24 July 2010

Daniel Schorr

It’s undeniable that much of the work of the journalist Daniel Schorr was exemplary: one doesn’t land on Nixon’s Enemies List for being a lapdog instead of a watchdog. But he is not one of my heroes, and so let us now speak a little ill of the dead. For with Schorr passes one of the great object lessons for other broadcast journalists: within the busi­ness, people were terrified of turning out like him.

It wasn’t merely the perception that Schorr stood up for his principles and lost his job (though few among us want to lose our jobs for any reason); that particular perception was primarily Schorr’s own, not much shared within the newsroom, because the reality wasn’t so clear-cut.

Schorr taught a different kind of lesson because he left CBS and wound up on NPR, with its smaller audience. The fear of suffering a compa­ra­ble fate is eloquently described by Christopher Plummer, playing Mike Wallace in the movie The Insider, and yes, it’s a fear that was com­mon­ly expressed in real life around CBS. Broadcast journalists get accus­tomed to a platform of a certain size, to say nothing of the perks that come with it, and naturally they’re nervous about losing any of that.

Another lesson to take away from Schorr was the peril of dullness. He could make any story, no matter how important, seem tedious. I’m no fan of “show-business values” in journalism, but I do believe it’s a good idea to hold the attention of the reader, viewer, or listener.

Yet for this observer, what was really striking was the personal lesson that other reporters took away from Dan Schorr. There’s a great out­pour­ing of admiration for the man right now, and I’m sure that’s gratifying to his family. Some of the admiration comes from reporters I admire (Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Bill Moyers), and to a degree, it’s deserved. But it can’t match Schorr’s admiration for himself.

Even in broadcast journalism — hardly an environment known for self-effacement, where those who don’t blow their own trumpets are never heard from again — Schorr stood out from all the rest. His ego was commented on and pondered. “Am I like that? I’d hate to be like that. I have to try harder to be more modest in future.” I have known re­port­ers to say to their friends, “Don’t let me be like Dan Schorr,” and they weren’t talking about ratings.

It’s possible that his vanity was a defense mechanism, though my few, split-second encounters with him don’t give me much insight into his psychology. From all outward appearances, however, he came to believe his own marketing, and though his ethical conduct in the leak scandal was murkier than you may recall,* he ceaselessly represented himself, in tones of self-satisfaction mingled with self-pity, as a martyr to his principles.

A few years later, the famous stipulation of his contract with Ted Turner — that he never be called upon to do anything that would violate his professional ethics — carried his martyr-branding further, but to many of us, it seemed like blatant grandstanding. For one thing, it supposes that other reporters do violate their own ethics, whereas in reality they’re out there every day, arguing and debating with each other and with their bosses, and sometimes resigning over matters of principle, without calling this sort of attention to themselves.

Moreover, Schorr’s contract contained the insulting suggestion that his new employer would, sooner or later, engage in unethical conduct and call on him to collaborate. This gave a viewer scant incentive to watch CNN when Schorr himself wasn’t on camera. Oh, how fortunate we were, that the spotless Schorr would deign to shine among such shady characters — and purely for our benefit! It’s no wonder that CNN asked him to remove that clause before renewing his contract, but by then, Schorr had figured out his public role, and he continued to play it.

He was often identified as one of “Murrow’s Boys,” though in truth the term applies exclusively to those who worked with Edward R. Murrow during World War II; Schorr came along several years later. But (among other practical advantages) association with Murrow facil­i­tated a certain kind of pronouncement on matters of professional ethics. This enabled Schorr to speak out frequently, and I don’t by any means disagree with the general ideal he endorsed.

Yet I don’t think he ever did as much good on those occasions as he did by serving as a negative model. As bad as you may think TV anchors and reporters are, they could be worse; the personal character of a generation of journalists has been uplifted by their sincere efforts not to turn into a self-important windbag like him.

*NOTE: For a while, it looked as if Lesley Stahl would be the martyr in the leak scandal — because Schorr let her twist in the wind when suspicion fell on her instead of on him. Many people in the business never forgave him for that.


Mary Dibbern said...

Was that ready on your computer waiting for the blessed day of his passing! As usual, when you write about somebody, I feel like I know him. And in this case, I am a bit glad I didn't!

Jack Marshall said...

Thanks for writing this before I write my own take on Schorr's legacy....now at least I'll know everyone wasn't speaking kindly of the dead before me. His immense arrogance allowed him to be nakedly biased, choosing the good guys and the bad guys according to his own belief systems and making sure that news stories about the bad guys were delivered with a sneer and a shiv. Because his prime target---Nixon--- had few fans, nobody cared to think about how inappropriate it is for a journalist to be "proud" to be considered an Administration's "enemy." He was the beginning of the "biased and proud of it" school of journalism that turns every story today into a battle of talking points, produces "Right media stories' ignored by "mainstream" media, and makes the news completely untrustworthy. Schorr wasn't the first journalist who though he knew what was good for us, but he was the most insufferable about it.

William V. Madison said...

It gives me no pleasure to speak ill of anybody, and I confess that as I wrote, I was (and remain) fully aware that many of the criticisms I've made of Dan Schorr could be made of other journalists with whom I've worked, and about whom I care a lot. And yet what strikes me is that the criticism — and, indeed, moral condemnation — accorded Schorr among those of his former colleagues whom I knew, was not predicated on envy. That's not true of the criticisms leveled against somebody like Dan Rather, whose career many a reporter would like to have enjoyed.

Also, let's remember that those who worked closely with Schorr at NPR surely saw aspects of his personality that eluded me.

As for what you say about Schorr's bias — without a more thorough review of his work, I can't say. And I find his work too dull to warrant a thorough review. I'll leave that chore to somebody else.

I will say that, as a general rule, the journalists I've worked with at the television networks promoted only one agenda, and it wasn't political. The questions they asked were, "Is this a good story? Can its truth be confirmed? Is anybody else reporting it yet?" Though I was constantly on my guard, I never heard anybody say, "How can we use this story to help the [Democrats/Republicans]?"

The notion of reporters as political co-conspirators and activists is a fantasy promulgated by people whose accusations of propaganda poorly conceal their motives and their own biases.