Giving Them What They Need
Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the “days of black and white TV.”
Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950’s to the 1970’s – an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr – is what I really miss.
There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager’s suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know?
Dan Schorr was clearly in the “need to know” camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade.
I was never a particular fan of Schorr’s commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man – or a reporter – of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr’s long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff.
As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, “Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn’t even have to make a profit.”
I’ve always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn’t ever called a “news program” or a “news show.” News was delivered in the form of a “broadcast,” a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball.
There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today’s hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O’Reillys, couldn’t carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros.
Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.