If you are a National Public Radio listener under age 40, you probably knew Daniel Schorr as a longtime commentator on national and world affairs. You understood he had been around the block a few times, but, most likely, you had no idea that he was 93.
Or perhaps you thought Schorr had simply been around forever, like the young NPR producer who supposedly asked the veteran journalist whether he covered the Spanish-American War. That war was fought in 1898.
Baby Boomers like me remember Schorr in his final years with CBS News, when he famously discovered, on the air, his own name on the enemies list Richard Nixon’s White House staff compiled. Parents of the Baby Boomers had already encountered Schorr, then one of Edward R. Murrow’s “boys,” when Schorr opened the network’s Moscow bureau, scored the first Western interview with Nikita Kruschev and then was barred from the Soviet Union as a “provocateur.”
Schorr, who died on Friday, did all this and more, in a career that started in 1929, the year Schorr would have been a Bar Mitzvah. I suppose this goes to show that the phrase “today I am a man” had a more literal meaning back then.
That also was the year of the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. It was a panicked moment when people who thought their lives were irretrievably ruined impulsively leaped from windows. Schorr’s first story, in fact, was a report he phoned to a local paper about a woman who jumped to her death from Schorr’s apartment house.
The great advantage of having a long career is that it gives you perspective. Experience teaches you that life brings frightening moments and, sometimes, great trauma — a Great Depression, a world war, a 9/11, or, at a lesser level, a Gulf oil spill — and that, once we get past the immediate shock, history shows that we can recover and rebuild. You learn not to be too complacent in the good times or too despairing in the bad.
When, a couple of months ago, Schorr traced the Greek debt crisis to the beginnings of the European Union, he was doing so as someone who was there when the EU was created — and as someone who had lived through many other financial crises.
NPR’s “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon said of Schorr, “Nobody else in broadcast journalism — or perhaps any field — had as much experience and wisdom.”
Schorr was no saint. He was not even particularly lovable. In 1975, Schorr received a leaked copy of the House Intelligence Committee’s draft report on CIA covert operations. After the House of Representatives voted to keep the final report secret, Schorr felt that his copy should go to press. When CBS declined to publish the full text, Schorr gave it to the Village Voice instead.
His decision to proceed with the story, and to allow coworker Lesley Stahl to suffer suspicion for the leak, cost him friendships and eventually his job. But Schorr became an example to journalists everywhere when he risked jail for contempt by refusing to divulge his source to the House committee. The committee eventually backed down.
Schorr’s insistence on protecting his sources and on the public’s right to know what its government was doing set a standard for many journalists who followed him. The case of former New York Times writer Judith Miller jumps to mind.
Schorr’s work influenced me, too. When I covered federal courts I routinely stood to object whenever a judge or an attorney proposed to bar the press from covering legal proceedings. More recently, like Schorr, I have tried to imbue my commentaries with a long view of history, though my personal view is four decades shorter than his.
In an era when 55-year-olds who lose their jobs despair of ever finding another one, and when journalists in the prime of life worry about making a living, what explains Schorr’s professional longevity? He was, after all, a broadcast newsman who gained fame (and won three Emmy awards, plus a Peabody) without the benefit of polished good looks or a golden tongue. He never held an anchor seat.
But he had a keen mind and a fierce determination to give the public the unembellished truth, which seems almost quaint in an era when fact and opinion blend far too readily. Schorr was also willing to try new things. His early moves from newspapers to radio and then television were not unusual. But instead of retiring after his departure from CBS, he became the first journalist hired for Ted Turner’s seemingly quixotic cable news venture, CNN. And after parting company from CNN, Schorr returned to radio at NPR, where he remained productive to the last days of his life. In recent months he had traded in his typewriter for a computer and got himself a Twitter account.
Daniel Schorr taught me a lot of things by example. I don’t aspire to be exactly like him, but if, at age 93, I can be as engaged with the world and as influential to younger people as he was, I will have done very well. He may be gone, but I hope you detect his echo in this column for a long time to come.