17 March 2010

John Mosedale

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
John in a playful mood
Photo courtesy of the Mosedale Family

Television news is fundamentally deceptive, since the viewer sees only one or two of the people who make it possible. Except when something goes wrong, the producers, writers, bureau chiefs, researchers, assistants, directors, camera and Teleprompter operators, sound technicians, hair stylists, makeup artists, and set decorators remain invisible and nearly anonymous: at home, we see only the anchor or the reporter.

This is why I don’t have a picture of John Mosedale [UPDATE: I do now, as you see at the top of the page], one of the most gifted and generous writers I’ve ever known; he died on the Ides of March. A polymath equally at home in conversations about sports or about Shakespeare, John wrote books on football and baseball, a memoir, a novel, and theater criticism — and last but not least, words for Dan Rather to speak on the CBS Evening News.

Writing for the Evening News was challenging work, because the script was uncommonly mutable. Taped pieces might run long or short, urgent news might break, other stories might be cut, all circumstances that required revision of the anchor’s text, up to and during the live broadcast. Dan himself, being a writer and, moreover, the managing editor, was inclined to make last-minute changes, and a pen stroke or an ad lib from him could wipe out the punchy, balanced sentence that another man had spent the day laboring over.

In short, the newsroom is no place for a would-be Shakespeare. And yet writing television news is an art: that of concision and compression, of distillation and summation, of truth and clarity above all. The prose is rarely quotable, and stylish only when all other requirements have been met. If you have much of an ego, you’re better off pursuing some other line of work — such as anchoring, or blogging.

The CBS Broadcast Center, New York City

Nobody was more gifted in the (mostly thankless) pursuit of this art than the writers of the Evening News, when I worked there, and yet for all their excellence, there numbered not a showboat or a prima donna among the lot. Quiet, studious, hardworking, they looked and often behaved as if they’d stepped out of the English faculty of some small college: Lee Townsend (the head writer, like the chairman of the department); Tom Phillips (a real-life professor); young Paul Fischer and Jerry Cipriano (possibly doctoral candidates); and the most professorial of all, John Mosedale himself, with his signature bowties.

Sequestered as I was in Dan’s office, I didn’t have a great deal of contact with most of the writers. But John encouraged my work and made a point of chatting with me about film and theater, our shared interests. I couldn’t wait to tell him about an actress I’d “discovered,” and typically I’d walk away with a list of four more of her movies to watch. Even a brief word with him could make my day.

He was one of the kindest men I ever knew, and nobody’s praise meant more to me. I wish I could say that I’ve followed his example in the years since then. It doesn’t take much for an older man to boost the confidence of a junior colleague, but it’s important work and worthwhile. John took it seriously and, so far as I could tell, joyfully. Most folks don’t leave a legacy when they leave the workplace, but John surely did.

I lost touch with him after I left CBS, and it was only a few weeks ago that a former colleague put us in contact again. John had written a review of Jude Law’s Hamlet — not merely a review but an account of his trip to the theater, of the planning and loving care required of his beautiful wife, Betty, and their family to get him there. His gift for concision ever refined, the article also entailed a thumbnail sketch of his lifelong love of Shakespeare, tinted with the awareness that, in all likelihood, this would be the last play he ever saw.

We exchanged a couple of e-mails, and among his last words to me were true to form.

“Keep on writing,” he wrote. It’s because of mentors like John Mosedale that I can.

And that’s part of our world tonight.
Good night, sweet prince.


Alex said...

Beautifully understated -- you made me want to know a lot more about John Mosedale (which, come to think of it, was probably the point).

Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your kind words from the family of John Mosedale. My brother Andrew ran across your blog today and showed it to the rest of us, our mother Betty, my sister Amy, my younger brother Mike, and me, Laura. You may be interested to know that my father wrote a novel called The Church of Shakespeare in these last years, where he was finally able to impart to readers a sizeable fraction of his Shakespeare knowledge. He followed the advice he gave to you right to the end--he kept on writing.

William V. Madison said...

Dear Laura -- Since I, like your father, worship in the Church of Shakespeare, I'm eager to read the novel! Please accept my condolences on your loss, and know that I join you in celebrating the life and accomplishments of a terrific guy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that tribute. He was my great uncle, and a far greater man who I deeply admired. Although he's now in a better place, the world has lost a pillar of its soul. John Mosedale represents what every father should strive to achieve. He lived a remarkable life, and his children are a tribute to his life's work.

Anonymous said...


I stumbled across this years after the post. Bravo. My father Lee Townsend sat beside John for many, many years and I know he treasured every minute with him. As did I everytime I visited CBS as a boy. I can still see the twinkle in his eye.

I look forward to reading your blog. I will pass it along to my brothers.

Blaine Townsend

William V. Madison said...

Blaine Townsend -- Thanks so much! It was a privilege to work with your father, too. So often I'd look up, and there he was, the calm at the eye of the storm. I never quite understood how he managed that. And such a good writer.