01 December 2009

Bernie Birnbaum

Bernard Birnbaum died on Thanksgiving Day, at the age of 89. One of CBS News’ longest-serving and most valuable producers, he helped Charles Kuralt to create the popular “On the Road” reports, and he worked closely with Dan Rather on several important assignments, including coverage of the civil rights movement in the South, the aftermath of the assassination of John Kennedy, and the Vietnam War.

When I knew him, Bernie was an anomaly, an absent-minded professor in a corporate culture that favored appearance over intellect, action over thought, and speed over diligence. That alone was reason to like him, and I looked forward to his visits to our office — though I avoided visiting him in his, a cluttered nest of books and papers, from which it was said no one but him had ever emerged. He was so widely known as “Bernie” that to hear him now called by his full name was surprising: “Bernard Birnbaum? Who’s that?”

There was nothing he didn’t know about the stories he’d covered, and few details eluded him in the retelling, even decades after the fact. You didn’t mention the Kennedy assassination in his presence if you didn’t have a few hours free, because once Bernie started, he really couldn’t be stopped.

He devoted much of his career to investigating that crime, and he was prone to point out, whenever public-opinion surveys reported (as they so often do) that a majority of Americans disbelieve the Warren Commission Report, that a majority of Americans haven’t read the thing and don’t really know what it says. Bernie had read it, of course, as well as every other document in and about the case. He also interviewed many of the principal figures and hundreds of witnesses and experts; to conduct his own ballistics tests, he even rigged a life-size model of the motorcade route, with a six-story tower to stand in for the School Book Depository. No detective assigned to the case knew more about it than Bernie.

His conclusion chimed with that of the Commission: to believe any of the other theories about the assassination, he said, would require one to set aside some part of the hard evidence. And having examined every bit of that evidence, Bernie would not set aside a particle of it. Dutifully, he reviewed it again and again, as the News Division periodically prepared commemorative documentaries. Yes, he was willing to entertain new theories, even those that concluded that Oswald did not act alone, but to my knowledge, no other explanation ever passed his muster.

Short and stout and almost Muppet-like, he stumped through the halls of the Broadcast Center, his rumpled jacket stuffed with notes and papers. By the 1990s he’d renounced two trademarks from the 1960s: his cigars (and none too fondly recollected by his colleagues) and his “practical” footwear, the “moon boots” that Dan Rather was still teasing him about, decades later.

It’s telling, I think, that Bernie worked so closely with the two men in the building who most wanted to be writers: Rather and Kuralt. Words mattered to all three of those guys, in a way that they don’t matter to other people in television. Bernie was a throwback to a different kind of journalism, not just the print variety but the harum-scarum of TV news, when much of the technology and most of the forms hadn’t been invented, when everything but the truth was improvised. The News Division hardly knew what to make of him, by the time I got there, and though the network suits kept him on (after his lawyers helpfully reminded them of a little thing called age discrimination), they didn’t hire anyone else like him.

Probably there was no one, for he was singular. The news was better when he reported it — tougher, smarter, more caring and more honest. You’re going to miss him.

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