The United States was called into being by a journalist, Tom Paine, who promptly fell out with the regal John Adams, offended George Washington and finally strained his relationship with fellow democrat Thomas Jefferson so thoroughly that the third president stopped responding to his letters. By the time the author of the pamphlets that inspired the anti-colonial armies died, in 1809, his contemporary and compatriot in the revolutionary circle has assumed to the presidency; despite their thirty-five years of acquaintance, however, James Madison neglected to attend nor officially note the passing.
That is as it should be.
Journalists are not supposed to be friends of presidents.
Dan Schorr understood that.
Indeed, few it any modern journalists practiced the Paineite craft of making all the right enemies so ably as did Schorr.
Schorr was not a pamphleteer. Though he was a crisp and efficient writer, Schorr inclined toward the microphone and camera as a CBS correspondent who got run out of Moscow, as the CNN correspondent who got the cable network going with a typically-pointed interview of then-President Jimmy Carter and as NPR’s resident truth teller until shortly before his death Friday at age 93.
The clip that will be repeated for as long as broadcast journalism history classes are taught will be of Schorr, broadcasting live from outside the Senate Watergate hearing room with a copy of Richard Nixon’s White House “enemies list.” The list of Americans who had gotten on the wrong side of the president had just been revealed and Schorr was reading through the first twenty “enemies.” After he finished with California Congressman Ron Dellums, he read the next name—without a dramatic pause or any show of emotion: “Daniel Schorr, a real media enemy.”
What was important about Schorr was not that his name was on the enemies list, however. It was what he did to get it there.
Schorr’s unofficial beat was always the abuse of power. He challenged Soviet communists and American capitalists (including his bosses at CBS and CNN) with the same relentless questioning. And when he got the story, he got it out—even if his editors refused to let him go with it personally. Famously, in the mid-'70s, when Schorr was leaked a copy of the secret “Pike Report”—named for the chair of an House Intelligence Committee inquiry into Central Intelligence Agency intrigues and illegality—CBS refused to go with it. Schorr promptly leaked the report to the Village Voice, a newspaper he was certain would run it.
That was too much for CBS and, despite having won Emmy Awards in three of the four preceding years, Schorr was soon no longer working for CBS.
At CNN, he clashed with Ted Turner over the cable executive’s determination to censor films—a serious issue with Schorr, who forged an unlikely partnership with musician Frank Zappa, another free-speech absolutist. In 1985, his CNN contract was not renewed and Schorr moved to NPR, where we got to know one another.
Schorr was supposed to be a grand old man, delivering kindly comments on Saturday morning and stepping in when some historical perspective was needed from someone born during Woodrow Wilson’s first term.
But he refused to play the grand old man role.
My favorite moment came when he was asked his opinion of the decision by a 5-4 Supreme Court majority to stop the Florida recount of 2000 and award the presidency to George W. Bush, who had lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 and who appeared to be on his way to losing Florida and, with it, the Electoral College. The issue had been settled and most journalists were parsing things in a manner that might allow them to get on the good side of the notoriously vengeful Bush-Cheney team.
But Schorr minced no words.
The court decision was, he declared, “a judicial coup” carried out by “the Gang of Five, philosophically led by archconservative Antonin Scalia.”
At the age of 84, Schorr was making himself the enemy of another administration by speaking a truth that most journalists would not.
Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the activist justices were not pleased. But, surely, Tom Paine would have been.