Farwell to one of the great two-fisted broadcast journalists
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
If only Daniel Schorr had remained healthy a little longer, he would've been afforded the opportunity to weigh in on the WikiLeaks/Afghanistan story. And he surely would've relished doing so. To borrow a baseball term, that story was right in his wheelhouse.
Schorr, who died Friday after 93 years on earth and 60 years in journalism, was one of the last links to the pre-Internet golden age of two-fisted broadcasting, which is why he rates a special mention here. During his long career, particularly at CBS News and at National Public Radio, he crafted a well-earned reputation as a combative reporter and analyst who bucked governmental authority in the service of the truth. He ferreted out the real story, often aided by leakers on the inside. He shared his findings with the public, and, most admirably of all, he couldn't have cared less who got ticked off.
Schorr would've instinctively understood the purpose of the Afghanistan document dump, that the leaked battlefield reports (as vetted by three top newspapers) are intended to enlighten the public about a war that's going worse than officially portrayed. He would've noted that messengers often pay a price for disseminating unwelcome messages; after all, he was thrown out of Moscow during the '50s when the Soviets grew displeased with his CBS reporting, and he was essentially eased out of CBS in the mid-70s when the network grew displeased with his attempts to air a secret congressional report on CIA illegalities. (Threatened with jail time and a $100,000 fine for contempt of Congress, he ultimately gave the leaked document to the Village Voice, which published it. Congress backed down on its threat. The republic didn't fall.)
Schorr was the 17th name on President Richard Nixon's official "enemies list." One incident during that era best illustrates his relationship with authority (or, more precisely, the reverse):
One summer night in 1971, Nixon gave a speech to the Knights of Columbus and promised that he would give federal money to private parochial schools. The next day, anchorman Walter Cronkite asked Schorr to do a piece on the issue for The CBS Evening News. Schorr interviewed various administration officials and parochial school lobbyists, and learned that Nixon's promise was a con, that he was merely pandering to Catholic voters with an eye on his '72 re-election, that he couldn't have funded the schools even if he wanted to because the U.S. Supreme Court had put the kibosh on those kinds of funds.
Schorr duly aired his report. Three days later, the FBI, acting at the administration's specific request, opened an investigation into Schorr's background. The FBI sent agents around the country to quiz 25 of Schorr's friends, family, and colleagues. The ostensible reason to check out rumors that Schorr's wife may have had some "Marxist" associations in her past.
The FBI probe didn't stay secret; ultimately, it was disclosed in The Washington Post. Then came the fun part. The Nixon people decided that, in order to spare themselves embarrassment, they needed to concoct some fake spin about why they had been investigating Schorr. So they publicly claimed that they'd screened his background with the intention of offering him a job, bringing him onto the Nixon team - as assistant to the chairman of the Environmental Quality Council.
It later turned out that Nixon himself had crafted this lie - and apparently he came to believe it. In 1991, Schorr attended a Nixon speech; as he recalled in an interview two months ago, he approached the former president when the speech was over and said, "Mr. Nixon, I'm not sure you remember me. My name is Daniel Schorr." To which Nixon replied, "Sure, Dan Schorr. Damn near hired you once."
Just 17 days ago, Schorr was still on the air at NPR, in what would be his final stint - offering historical context on U.S.-Russian spy swaps, opining on the sensitive but necessary Obama-Netanyahu alliance ("they are condemned to be good friends"), and envisioning a long legal battle over the Arizona immigration law. Host Scott Simon then said, "Dan, thanks very much."
Schorr replied, "Any time."