who hired only Democrats.)
What happened? The untutored reader of Staying Tuned can only wonder what the fuss was all about. Schorr's account here is, to put it kindly, incomplete. When CBS asked him for a story, he writes in his memoir, he learned from his reporting "that Goldwater had plans, as yet unannounced, to leave directly after the convention for a vacation in Germany as guest of...Lt. Gen. William Quinn. They would spend their time mainly at an American army recreation center in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. Berchtesgaden was famous as Hitler's favorite retreat. This, along with the obvious enthusiasm of right-wing Germans for Goldwater, I reported from Munich in my analysis."
In his own autobiography, Goldwater gives a fuller account, quoting at length from Schorr's actual report. Schorr opened the report like so: "It looks as though Senator Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany's right wing" also known, Schorr added helpfully, as "Hitler's one-time stomping ground." Goldwater, he went on, had given an interview to Der Spiegel, "appealing to right-wing elements in Germany," and had agreed to speak to a conclave of, yes, "right-wing Germans." "Thus," Schorr concluded, "there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up." Now back to you, Walter, and have a nice day!
Today Schorr's story, with its hints of paranoia, seems merely quaint, an almost comical artifact of the era that gave us The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May -- except that this was broadcast as a genuine bit of news, in the middle of a real campaign. Though easily checkable, it was false in all its particulars. Goldwater had spoken vaguely of vacationing in Europe but had made no plans to visit Germany, and he hadn't spoken to Quinn, an old friend, in more than a year. Goldwater's interview in Der Spiegel was a reprint of an interview that had appeared elsewhere, and he had not even considered addressing the group Schorr mentioned. More important, the story was false in its obvious implication of an Anschluss between German neo-Nazis and U.S. Republicans.
If Schorr was embarrassed by the Goldwater episode, his memoir shows no signs of it. In a few years he was back in Washington, reporting on a constellation of social-welfare issues that formed the Great Society initiative. He stayed on the beat through the first years of the Nixon presidency, during which social programs were enlarged beyond the wildest dreams of Lyndon Johnson. Yet the unvarying theme of Schorr's reporting was that this vast expansion of the welfare state was either nonexistent
The press's hostility toward Nixon was even more intense than its hostility to Goldwater (though Nixon-phobia, of course, was far more rational). With his nightly agitations on the CBS Evening News, Schorr became a kind of exemplar of press bias. For this the gruesome martinets who manned the parapets of the Nixon White House placed him on their famous "enemies list." Being branded an enemy by Nixon made Schorr an instant celebrity, and he was to dine out on this elevated status for the next twenty-five years and counting. (For Schorr watchers, the biggest surprise in Staying Tuned is that the author waits until his second page before mentioning the enemies list.)
His celebrity was magnified spectacularly a few years later, in yet another controversy -- one that was to end his network career. In early 1976, Schorr was leaked a copy of a report prepared by the House Intelligence Committee, which had been investigating CIA covert activities. Over the course of several nights he disgorged the contents of the report on CBS. Alarmed at the leak, and with its customary logic, the House of Representatives voted not to issue the report as scheduled but to keep it secret instead, notwithstanding that all its secrets had just been revealed. Delighted with his scoop, Schorr petitioned CBS executives to publish the report as a book, much as the New York Times had done with its purloined Pentagon Papers. When they declined, he leaked his leaked report to the Village Voice, which published it entire. CBS News executives, believing the report to be the network's proprietary work product, were not pleased. They demanded an explanation from Schorr. So did the House Ethics Committee, which summoned him to testify about how he had obtained the original report.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. Several memoirs of the period, most recently one ghostwritten for Schorr's CBS colleague Lesley Stahl, allege that Schorr, facing the wrath of his network bosses, led them to believe that Stahl herself had leaked the report to the Voice. (Her fianc was a writer for the paper.) Only after the Washington Post identified him as the leaker did Schorr admit to what he had done. CBS suspended him.
In Staying Tuned, Schorr's account of the episode is characteristically spotty. His apparent attempt to shift attention to Stahl, he writes, was all a terrible misunderstanding. But his colleagues and supervisors at CBS saw it otherwise, as a craven evasion of responsibility. In his memoir, Schorr prefers to dwell on his testimony before the committee, which foolishly persisted in its effort to compel him to reveal his source. He says now that the committee's interest in his work was particularly upsetting to his parents-in-law, who "were refugees from Nazi Germany." So, like, they had seen all this before.
Schorr's testimony before the committee was carried live on public television. It was a masterpiece of sanctimony -- the straight-backed, flared-nostril self-righteousness that many journalists can summon at will. "To betray a source," he announced, "would be, for me, to betray myself, my career, and my life." Within days he was transformed from a pariah -- the cad who tried to blame the girl -- into a First Amendment martyr. Of course, in America the martyrdom of reporters follows a peculiar course. For one thing, the martyr never gets martyred. He scarcely gets inconvenienced. Instead he gets famous, makes lots of money from speaking engagements, and for the next several years is routinely called the "conscience of..." -- his generation, his craft, his country; you can fill in the blank.
It's a great job, and by his own admission Schorr enjoyed it immensely. Johnny Carson mentioned him in monologues, and the New York Times crossword puzzle used his name as the definition of "TV Reporter." His celebrity softened the resentment of higher-ups at CBS -- nothing impresses TV people like fame -- and for a moment it seemed that Schorr might be reinstated from his suspension. But it was not to be. Schorr knew his tenure at CBS was over when, not long after his testimony, Don Hewitt and 60 Minutes said they would like him to sit for an interview.
"The Revolution is like Saturn. It eats its children," wrote the poet Buchner about Danton, guillotined by his fellow revolutionaries. Surely there is some irony in the fact that Dan Schorr, pioneer of so many patented hatchet jobs, should fall victim to a CBS hatchet job himself. But when 60 Minutes came to call, he was simply outclassed. From the program's debut in 1968, Don Hewitt and his colleagues -- especially Mike Wallace, who actually conducted the interview with Schorr -- had taken the workaday hit piece as practiced by most reporters, with its sly insinuations and careful shadings and imperceptible elisions, and buffed and polished it to a gleaming perfection.
Schorr refers to his 60 Minutes interview only glancingly in his memoir. The story is more fully told by the reporter Stephan Lesher, in his book Media Unbound, published in 1982. By the standards of 60 Minutes, the Schorr take out was rather low-tech. There were no hidden cameras, no "ambush interviews," no jumpy footage of Wallace chasing Schorr down back alleys and hotel corridors. They weren't necessary. The only technique Wallace needed was the classic "sandbag," in which a subject is lulled into complacency by a sympathetic-seeming interviewer, who then edits the taped interview to fit his (unannounced) thesis.
Wallace's interview with Schorr, Lesher notes, went on for seventy-five minutes and was cut down to thirteen. The bulk of it was given over to Schorr's ruminations about the ethics of leaking and effusive praise from Wallace: "Dan," Wallace said as the tape began to roll, "you have my profound admiration and that of your colleagues here and elsewhere." When a camera malfunctioned, requiring them to begin the interview again, Wallace repeated his encomium twice more.
None of this made it into the broadcast. The tape instead was cut to concentrate on matters much more interesting to CBS executives -- the Stahl affair, and other in-house problems Schorr had had with his superiors and colleagues at the network. It seemed an unusually parochial exercise for a program devoted to national news, and Schorr came off badly. Not coincidentally, however, the segment aired on a Sunday night before a Monday meeting scheduled between Schorr and his network bosses to discuss his professional future. "The day after 60 Minutes presented Daniel Schorr to its millions of viewers," Lesher writes, "the erstwhile knight in shining armor was battered. For CBS, there would be fewer public problems from shrugging off an unworthy than there would have been from trying to unhorse a hero." By mutual agreement, Schorr's employment at CBS was terminated.
Hewitt doesn't mention Dan Schorr in his own memoir. Having been with CBS for fifty years, and having overseen 60 Minutes for thirty-three of those, he has so much else to discuss. (So many hatchet jobs, so little time!) But it must be said that whereas Schorr's memoir is a real book -- that is, a book that appears to have been written by its author, with occasional flashes of wit and intelligence -- Hewitt's is a celebrity quickie, mostly ghostwritten and lighter than air. I say mostly ghostwritten: Mixed in among the many paragraphs about how essential "good writing" is to the TV news business, one finds passages so inept that Hewitt could only have written them himself.
Here he describes how he invented the television "chyron," a technique for superimposing letters over a televised picture: "It suddenly hit me: White letters superimposed on a black background is the way you superimpose names on the screen because the camera will not pick up the black, and you can superimpose that shot over anything you want to and show the letters and the picture simultaneously. Bingo!" You simply cannot pay ghostwriters to be this confusing.
Whoever the ghost was for Tell Me a Story (it appears, from the acknowledgments, to have been a journalist named Michael Ruby), the book employs the ruthlessly breezy tone that writers adopt when they are trying to stitch together the disconnected reminiscences and opinions of their not-terribly-involved subject. Hewitt is evidently not a reflective man, and even under the guidance of his amanuensis the narrative flops around incoherently. This is too bad. One would have hoped for a real book from Hewitt, for he is indeed the large figure that his boosters say he is. He is clearly, to judge by his book, a boor and a vulgarian, but he is also, to judge by the achievement of 60 Minutes over three decades, a genius, too. No man has had a greater influence over the way television presents the news.
Hewitt didn't revolutionize television journalism so much as extend it and intensify it, by drawing out the elements of show business and entertainment that had always been latent within it and making them essential to the telling of news stories. He cites the patron saint of TV news, Ed Murrow, as an inspiration. Murrow did genuine news reporting on his show See It Now, which solidified his reputation as a newsman; and he did fluffy celebrity interviews on his show Person to Person, which made him lots of money. Hewitt had an epiphany: "Why not put them together in one broadcast and reap the benefits of being both prestigious and popular?" The insouciance here is almost endearing: From the start Hewitt thought of journalism not as a means of advancing the public good or elevating the citizenry -- none of that Fred Friendly, high-minded baloney for him. Serious journalism was a way
Hewitt's genius was to take the documentary format and "make the information more palatable and feed it [to viewers] in shorter and more digestible bites." He was a master at constructing brief narratives -- few segments on 60 Minutes run longer than thirteen minutes -- and he surrounded himself with producers who had the same gift, along with on-air correspondents who had gravelly voices and looked marvelous in trenchcoats. (On 60 Minutes, of course, producers actually report the story, and Mike and Morley and the other fellas parachute in to do interviews and narrate the text when the cameras start to roll.) The show's success built slowly until, after ten years on the air, it became the most profitable show in the history of television.
Hewitt's method -- revised and adapted, to be sure, by practitioners less skilled than he -- has since become a kind of house style for features on television news, from the local cable channels on up to the flagship nightly news broadcasts on the networks. There are a few drawbacks to his approach. First, to condense a gripping ten-minute story from a large mass of information, Hewitt's producers have to construct a moral universe that is, to say least, uncomplicated. While facts can't be invented, facts that gum up the story line must be carefully ignored. There are bad guys (usually businessmen, sometimes doctors; soldiers sometimes, too) and good guys (Mike and Morley and the gang), and more often than not the good must triumph over the bad. There's never much question about what emotions the producers are trying to extract from the viewer: awe, revulsion, contempt, admiration. This manipulation, in fact, becomes the point of the story.
The second drawback is related to the first. Because the primary purpose of a successful 60 Minutes segment is not to convey interesting or useful information but to manipulate a reaction from the viewers, the chances of any given story being true -- the chances of it presenting an accurate picture of reality -- are only about fifty-fifty. The story's relation to events in the real world is always incidental.
For a journalistic enterprise, this would be a problem. But it has become the condition of television news programming, which is seldom informative but never fails to entertain. (Hewitt's innovations, by the way, are ideologically neutral; they can work just as well on the other side of the political divide, as witness the equally manipulative reports from the right-wing libertarian John Stossel on ABC's 20/20.)
Not surprisingly, 60 Minutes has often been sued. Its defenders point out that it has never lost a lawsuit in court, but this is a consequence of CBS's massive legal arsenal and the near-impossibility of bringing a successful case under American libel law. The casualties of 60 Minutes's distortions have sometimes managed to develop methods of their own anyway. Interestingly, Hewitt in his book mentions only one example -- the Illinois Power Company, of Clinton, Illinois, whose huge cost overruns in the construction of a nuclear power plant brought the attention of 60 Minutes in 1979.
The theme of the segment was, of course, the dangers and expense of nuclear power, and the emotions, drawn from the viewer with customary Pavlovian relentlessness, were indignation and fright. But the story was inaccurate in many of particulars, as well as its overriding allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance. "We did make some factual errors in reporting the Illinois Power story," Hewitt writes, adding, not coherently, "although we were right on the facts -- the plant was years behind schedule and the cost overruns were huge -- we made some mistakes and frankly admitted that we had."
Hewitt's account of the controversy is inaccurate, too. He and his producers admitted their mistakes only after Illinois Power publicized a videotaped rebuttal to the 60 Minutes story. The rebuttal included tape it had made of 60 Minutes producers filming interviews of Illinois Power executives, which demonstrated the tendentious editing their comments had received. It showed that the three on-air sources used by the program either had no expertise, no firsthand knowledge for their allegations, or were anti-nuclear political activists who were not identified as such. The causes of the cost overruns were misidentified, and the producers apparently misunderstood the plant's construction schedules.
There was of course a good story to be told about the exploding costs and schedule delays that almost killed the nuclear power industry in 1979. As Lesher notes in Media Unbound, "The elements existed for a sound story filled with furious and significant disagreement among company officials, [state power] commissioners, environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists, citizens groups, and others." This story would have been complicated, however, and difficult to tell. And not at all entertaining. The same could be said of countless other 60 Minutes stories that have been proved fallacious: its expos on "sudden acceleration" in Audi automobiles, for example, or its fire-bell warnings about the danger of the pesticide Alar on apples.
Hewitt, like Schorr, is hard to embarrass. But one project in recent years seems to have upset him mightily: the 1999 Hollywood movie The Insider, about an aborted 60 Minutes investigation of the tobacco industry that was supposed to air in 1995. The segment was delayed for three months when Hewitt and CBS executives became worried that it might expose the network to a lawsuit from a tobacco company. The producer who put together the story eventually resigned in protest, but not before portraying Hewitt in newspaper and magazine articles as a tool of the corporate power structure. The Insider casts the producer's story as a heroic struggle against capitalist villainy.
Don Hewitt -- corporate tool? He is outraged, and in Tell Me a Story he writes about the controversy with unaccustomed heat. "Much of The Insider is simply wrong. They took so many liberties with my position that I was portrayed as a CBS lackey, which people at my company and other networks know damn well is far from the truth....A lie is a lie."
For a certain kind of audience, The Insider must be a marvelously effective movie. It is expertly paced, beautifully photographed, acted with uncanny skill. It constructs a small, uncomplicated moral universe with good guys (the 60 Minutes producer and a whistle-blower) and very bad guys (corporate executives and Don Hewitt), and the good guys win in the end. It is entertaining above all, and most likely has nothing to do with the events as they actually happened. It resembles nothing so much as a 60 Minutes segment stretched out and turned into a movie.
No wonder Hewitt is outraged. The Revolution, once again, is eating its children. In his memoir, he objects that the actor who portrayed him in The Insider was physically unappealing, but it seemed to this viewer, having read the book and then seen the movie, that the actor had Hewitt down cold. At one point, the Hewitt character objects that something has leaked to the press. "The AP's got the story," he shouts, "and they've been calling Mike and I!" I bet it's the only authentic line in the movie.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.