Mary Tyler Moore has died, and I am taking stock of her legacy. Two brilliant television shows, plus several not so brilliant (including New York News, her short-lived collaboration with Madeline Kahn). An unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance in Ordinary People. An eternal role model for working women. And a role model for journalists, too.
She often played journalists — even in the TV movie First You Cry — and her influence extends indirectly to Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, Nancy Marchand’s Mrs. Pynchon, and other characters. America seemed to feel differently about journalism in those days. Woodward and Bernstein became national heroes during the run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Dan Rather became not just a reporter but a star. Mary Richards was cut from different cloth, and yet she was to me every bit as much an inspiration.
It can’t really be said that I ever met Mary Tyler Moore. I encountered her once, at the CBS studios on 57th Street. I was walking down a hallway, and as I approached the corner, I heard voices, talking about the Broadcast Center. “It’s an old dairy,” somebody was saying, and I piped up, “Actually, it was a milk-processing plant.” And I turned the corner, and there was Mary Tyler Moore, accompanied by some people from WCBS, the local station, who were giving her a little tour. I was too startled to say anything else, and we passed each other. End of story. Not a meeting to rival Grant and Lee at Appomattox, or Taylor and Burton on the banks of the Nile.
Yet just a glimpse of the woman who played Mary Richards in my own newsroom was intensely gratifying. It occurred to me that afternoon that, although most of us talked (endlessly) about Edward R. Murrow, we were not ever going to be Murrow, or anything like him. We weren’t going to be Eric Sevareid, either, or Walter Cronkite, and only one of us was ever going to be Dan Rather. The rest of us weren’t going to be heroic standard-bearers, or legends or stars. Few of us were going to set examples for the profession, or even break a story. We were mortals. We went to work, we did our paperwork and our petty daily grind, and we were anonymous. Just like Mary Richards.
Mary Richards, of course, had her moments of valor. She went to jail once for refusing to name a source. She coped with outsize personalities — the tyrannical Lou Grant, the idiotic Ted Baxter and even the prima donna Sue Ann Nivens — yet she never seemed to resent her colleagues for making her job more difficult. On the contrary, she loved them and looked forward to coming to work, to being with them.
The people I worked with at CBS held lofty ideals. That’s one reason we held Murrow in such high esteem. Journalism, even TV journalism, was important, a public service, a vocation bigger than any one person: Murrow taught us that, and we believed it passionately. But few of us ever had the opportunity to go to jail for what we believed in, the way Mary Richards did. Many of us grumbled about the outsize personality we had to work with: depending on the day, Dan could embody all the worst qualities of Lou, or Ted, or Sue Ann, or any combination of the three. But most of us admired the guy, and many of us felt affection for him, and quite a lot of us were proud to be working with him.
I went back to my office and wrote a radio piece for Dan, about how Mary Richards was not a bad role model, and that her small-scale, big-hearted professional ideals were ones real-life journalists could aspire to. I hoped we’d hear from Mary Tyler Moore after the piece was broadcast — she might even make a visit to our newsroom, just as Walter Cronkite once visited WJM. But that was the end of it.
And so she touched my life the way strangers sometimes do — and yet unlike anyone else. Then, now, and ever more, she pointed out a path that I follow, and she turned my world on with her smile.
NOTE: Portions of this essay were originally published on this blog in 2007.