05 November 2011

Andy Rooney

I can’t tell you whether Andy Rooney was, deep down, as scruffy and lovable as millions of TV viewers insisted he must be; I can’t tell you whether he really was the mean S.O.B. he appeared to be as he stumped up and down the halls of CBS in the 1990s. You don’t learn much about a man when your most intimate encounters are at the salad bar in the employee cafeteria. It’s true, Andy Rooney and I once reached for the same slice of tomato, but we never exchanged a word.

I was in a remarkably good position, however, to judge the esteem in which Rooney was held by others — and why he was, during his tenure as 60 Minutes’ resident crank, a dangerous, ultimately negative force in television news.

My first objection to Rooney is primarily aesthetic. Once Don Hewitt began to showcase Rooney’s ostensibly humorous, frequently pointless personal essays, a vast swath of the viewing public suddenly felt justified — compelled — entitled to pop off just the way Andy Rooney did on TV.

What a lovable old grouch really looks like.

I’m not saying that the real, overall population of gasbags increased in number as a result of Andy Rooney, but they certainly did come creeping out of the woodwork. This is of course a First Amendment right, but it isn’t much fun for the rest of us, who have to listen or read. Sifting through viewer mail and answering the phone (among my principal duties during my early years at the network), I was constantly regaled with rambling tirades that were quite consciously modeled on Rooney’s “A Few Minutes” feature.

Sometimes the intent was to audition. Sometimes it was merely to complain — about the political situation, about CBS News, about kids today — you name it. But other times the intent was less clear, least of all to the Rooney Wannabes.

Rooney’s rants frequently offered up backward thinking, innocently or unconsciously or even in a “Gee, ain’t I a stinker” sort of way, but no less unattractive and potentially destructive for all that. His many “accidental” or “misunderstood” or “misquoted” jabs at women and minorities are useful examples. As I say, legions of viewers, whose thinking and powers of expression were even less nuanced than Rooney’s would hear him and thereupon feel as if they, too, could begin speaking their creaky minds, just the way he did. After all, Andy Rooney could get away with it — why couldn’t they?

And get away with it, he did. After a routine attempt to suspend Rooney for a stupid, harmful remark about “homosexual unions” — made at the height of the AIDS crisis — resulted in a 20 percent drop in 60 Minutes’ ratings, to say nothing of a rise in angry calls and letters, the News Division was forced to cut short the punishment and bring Rooney back on the air. Ultimately, it wasn’t Rooney who got fired (he was never even threatened with dismissal), it was David Burke, the News Division president, who lost his job.

Whereupon Rooney became not just unaccountable but totally invulnerable.

And that, in turn, made him dangerous. Even flourishing in the starlight (or nuclear fallout) of Dan Rather’s apogee, as I did, I began to wonder about the pernicious effects of television celebrity on responsible journalism.

Everyone in the News Division grew wary of Rooney — which, as far as I can tell, suited him just fine, because I’ve never seen anybody who made less effort to be pleasant to his colleagues. The executives on Mahogany Row appeared absolutely terrorized by him, and lowlier minions gave him a wide berth in the hallways.

He may have been a perfectly terrific guy in private, and even a stopped clock is right, once in a while. I particularly admired his remark, during Laurence Tisch’s rampage through the network, that “CBS used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System; now it doesn’t stand for anything.”

Most days, however, he gave curmudgeons a bad name, and it’s a mercy he didn’t have anything more obnoxious to say. There would have been no way to stop him. And then even more Americans would have felt licensed to say obnoxious things, too — with even less discipline, concision, and point than Andy Rooney ever knew.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for this, Bill. Your characterization — “ostensibly humorous, frequently pointless” — seems exactly right.

The final 60 Minutes interview surprised me. What I had thought was just persona was no act: Rooney appeared authentically mean and sour. Maybe being ninety-two gives you permission to be whatever you want. But it seemed like a mighty sad way to pass the days.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Michael -- In principle, anyway, a news program is supposed to show reality, not fiction. In that sense, maybe it's not surprising that the real Andy Rooney was not far from the persona he revealed on TV.

Anonymous said...

I agree that many of today's TV pundits and personalities, left- and right-wing, are crude and obnoxious to the point that sometimes it is hard to listen to them. I am quite in agreement with Christopher Hitchens when he writes of our rotten, celeb-soaked culture of news-cum-entertainment. But after reading this, I am a bit surprised that you would find it appropriate to take Rooney off the air after his comment that gay sex is one of the factors (but not the only factor) that might potentially result in someone contracting HIV. Do you dispute the truth of that statement? And if you do, have you never heard of Voltaire ("I wholly disagee with what you say...")?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Rooney was told so often what a lovable coot he was that he began to believe it, and the more reward he reaped for his "whimsical" remarks, the less care he exercised in pronouncing them.

Rooney's remarks regarding "homosexual unions" and death were less anodyne than you make them out to be here. To quote him: “There was some recognition in 1989 of the fact that many of the ills which kill us are self-induced. Too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes. They’re all known to lead quite often to premature death.”

Presumably he was talking about AIDS, but he didn't say so: that's a problem. In 1989, we already knew that "heterosexual unions" (among other things) can spread AIDS, but he didn't say so: that's another problem. He equated "homosexual unions" with lifestyle choices -- which a lot of people still do, but journalists (even "commentators" on television) should know better. And while he spoke, thousands of men and women were sick and dying, ostracized, unattended by doctors or loved ones.

Consider the historical moment: 60 Minutes enjoyed the biggest audience in television. A few months after the broadcast in question, Ryan White (to pick but one example) met the very kind of "premature death" Rooney spoke of, but did anything Rooney said make sense of that? Did he afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted? No: although he had access to the facts, he fed ignorant prejudice instead.

Rooney was paid vast sums to talk about paper clips and shoelaces. On this occasion, he chose to speak about more controversial matters, which is fine, but he did so irresponsibly. That being the case, yes, I did and do think that a temporary suspension -- very much like the one he received -- was appropriate.

Finally, my dear, dear Rick, if I'd never heard of Voltaire, and most especially if I didn't subscribe wholeheartedly to his most famous dictum, do you honestly believe I'd ever have published some of your comments on this blog?

William V. Madison said...

Even I make mistakes, and thus a clarification -- Presumably when he cited "homosexual unions" in the context of "premature death," he was talking about AIDS. I don't think even Rooney believed that cigarettes cause HIV.