The Magazine

Television Journalism as Oxymoron

A century of metaphysics

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