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GUEST BLOG #107: Eric Mink Remembers, and Offers an Appreciation of, Veteran Newsman Daniel Schorr
July 26, 2010  | By Eric Mink
 
[Bianculli here: Contributing critic Eric Mink has weighed in with a wonderful piece on Daniel Schorr, who died Friday. Here it is:]

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There's a great Yiddish word for Dan Schorr: noodge.

Either a noun or a verb depending on context, the word describes both a kind of conduct and the kind of person who engages in the conduct. The most apt definition I found for "to noodge" is "to annoy with persistent complaining, asking, urging, etc." You can quibble about style, but I'd argue that great reporters have a lot of noodge in them.

Schorr was a noodge of the highest order.

Early in his career, Schorr's reporting annoyed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, irritated President John F. Kennedy and got him kicked out of the Soviet Union by Premier Nikita Khruschev. Schorr was such a noodge questioning East German Communist dictator Walter Ulbricht that Ulbricht broke off the interview and stormed out of the room, leaving Schorr facing an empty chair.

Much later in his career, Schorr took a stand on principle that vexed and perplexed Ted Turner, the television visionary who had hired Schorr in 1979 to be the first employee of what was to become the nation's first 24-hour news channel: CNN.

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But newsman Daniel Schorr, who died July 23 at age 93, really got to U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. And Nixon's inability to manage his anger helped bring down his presidency.

In 1971, Nixon sicced the FBI and the IRS on Schorr after he broadcast reports for CBS News on Nixon's failure to fulfill a pledge to assist Catholic schools.

"You take a fellow like this Dan Schorr," Nixon complained on Sept. 18, 1971, to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in a tape recorded Oval Office conversation transcribed by the University of Virginia. "He is always creating something, isn't he?"

Haldeman replied, "You don't, shouldn't get involved in this, but he's on our tax list, too."

"Good," Nixon said. "Pound these people."

Later in the conversation, Nixon and Haldeman discussed a trumped-up FBI investigation of Schorr and prepared a phony cover story about Schorr being considered for a federal appointment.

The second article of impeachment adopted by the House Committee on the Judiciary on July 27, 1974, charged Nixon with abusing his authority over government agencies by targeting certain U.S. citizens for illegal investigations. Schorr was one of those cited in the record. Thirteen days later, Nixon slinked off into history as the only American president ever to resign from office.

080728_lifeschorr1.jpgIn a piece about Schorr for The Nation last week, John Nicholswrote that "Schorr's unofficial beat was always the abuse ofpower," which gets it just right.

But on one glaring occasion, Schorr's single-minded, hard-headed dedication to that mission brought him grief not only from the powerful but also from some of his own colleagues.

In the summer of 1975, Schorr was on the intelligence beat for CBS News, pursuing stories of abuses by the CIA, FBI and other agencies. Simultaneous investigations by special committees in the House and Senate were uncovering a long and sordid record of illegal activity at home and abroad.

The House committee, chaired by New York Democrat Otis Pike, completed its investigation and voted to publish its findings with sensitive national security information deleted. But under pressure from then-President Gerald Ford, the full House voted to keep even the edited version of the committee's report secret.

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Schorr got a copy of the report from a trusted source and began filing on-air reports about its contents. But CBS executives would not agree to supplement its broadcast reporting with print publication of the complete document. Without CBS' approval or knowledge -- and fearing that the full report might never see the light of day -- Schorr secretly gave the report to the Village Voice. The Voice published it on Feb. 16, 1976, as a 24-page supplement with the front-page headline, "The report on the CIA that President Ford doesn't want you to read."

It was a bombshell, and CBS executives were not happy.

Schorr recounted the aftermath in a 90th-birthday interview with NPR's Robert Siegel in 2006. The day the Voice hit the stands, Schorr said he was called into the office of Sanford Socolow, then the Washington bureau chief of CBS News, and asked what he knew about the Voice's publication. Schorr said he ducked the question.

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Then, according to Schorr, Socolow noted that Lesley Stahl, then a CBS White House reporter, was dating Aaron Latham, a writer for New York magazine. New York magazine and the Village Voice were both owned by editor/publisher Clay Felker. Socolow asked Schorr if he thought there might be a connection between Stahl's romantic relationship and the Voice's publication of the Pike report.

As Schorr described it on NPR, "I said, 'Ummm. Who knows?' I allowed him to entertain that thought for one day. The next day ... I went into Sandy Socolow's office and said, 'Forget what I said yesterday. Stop looking for who it was.'"

Stahl's account is radically different. In Reporting Live, the memoir she published in 2000, Stahl quotes by name CBS News executives who said Schorr told them he believed Stahl had taken the report from his desk and leaked it to the Voice. She points out that the Washington Post identified Schorr as the leaker before Schorr says he told Socolow. And she says that Socolow called Schorr a liar.

The House ethics committee investigated the leak and called Schorr to testify. He refused to say who gave him the report, and the committee eventually declined to cite Schorr for contempt.

With the legal situation resolved, Schorr sat for a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in which he denied implicating Stahl. The next day he resigned from CBS, and according to Stahl, she got his office. Her memoir describes a phone call from Schorr several weeks later as a half-hearted and not very convincing apology.

Twenty years later, the rift was still raw.

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On January 25, 1996, I sat in the front row at Low Library on the campus of Columbia University as Schorr accepted the duPont-Columbia Gold Baton for "exceptional lifetime contributions to radio and television reporting and commentary." I was a member of the seven-person jury that had given Schorr the Gold Baton, awarded only in those years when we believed there was a worthy candidate.

Schorr's official National Public Radio biography, which Schorr undoubtedly reviewed and approved, gives the Gold Baton the greatest prominence among his many awards, saying "[it] is the most prestigious award in the field of broadcasting and is considered the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize."

The host of the awards that year was Ted Koppel, then the anchor and managing editor of ABC News' Nightline.

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As the ceremonies drew near, I thought Schorr's award would have special resonance that night, considering that at least two of the Silver Baton honors that year were going to programs on issues Schorr had covered himself with distinction: The Discovery Channel's Watergate, a five-hour documentary (also narrated by Schorr); and PBS' America's War on Poverty, a five-hour documentary by Blackside Productions, and a story Schorr had covered when he returned from his European posting for CBS in the mid-1960s.

In accordance with long-standing tradition, Columbia's president at the time, George Rupp, would present the Gold Baton. The scheduled Silver Baton presenters had been announced a month earlier: Koppel of ABC; Schorr, by then 11 years into his 25-year run at NPR; Tim Russert of NBC; Ralph Begleiter of CNN' PBS's Charlie Rose; and, representing CBS News, Lesley Stahl.

On January 24, one day before the awards ceremony, Stahl cancelled.

--

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Eric Mink most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the St Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. He now teaches film as an adjunct assistant professor at Webster University in St. Louis.






20 Comments

 

Bob Hervey said:

Eric,

Exemplary work as usual... miss your commentaries in the Albany, NY, Times Union.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 11:43 AM


robert messick said:

I noodge, you nooodge, he, she, it noodges. Where have all the Noodges gone, right when we need them the most?

I believe Lesley Stahl missed the Gold Baton ceremonies because it conflicted with the "Best Dressed Journalist Awards" at the Plaza.
I think she was up for 8 nominations. But I could be wrong. About everything.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 12:09 PM


Juli Niemann said:

To call someone an accomplished noodge is a real accolade. The bloviates on Fox and and "newstalk" radio can only aspire to such greatness. Good tribute, Eric.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 1:21 PM


Allan Shickman said:

Eric Mink is still the best editorial columnist in St. Louis.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 2:12 PM


Gloria Ross said:

I always eagerly await Eric Mink's take on issues of the day - here's hoping he'll tackle the Shirley Sherrod fiasco next and that perhaps Bianculli will carry it.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 2:57 PM


Eric Mink said:

Bob: Thanks very much. The Times Union was one of the papers in the country that picked up my op-ed columns off Knight-Ridder and ran them pretty consistently. I was always grateful when I'd get a note from an Albany-area reader.

Robert: Methinks you noodge a tad harshly. (And, perhaps, a tad sexistly?) Stahl's work can be applauded or derided on its merits -- and I did some of both over the years -- without regard for her appearance. But given her credible version of the 1976 events involving her, Schorr and the Pike report, I don't blame her a bit for not wanting to be sitting -- or, more likely, standing-ovationing -- while he received the highest honor available to a television journalist.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 4:37 PM


Colleen said:

A noodge of the highest order, indeed. It takes an extraordinary person to read his own name over the air as part of Nixon's enemies list and not react to it. Call it good journalistic abilities, good acting, or a healthy dose of chutzpah - personalities like Mr. Schorr are few and far between.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 5:01 PM


Tausif Khan said:

"The next day he resigned from CBS, and according to Stahl, she got his office."

It sounds like Schorr was "Helen Thomas"ed in which the serious discussion became who had the power at CBS like Thomas with her first chair and first question rather than what was CBS' public stance on the First Amendment.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 6:21 PM


Jim said:

What a wonderful piece you wrote, Eric. I think Mr. Shorr would be pleased...if you dug deeper!

To answer the question, "Where have all the noodges gone? One has to ask the question,'Where have all the journalists gone?" the answer is "Gone to PR everyone, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

I was a noodge to Eric for a while when he was OpEd editor at the St. Louis Post. The problem was, he was in a position to "just say no" many times. Still I persisted. Once in a while I won...for a client. Almost always, Eric's reasons for saying no were sound.

Thanks for the good read,

Jim

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 7:25 PM


Joe prichard said:

I continue to noodge as a private citizen. Perhaps Eric has some insights as to how a young man, Tim Bacon, could be gunned down with 12 bullets in the streets of St. Louis, a few days before he was to bring a lawsuit against a legendary basketball coach and the st. louis public schools regarding a beating he allegedly received in the year 2000, and after the original story by Bill Bryan in the Post Dispatch, the only writer who ever mentioned Bacon again, Sylvester Brown was fired. The two people I wrote to this week, making the total well over 100, were Lizzie Widdicombe and Charlie Tuna.

The pd has published several articles about police selling world series tickets, the value of which was much less than the amount of money the taxpayers spent to protect the 2006 president of the school board to not be the next person shot.

Mayor Slay and his largest financial backer, Rex Sinquefield, have been successful in knocking the public schools enrollment down to 25,000 from 35,000 in 2006. That trend is likely to accelerate because of a recent court order that st. louis students have a right to attend, tuition free, fully accredited schools in the county.

The goal seems to be to so completely destroy public education in st. louis that it will change the demographics to something those in power are more comfortable with.

Thanks for reminding me of the word, Eric. Maybe someday I will be worthy of being called one.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 8:06 PM


Eric Mink said:

Wow. What a response. Thanks, everybody, for the excessively generous comments.

Tausif: The issue wasn't CBS' public stance on the First Amendment; the issue was how CBS chose to exercise its own freedom to operate. Schorr got on the CBS airwaves and reported the hell out of the Pike report. It was fantastic. But he wanted more, a Pentagon-Papers-style supplemental publication of the complete report, in addition to the broadcast pieces. When CBS wouldn't go that far, Schorr decided to do it anyway and wound up with the Voice. Okay. Fine.
But Stahl's version of what happened afterwards rings pretty true, and some of the people she quotes by name are people who would have been in a position to confirm Schorr's version -- except they didn't. So after the ethics committee gave up on trying to intimidate Schorr into revealing his source, CBS then had to deal with an employee -- however skilled and dedicated -- who, even by his minimal account, encouraged suspicion against a colleague and by her fuller account, actively tried to get people to believe she robbed his desk and leaked the report to the Voice. AND the bureau chief believed Schorr lied about HIM. Schorr realized he had to go. As another reader said to me today, against the rest of the achievements of Schorr's career -- which Helen Thomas couldn't match if she had ANOTHER 90 years -- the Stahl incident becomes a blip.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 8:23 PM


calla Smorodin said:

I agree with Allan Shickman. Eric Mink is the best editorial columnist in St. Louis. Good piece. Thanks for sending, Eric.

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 11:10 PM


K. Hettiger said:

A noodge, certainly. Sometimes an oracle. I'll miss his thoughtful analysis on NPR. Alev ha-sholem.

Nice vignette, Mink.

Comment posted on July 27, 2010 12:38 AM


jeffw said:

Nudge, smudge.
Whatever it is, top-notch journalists, like Mr. Schorr, and Mr. Mink (and Mr. Bianculli) are driven -- by soul, heart, curiosity, DNA, what-have-you -- to dig for the heart of a story, and then present their thoughts, insights and research in a clear, concise and interesting fashion.
This was a typical A-plus Mink production.

[And this was a typically generous remark, and show of support, by a guy whose full name is Jeff Weingrad, and whose own intrepid writing and reporting, with co-author Doug Hill, resulted in one of the best books ever written about a specific TV show: "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live."

And Weingrad, more personally, also is the New York Daily News TV editor who was part of the team approving Eric Mink and myself to cover television together for that paper, during a golden era that included a TV section not only with Jeff as the editor, and Eric and me as critics, but, as reporters, Richard Huff (now the Daily News' TV editor, as well as columnist) and Christy Slewinski. Five people, covering TV for a New York daily, filling a section without using any wire copy. Those, indeed, were the days...

Great to hear from you, Jeff. I'll fire off a personal email later today, to get back in touch. Thanks for finding the site, and reading, and writing! And, of course, for the nice compiment. To be compared to Schorr at all is an honor. By you, icing on the cake. Mmmmmmm, caaaaaake... -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 27, 2010 2:58 AM


Paul said:

Terrific read as always, Eric. Post-Dispatch readers are so much poorer in your absence.

Schorr was an icon of honest journalism. That he lost his compass a bit amid the Stahl incident, I can easily forgive him. Decades of aggressive, investigative reporting more than make up for that lapse in judgement. RIP Daniel Schorr. He will be missed.

Paul P

Comment posted on July 27, 2010 10:53 AM


Ed Szewczyk said:

Way back in the 70's, Daniel Schorr was a guest lecturer at a Communications Law course I was taking in law school. He was a very impressive speaker, with views of what's right and wrong which might likely get him "laid off" in present day news rooms. He was a real mensch who noodged with the best of them.

Comment posted on July 27, 2010 11:13 AM


Eric Mink said:

Thanks, all. It's very gratifying to know the Schorr piece not only was read but also that the meat and the nuances seemed to touch people.

As to JeffW, and as Bianculli indicated, he is a writer and editor of great distinction, though he'd be the last to say so (until you got to know him really well and it was really late at night).

I'll say this: I've had a lot of editors and bosses over the course of my career, and there was no woman or man who was better at it in every way than Jeff Weingrad. He knew the material, knew what was important and what wasn't and, maybe most important, understood the people he worked with and worked very hard to let them do their best.

Comment posted on July 27, 2010 12:31 PM


Howard Noble said:

Eric,

I am one of the readers who sorely misses your common sense commentary in the Post-Dispatch. And now I will also miss the common sense commentary of Daniel Schorr on NPR.

Thanks for a great tribute.

Howard

Comment posted on July 28, 2010 6:12 PM


Tausif Khan said:

Eric thanks for the response. I agree with all that you have said but the only thing I differ on is that I feel that Schorr should have been suspended rather than fired give his critical eye and accomplishments. They should have dealt with the matter internally and supported Schorr in his bid to keep his sources unnamed for journalistic integrity and belief in the power of the freedom of the press and the duty of the press to the people to hear a full account of the story. I am sure you would agree that it is better to have someone who pushes the envelope for truth rather than someone who doesn't challenge the rules, reporting the news. Therefore to fire Schorr for the incident is a bit harsh. Also, to side step a discussion of journalistic integrity and freedom of the press I think is misguided as well.

Comment posted on July 31, 2010 4:58 PM


Carl Uchtmann said:

Thanks to all for enlightening me on "nooges"
Carl U.

Comment posted on July 31, 2010 7:39 PM


 
 
 
 
 
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