Schorr Staying Tuned
Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism. By Daniel Schorr. (Pocket Books, 2001, 353 pages) $26.95.
In 1962, journalist Daniel Schorr interviewed East German leader Walter Ulbricht on television. In the final version, Schorr would ask a tough question, and Ulbricht would rail in anger. Reaction shots showed Schorr serenely nodding back, unshaken and in control.
CBS Chairman William Paley praised Schorr for this interview, particularly Schorr’s calm demeanor under fire. Schorr had to update Paley on the realities of the game of television news. It is a rigged game that always favors the home team, which controls the film and how it is edited.
"Thank you, Mr. Paley," Schorr said, "but surely you understand that my reactions were filmed after Ulbricht had left the room and were spliced for editing purposes." In other words, cutting and editing can make anyone appear foolish or brilliant. It took a while for even the great Paley to understand that.
How many times does one see reaction shots of TV reporters taking notes during an interview? When I’ve gone to press conferences through the years, I have yet to see any TV news reporter who seems interested in taking notes.
This anecdote is discussed in the new autobiography of Daniel Schorr, now known as the pompous and predictable commentator on National Public Radio. There is a delicious irony to his book, one that this winner of countless electronic journalism awards probably doesn't appreciate. These pages typify the low level of understanding and analysis that too often dominate the journalism industry.
Indeed, Schorr’s book is the mental equivalent of junk food. It recounts a series of incidents in the life of Daniel Schorr, television news star until recently and now, significantly enough, a star of government radio. This book is bad for the same reason that Walter Cronkite’s much-ballyhooed book, A Reporter’s Life, is bad: It is boring and banal, and there is far too much of the reporter's quasi-rock-star life trumping the news—of the news personality becoming bigger than the event.
What strikes one reading this little book is how someone like Schorr, who was at the center of so many important events and lived in so many foreign countries, seems to have so few ideas. One never comes across a substantial thought in these pages. There is no mention of any important philosopher, economist, historian, or thinker.
Here’s a man who lived in a totalitarian nation for many years, yet there is no in-depth discussion of communism or capitalism or the gulag. There’s only endless discussion of his "scoops" and his battles with networks. Again, Schorr and his book remind one of that poor fish Cronkite. (Not all former network news heavyweights are Babbitts. The memoirs of Howard K. Smith, another liberal, are actually quite interesting. At least he has some ideas, even if one disagrees with them).
Schorr, without doubt, was one of the authors of a famous smear of Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign. In 1963 and 1964, Cronkite reported that Goldwater hadn't attended President Kennedy's funeral. What he neglected to mention was that Goldwater had been attending his mother's funeral. Schorr himself ran a report claiming that Goldwater was linking up with the German right wing; that he was meeting with them at Hitler's former residence and was becoming buddies with fascists.
"In reporting that right-wing German groups were rallying to Goldwater, I had not intended to suggest that he was cultivating ties with them," Schorr writes. Schorr's apologia pro vita sua is difficult to swallow. One thinks that it is much easier for him to palm it off on the credulous, now that Goldwater is gone.
But no defense can change this: Schorr never took the time to obtain Goldwater's comments before he broadcast the report. In fact, CBS never bothered to run the story by their own Goldwater correspondent Robert Pierpoint. Goldwater called Schorr's report "irresponsible."
Pierpoint—who, I emphasize, was also a CBS reporter—said, "To this day I can't blame Barry Goldwater and his people. I'm not going to defend Schorr and I really have trouble defending CBS for putting the report on the air." By the way, Pierpoint's comments are not included in Schorr's less-than-complete account of the incident in this book.
Despite all the travails of tube news, and despite Schorr’s own problems with CBS News and CNN, where he worked for a few years after Black Rock, Schorr is still a television-news believer. By the end of this boring book, Schorr is no longer in TV news; nevertheless, he avers that he going to keep the tube on; he'll try his best to keep watching the box.
So, along with the much of the rest of the country, he'll continue to depend on a blabby box with wires to explain to him how the world works, even though most people today understand that TV is superficial and biased and is a prime agent in the dumbing down of America. Schorr will continue to tune in? That seems appropriate.
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