The Magazine

Television Journalism as Oxymoron

A century of metaphysics

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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."

And again:

"You know," [CBS Washington bureau chief Bill Small] said, "I think you are one prize son of a bitch."

Again:

"Yeah," [President Nixon] mused, "the only exception, of course, was that son of a bitch Schorr."

And again:

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.