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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr 1916-2010

Dan Schorr died on Friday at a Washington, DC hospital at the age of 93 after a brief illness. The announcement was made today by NPR where he had worked for the past twenty five years as NPR's senior news analyst. His last report was heard on July 10.

The obituaries and appreciations are pouring out.

There's no point in repeating the many details of Dan's storied career. But the most laudatory and clear-eyed obit I've seen is by NPR's Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday. Every Saturday after the 9 am newscast, Dan and Scott would chat about the week's events. Dan always gave the listeners insight and context that couldn't be found anywhere else. Scott's tribute is elegant and inspirational.

Every week, in my role either as NPR's VP of News or as NPR's ombudsman, I would regularly receive emails praising and condemning NPR for having the nerve to put Dan on the air. During the harsh days of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, Dan would point out the foibles and the dangers of administration policies. When it came to the Bush White House, Dan was never at a loss for words.

Dan Schorr was one of the last of the Murrow Boys - the group of men hired by Edward R. Murrow who as part of CBS News, created the finest commercial broadcast news organization. It was known for the fearlessness of its reporting and for the integrity (most of the time) of its senior management, especially Richard Salant.

Dan was forced out of CBS in 1976, when he was leaked a copy of a secret investigative report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the Pike report, which detailed illegal activities by the FBI and CIA. Dan felt CBS’ lack of enthusiasm for the story, so he re-leaked it to the Village Voice.

He spent a few years at CNN, before tangling with Ted Turner, the volatile and irascible genius who ran the network until he himself was removed in a boardroom revolt.

Dan was then offered a role at NPR by my predecessor, Bill Buzenberg. Dan and NPR turned out to be a perfect match.

Some in commercial broadcasting at the time were appalled and saw Dan's shift to a then much smaller and less influential NPR as a dreadful career move.

As the Mike Wallace character says in the film, The Insider (1999), when faced with the prospect of resigning from CBS: "What should I do? Wander in the wilderness of NPR like Dan Schorr?"

Some wandering. Some wilderness.
When I left NPR, I went by Dan's office to say good-bye. He thanked me for my support and told me that I was the only boss he had who didn't try to fire him.

There were moments when some of his (much) younger colleagues would complain about him. "Can't we find someone more youthful?" they would say. My response was that we could, but we wouldn't find any other journalists whose first major assignment was to cover the Anschluss in 1938.

So long Dan. Thanks again for setting a standard we should all emulate. Now more than ever.


  1. Thanks for the tribute to Daniel Schorr. I just sent you a Facebook message about my first meeting of four with Daniel Schorr. But for the eulogies and obituaries, I didn't recall some of the obstacles he had to deal with at CBS and CNN. In more than 40 years in print journalism, with a little time in radio, I have had the good fortune of meeting several of the best in the news business, and Daniel Schorr was one of them.

  2. Dear Mr. Dvorkin;

    I owe it to you to tell you that I have posted comments on the current column by NPR's reigning Ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, that mention your name.

    I was one of the great many people with whom you interacted (I said on the current NPR website that you were routinely gracious) in relation to Daniel Schorr's role at NPR. I was, and still am, on this day of Mr. Schorr's memorial, little-concerned with any personal attacks on him.

    But I have been determined to call attention to the matter of NPR's use of a few select "Senior News Analysts."

    I see on the NPR Ombudsman website that back in November of last year, Ellen Weiss steadfastly defended Schorr's role as being "not commentary." Of course in the past 48 hours, we have seen both Alicia Shepard and Susan Stamberg call what Mr. Schorr did, "commentary."

    I'd suggest that now might be a good time for NPR News to clean up its act and rid itself of "Senior News Analysts."

    Since the late Dan Schorr appears to have been the only Senior News Analyst who was sufficiently contemptuous of Republicans for the tastes of most NPR listeners, it might not be so hard to do, now.

    The other Senior News Analysts are Juan Williams and Cokie Roberts. Ted Koppel I think also held that position, but no longer does.

    Juan Williams may be a liberal, but he's associated with the dreaded and loathed (by NPR's audience) Fox News Channel. And Cokie Roberts might be the moderate-left Democrat daughter of two moderate-left Democrat Louisiana Senators, but she's not nearly left enough for much of the NPR listenership, it seems.

    So maybe now is the time for NPR to end the position of "Senior News Analyst."

    What do you think? It is true, is it not, that you were troubled by aspects of that position, when you were the NPR Ombudsman?

  3. Dear Mr. Brown,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the blog. In an ideal world, a senior news analyst is someone who is able to lend perspective and context to events while avoiding the appearance of undue partisanship. I think we could both agree that is quite a balancing act these days. There are not a lot of people I can think of who could do that effectively. I think Dan Schorr did it about as well as anyone could due to his extraordinary historical reach and his storied career as a witness to history. I'm old enough to remember watching Eric Severeid on the Cronkite newscast and Dan was clearly in that tradition. It's true that when I was NPR's ombudsman, I received a lot of complaints about Dan. But that was during a time of extraordinary partisanship in America. Anything that was said by Cokie, or Juan or Dan was bound to get someone riled. I think whoever fills Dan's shoes (if that is possible) would have to be equally adept. In the long run, giving people some ideas with which they might disagree is precisely what public radio - indeed all responsible media - should do. Otherwise, we will end up hearing a lot more of the Andy Rooney-type commentaries. Which as they used to say about Chinese food, "it's ok, but five minutes later, you're hungry again."


  4. Yes sir, you have a good point. Is it not fascinating that we always seem to come back to ex-CBS newsmen as elder statesmen in the role you suggest? (Schorr, Severeid, Rooney)

    In that vein, I have long suggested an ideal successor to Dan Schorr: his fellow ex-CBS colleague Bernard Goldberg, who also had years of extensive broadcast news experience. Unlike Schorr, the much-younger Goldberg wasn't around to do news broadcasts before the outbreak of World War II. But NPR will have a hard time finding such an Analyst no matter what, the march of time being what it is.

    Of course, we both know that the conservative Bernard Goldberg could never, ever be hired on to provide news analysis on the same kind of regular basis as did his liberal counterpart, Dan Schorr. The mostly-liberal NPR listenership would revolt.

    Just look at what happened when Jonah (no relation) Goldberg appeared once on Scott Simon's Weekend Edition Saturday program as a mere fill-in for a vacationing Dan Schorr. There was nothing objectionable about Jonah's contribution that morning; you said so yourself. But the letters and complaints rolled in, simply because so many NPR listeners wanted the nation's public radio network to be a safe enclave for like-minded liberals.

    So yes sir, it is nice to have Senior News Analysts with "extraordinary historical reach and... storied career[s]." But as we both know, in order to be a fixture at NPR, it is first necessary to be a liberal.

    Bernie Goldberg need not apply.