Staying tuned

Four score and seven years ... it's an evocative number. So for my 87th birthday, an editor asked me to put aside my brooding over the events of the day and reminisce a little about the past.

Reminisce! I grew up in a world without jet planes or ballpoint pens, without nylon hose or atomic bombs. And without TV - which I first saw demonstrated at the New York World's Fair in 1939. I little realized that television would transform the nature of journalism, my chosen profession.

I was then still of the "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite" school. But 15 years later, I would be abandoning the printed press and joining Ed Murrow at CBS. I soon learned that television wasn't just about conveying information, but about glorifying the conveyor of the information - the star. When I asked a young producer the secret of success for a print reporter going into television, he replied, "Sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

So I faked sincerity as best I could, which wasn't too well, during 23 years on CBS and five years on CNN. I must admit that I enjoyed a lot of it. Like opening the CBS Moscow bureau and getting Khrushchev to sit for his first TV interview, or, especially, covering Watergate and finding my name on Nixon's enemies list.

Most of my journalistic career was dominated by the search for the scoop. My most consequential one was revealing on the CBS evening news in 1975 that, under several presidents, the CIA had tried to assassinate Fidel Castro and various other third-world leaders. That disclosure touched off a searing Senate investigation that concluded the agency had not actually killed anyone - but not for want of trying.

Since leaving Ted Turner's CNN in 1985 and joining National Public Radio, I've found a satisfying home for the evening of my career. I've also returned to an old love with a weekly column in The Christian Science Monitor.

I no longer pursue scoops, but concentrate on the context and meaning of things. I interact with journalists a third to half my age, who seem to regard me as a walking history book. If asked, I tell them one lesson I have learned in some 60 years in journalism: There are, today more than ever, pressures to conform and not rock the boat. At least once in your lifetime, take a risk for a principle you believe in. Even if it brings you up against your bosses.

So I'm glad to be considered a walking history book - as long as I'm still walking.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio. His latest book, a memoir, is 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism.'

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