A genius of the short-take looks back

Even Richard Nixon couldn't keep Daniel Schorr from telling it like it is

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Every newsroom used to have its icon: the gentleman journalist whose grammar and enunciation were so formal he even cussed that way, whose grasp of history was encyclopedic, whose need to know was insatiable, and whose manner conveyed heft of intellect and dignity.

Dan Schorr is one of those guys - the top of a dwindling heap of those guys.

I didn't have to read his memoir to know this. I got to know him and hear some of his stories while editing his weekly op-ed column in this newspaper. That is, if "editing" is hunting down his rare misspelling or holding steady against his occasional but passionate tantrums over a simple word tweak. (After years of association with this newspaper, Schorr still can't reconcile himself to the fact that the Monitor does not use medical metaphors to describe news events.)

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As a news analyst, Schorr - an octogenarian still working full time for National Public Radio - is a genius of the intelligent short-take informed by 60 years of reporting from all over the world.

By all rights, a Schorr memoir should be a meaningful read. And with few exceptions, his book fulfills that expectation. It's a rich weave: one man's career threading through the fabric of post-World War II planet Earth. From Nikita Khrushchev to Frank Zappa - Schorr met them all. That's not to say they were on civil terms with him: LBJ called him up in the night to cuss him out, and Martin Luther King took him to task for the harm TV news did to the civil rights movement by focusing on the most radical, hot-headed black activists.

The most dramatic moment of Schorr's career, though, would have to be the moment he was racing to beat his competition in airing the release of Nixon's "enemies" list. Without previewing it, he read the list of 20 enemies, live, on CBS TV. When he got to No. 17, he discovered it was his own name.

One of the three articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon included abuse of presidential power for siccing the FBI on Schorr to discourage his reporting.

Schorr makes it a point to explain that his is more a professional than a personal memoir. And if there's any weakness in the book, it's that. He tosses out a few tidbits about his personal life - his 40th birthday party was graced with live music by Isaac Stern; he played poker with the US ambassador to Russia; he grew up feeling like an outsider because he was "poor, fat, Jewish, fatherless." He confesses to having turned down a UN posting to go to Germany for CBS because the woman he was involved with then was a diplomat there. But disappointingly, he never - ever - mentions the woman again. On the other hand, he offers some tender references to his late-in-life marriage and his son and daughter, born in the Nixon era.

But the most valuable part of the book is Schorr's synthesis of the precipitous evolution of the news media in the last half-century. He started his foreign correspondence career with this news-paper in the late '40s, became one of Edward R. Murrow's last recruits in the '50s, and was the first on-air talent hired by Ted Turner when he created CNN.

In his own leaps through media technology, Schorr has seen the creation of a new breed of citizen (camera savvy), journalist ("more knowledgeable of the medium than the world"), and politician (adept at sound bites but not reflective). Now, he looks at the Web and says: "In the Internet age, people can select the information they want. But how will they know what they don't know - and maybe should know?"

This is a book that makes you grateful there has been someone like Dan Schorr to tell you what you don't know.

Clara Germani is a former editor of the Monitor's op-ed page.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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