August 31, 2010

Remembering A True Journalist

Posted: 12:01 AM ET

Daniel Schorr was a journalistic legend.  His career began shortly after WWII.  He was one of CBS's "Murrow's Boys," with CNN from day-one, and ended his brilliant career at NPR.  While at CNN, Donna Rockwell was one of his producers.  Sadly, Schorr died earlier this year, but on this, his 94th birthday, Schorr's producer and friend reflects back on a remarkable man.

By Donna Rockwell

Daniel Schorr taught me everything I know. Well, almost everything.

The famous Murrow Boy, who would have turned 94 today, is a Jungian archetype of the news junkie, a patron saint of journalism, a deity of telling-it-like-it-is reporting, a journalist’s journalist. Dan was still a regular voice on NPR even up until days before his death on July 23 — as a nonagenarian, nonetheless. And those 90+ years should be some of the most celebrated in journalism, as Dan stood strongly for the very principles that are too often overlooked in today’s age of 24-hour, constant online news coverage.

Thirty years ago, Dan hired me as a 23-year-old straight out of journalism school — surely the latest in a long-line of short-lived assistants. These were the first few days of the fledgling Cable News Network (CNN), June of 1980, and Dan chose me as his next young hope. Unlike his first attempts, Dan and I clicked. I was giddy at the opportunity to be a founding member of Chicken Noodle News, as we were dubbed by competing network news executives who watched our round-the-clock coverage with a condescending smirk. (Little did Dan — or anyone else there at the time — fully comprehend the slippery slope that was being created with this experiment for those journalistic principles he cared most deeply about.)

Dan was the senior correspondent of CNN then, the sage interpreter of the day’s events from whom anchor Bernard Shaw often sought explanation and analysis for the meaning of the world’s latest cataclysm or political blowup. Dan, with a full career covering almost everyone and almost everything, was counted on for context.

One of the first things Dan taught me during our two-and-a-half years working closely together — initially as his assistant, then later as his fulltime producer — was the menial task of typing out a travel itinerary. Though admittedly a simple job, it remains the foundation of all that has mattered to me in terms of discipline and thoroughness over the three decades since Dan first showed me—a fact that has traversed various career pursuits and even motherhood. He sat down at my desk and typed out the date, airline and flight #. Then, Lv: city. Ar: city. That’s it. It looked like this:

August 20, 2010
Delta #3351
Lv: 12:30 PM Baltimore
Ar: 2:00 PM Detroit

So clean. So efficient. So — as is necessary in journalism — to the point, without excess and unnecessary drama. That was just the beginning of what Dan would teach me about journalism and life.

Dan’s family soon adopted me. I would join them for special events like the Jewish Holidays. One Passover, after dinner, I was chipping in on kitchen duty and was really taking to the bottom of a pan with a Brillo Pad. I must have broken a sweat. Dan’s wife, Li, looked at me in my fervor, and giggled. “That’s what Dan loves about you,” she said. “You never give up ‘til you get it done right.” Dan was a model of get-it-done-right journalism: not for the sake of personal fame and fortune, but to get the story and get it right, and, most importantly, to keep working at it until you do.

In preparation for covering President Reagan’s 1982 economic summit in Versailles, Dan walked into my office one morning and matter-of-factly asked, “Do you want to travel on the press plane or come with me on the Concorde?” I vividly remember the flight: New York to Paris in under four hours; a large digital M switching from mach 1 to mach 2, as we reached twice the speed of sound; exquisite designer food and hand-dipped chocolates; Dan, his manual Olympia typewriter, and me. Once on the ground, we reported from the breathtaking Palace of Versailles, from Paris, London, Bonn, and then from Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall. Oh, the places Dan’s producer will go.

Trained at the knee of Daniel Schorr, as it turns out, I developed the disciplined production skills necessary to produce almost anything. Even the lives of two young boys, whose actual living production some years later became my fulltime job. Like in my producer days, I had clipboards and binders filled with the stuff of my sons’ lives. I was perpetually writing out each of their unique itineraries, from arrival and departure times for: school, baseball practice, piano lessons, or acting school. It was all rather straightforward and to the point. There was no drama. Just as Dan had taught me: that our work together was solely about getting the best piece on the air with minimal wasted time and effort, so too did I approach the potentially chaotic world of parenting with a sense of organization, determination, and ease. Producing news pieces and children, I discovered, ended up requiring the same skill set.

Perhaps I have even passed on some of these skills, because as I watch my sons, now in their 20s, operate in the world, one the editor in chief of The Michigan Daily newspaper, and the other a New York playwright, I see in them Dan’s no-nonsense, nothing extra approach to the written word and an investigative exploration of life. Streamlined, with curiosity and grace, and no superfluous sentimentality: this is the way Dan worked.

The path Dan chose, however, was not entirely gilded. He had a hard time after his leak to the Village Voice of the 1976 House of Representatives Pike Committee Report, concerning questionably illegal U.S. intelligence activities. Resentment among some of his peers lingered for years, and Dan eventually resigned his coveted post at CBS—a job he had once only dreamed of. At a press event decades later, a CBS reporter walked by and noticed that underneath my name on my press pass, Dan’s was in parentheses. “Do you work for Dan?” she shot at me. “Yes,” I answered. “I feel sorry for you,” she fired back.

But I think Dan got a bum rap.

In all my years of knowing him, Dan was driven by one thing, and one thing alone: the public’s right to know. He began his career as a teenager stringing in the Bronx, and grew to be a respected CBS news correspondent in the Edward R. Murrow stable of thoroughbred journalists. On September 9, 1971, rushing to break a story outside the Senate Caucus Room, Dan famously found himself reading his own name—live on national television—as number 17 on President Richard Nixon’s secret Enemies List. In Dan’s pursuit of the truth, he made some unavoidable waves.

He considered himself a trusted steward of the Fourth Estate, deeply responsible for getting information to the public. His philosophy of engagement and purpose on the planet (aside from his abiding love for his wife, children, and grandchild), pivoted on this point: he knew that the freedom of the Western World stood then, and still stands now, in the balance between those in power and those who protect the rights of the people. For Dan, journalism was a matter of personhood and human dignity — a lesson that all too often falls by the wayside in today’s fast-paced world of journalism.

Dan put this journalistic code first when he took an historic stand for all journalists during his subpoenaed appearance before Congress in 1976, by refusing on First Amendment grounds, to reveal the source of the leaked Pike report. Dan made it very clear that he was willing to go to jail in the name of this critical cornerstone of journalism. The job of journalism is to keep everyone honest; the job of journalists is to make sure this happens. That is what Dan taught me.

Dan and I had some significant personal moments, too. The night of January 13, 1982 found Washington D.C. engulfed in a violent snowstorm. In an instant, the CNN newsroom became a buzz of activity, the assignment desk police scanners going crazy. Tragedy had struck. An airplane taking off from Washington National Airport (now Reagan National) had hit the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River. My boyfriend at the time — and now husband — was at the airport on his way to New York on business. The first reports of the downed plane were that it was a New York-bound flight, right where he was headed. But my boyfriend’s plane had gotten out of the take-off line to de-ice. The ill-fated Flight 90, headed to Florida, had not.

After the crash, the airport was immediately shut down, all flights grounded. Dan and I were in a panic. Having not heard from my boyfriend, we could only imagine the worst. After a Valium offered to me by a CNN secretary, Dan settled in to helping me grieve the loss of my boyfriend. “He’s gone,” I remember myself crying to Dan during the interminable wait. But, of course, my boyfriend did finally call. He was fine, and even had to pick me up in that blizzard due to my slight Valium haze. Now a laughable moment, Dan had sat with me in my existential plight though those hours, as I contemplated the worst. At my marriage a couple of years later, Dan and Li danced until midnight. Today, their faces still smile from the pages of our wedding album.

As Dan’s itinerary lesson teaches, however, there is a time for arrival and a time for departure. Sadly, this day in August — Dan’s birthday — comes this year without him. I spoke to Li, after his passing, and she shared that Dan’s life wish was fulfilled. “He wanted to die with his boots on,” she told me. “And he did.” Dan filed his last story on a Saturday, and was admitted to the hospital on a Tuesday. He had signed-off for the final time, but in many ways the lessons Dan’s life teaches, go on. Reporters and bloggers can learn from his fierce allegiance to journalistic integrity, to unrelentingly seeking the truth, and what it means to be a watchdog in the sometimes-precarious political processes that make up the American way of life. Someone must be tasked with watching the henhouse.

A couple of years ago on his birthday, I gave Dan a hooded grey sweatshirt that had printed on the front: “Have you hugged a journalist today?” Today, on your birthday, Dan, I am.

Donna Rockwell is a clinical psychologist and associate faculty at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology. She is a columnist for Ambassador Magazine, and a researcher studying the health benefits of mindfulness and the psychology of fame and celebrity.

Filed under: Daniel Schorr

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mike k   August 31st, 2010 3:24 am ET

Rev. S has no credible position to comment. Good is good any color especially MLK.

Kate in Michigan   August 31st, 2010 7:14 pm ET

This is a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man, who was one of my idols during the years I was a journalist, myself. Thank you, Ms. Rockwell.

CindyM   August 31st, 2010 9:50 pm ET

A nice tribute to a great journalist and wonderful man.

Kenny Reff   August 31st, 2010 10:44 pm ET

Wonderful piece, Donna. You have made public the very human side of this wonderful man. We were privileged to have known him and learned from him! Thanks for the memories.

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