Making Schorr

Daniel Schorr was born on this day in 1916. In the opening chapter of Staying Tuned, perhaps the most highly praised of his handful of memoirs, Schorr suggests that his boyhood gave him some valuable training for a lifetime in journalism. From his father’s early death, when Schorr was only six, he developed hardened detachment; from the death of a woman in his New York City apartment building, this reported to the press for a $5 profit by the twelve-year-old Schorr, he learned the value of a scoop; and while editor of his high school yearbook, he got this cautionary lesson in journalistic ethics and deadline management:

Because of the long lead time for the yearbook, I undertook to write a vivid story about the senior prom before it was held. When the event was cancelled because of the deepening depression, all I could think to do was to include, next to that page in the yearbook, a slip of paper with the Whittier lines, “For all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’ “

No training, Schorr says in Clearing the Air, could have prepared him for the two-step he was sometimes forced to dance while reporting for CBS News. The memoir’s title refers to Schorr’s desire to give his version of perhaps the most controversial period of his career, during which he made Nixon’s “Enemies List” for his pursuit of the Watergate story, and then lost his job and almost went to jail for leaking information about illegal CIA and FBI activities. Though shocked at these developments, Schorr admits that he liked to stir things up: “My keenest enjoyments, I must confess, came from finding out something that people in power didn’t want known and telling people not in power something they should know.”

But Schorr’s title is also aimed at clearing the air of television itself, and his last paragraph seems to almost announce his eventual move to NPR, where he would work for his last quarter century:

Television will yet be tamed, as nuclear energy and genetic engineering must be tamed and harnessed to peaceful uses. For television, the seeds of salvation may lie in itself — its tendency to burn out by overexposure the very forces it helps to generate. Oversaturation may arrest America’s obsession with escapist fantasy. When the fascination of the séance palls, America, I am confident, will come back from dreamland, seeking an old-fashioned answer from an old-fashioned reporter to an old-fashioned question, “What’s the news?”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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