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Veteran CBS News Figure Harry Reasoner Dies at 68 : Broadcasting: The commentator, who preferred a light touch, helped to launch ’60 Minutes.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harry Reasoner, the television reporter and anchor whose dry wit and quiet eloquence graced network newscasts for more than three decades, died Tuesday at a Connecticut hospital, CBS News announced.

Reasoner, 68, died of cardiopulmonary arrest at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Conn., where he was admitted on June 11, the network said. The day after his admission, he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain.

He and Mike Wallace in 1968 were the original correspondents on “60 Minutes,” CBS’ top-rated news magazine, and he retired from the show May 19 after 15 seasons during two separate stints.

“He was the small-town kid who came to the big town and brought the small town with him,” said Don Hewitt, executive producer and creator of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

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“He never changed his values. No matter how big he got, he was always Harry Reasoner from Iowa and we loved him for it,” Hewitt said.

Wallace recalled that Reasoner was “utterly without guile. Gentle, kind.”

Another “60 Minutes” colleague, Morley Safer, said Reasoner’s “most important contribution to journalism in this country was showing that it is possible to excel while not being an egotistical fool.”

At the time he stepped down as a “60 Minutes” co-editor to become “editor emeritus,” he recalled when he was asked by Hewitt to make a pilot episode for the show.

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“I said, ‘Sure,’ but I also said I didn’t think it would fly,” he said. “I’ve been wrong a lot but never so happily wrong. I can’t imagine anything I could have done that would have been so rewarding.”

Reasoner began his journalism career as a reporter on the now-defunct Minneapolis Times in 1942. He joined CBS News in New York in 1956, working his way up through the ranks as a radio and TV newscaster and commentator. He became known for his light touch with the news and a warm, personal style, and went on to win four Emmy awards and a Peabody Award.

“I think light is just as much a part of news as heavy,” he said in 1969. “What I resent is the implication that merely because you see something funny, you are going to take that attitude toward everything.”

Los Angeles Times television writer Rick Du Brow called Reasoner “a wonderful all-purpose TV journalist. He could write, he could report, he could anchor, he knew the story was more important than he was, and yet he had enduring star quality. And his terse, dry humor could be endearing.

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“A lot of people forget that he once was considered a strong prospect to succeed Walter Cronkite as CBS’ nightly news anchor. Although he finally became ABC’s anchor for a while, his best work was probably in the field, and ’60 Minutes’ was the perfect vehicle for him.”

Reasoner fully appreciated that vehicle.

“You sometimes get awfully tired of airplanes,” Reasoner told The Times in 1981 as he set off to Switzerland for a story. “But being a reporter for ’60 Minutes’ is the best job in journalism, maybe the best job in the world of any kind.”

Before joining the original “60 Minutes” broadcast team, Reasoner was co-host of the network’s morning show “Calendar” from 1961 to 1963, the anchor for “CBS Sunday News” from 1963 to 1970 and a floor reporter and co-anchor for the network’s election-night coverage during several campaigns.

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In 1970, after two years on “60 Minutes,” Reasoner was lured away to anchor the ABC evening news at a salary reported at the time to be $200,000 a year. Time Magazine said the new anchor’s total compensation was “something close to $1 million overall.”

Reasoner reacted with typical drollery to speculation about his earnings.

“My wife thinks I’m making more than I’m worth,” he said.

At ABC, he co-anchored the evening news with Howard K. Smith and hosted the weekend “Reasoner Report,” a program whose filmed stories and on-camera essays ranged from a consideration of whether stewardesses age well to a report on how drought affects the economy of the African country of Niger.

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The report also showcased Reasoner’s facility with language. His Christmas, 1973, broadcast reflected on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland.

“Outside the sanity of Jordanstown School, there is one sign of hope and one sign of fear this Christmas in Belfast,” Reasoner wrote for his on-air narration. “The sign of hope is the new political accommodation: moderate leaders on both sides sticking their necks out a bit for peace.

“The sign of fear is the same agreement, where one group of extremists say we won this much by terror, and try for more; where another group says we lost this much by not being terrible enough, and try to destroy it.”

And after Billie Jean King soundly thrashed tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in a much-hyped nationally televised match, he commented:

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“I think we in the mob are doing better than we used to. Humiliating Bobby Riggs may be cruel, but it’s a vast improvement over throwing Christians to the lions.

At ABC, he was paired with Barbara Walters as co-anchor in 1976 in what critics have called a shotgun marriage doomed to failure. Two years later, he returned to CBS and “60 Minutes.”

He was particularly proud of his years anchoring “ABC Evening News” with Smith. He said the broadcast brought ABC from a poor third in network ratings to a competitive third and sometimes second.

A native of Dakota City, Iowa, he was the son of Harry Ray Reasoner, a school superintendent, and Eunice Nicholl Reasoner, a teacher. In 1934 the family moved to Minneapolis.

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Reasoner studied journalism at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. While still in school, he worked for the Times until he was drafted into the Army for World War II.

Discharged, he rejoined the Times in 1946 as a rewrite man and drama critic, but lost the critic’s job after panning a road company musical.

“It was one of the New York shows that came to Minneapolis,” Reasoner said in a 1961 interview, “and the theory was that you couldn’t criticize them or they’d stop coming there.”

His first and only novel, “Tell Me About Women” was published in 1946 and was “warmly received,” Reasoner said. “That means it didn’t sell too well.”

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His collected essays, “The Reasoner Report,” were published in 1966 and his memoir, “Before the Colors Fade,” was published in 1981.

After two years as a Northwest Airlines publicist, he returned to news writing in 1950 at radio station WCCO in Minneapolis, a CBS affiliate. In 1951, he joined the U.S. Information Service and worked in Manila for three years.

Forty years after dropping out of the University of Minnesota, Reasoner earned his degree in journalism in 1989.

“The oldest B.A. in the history of the university,” he said with a chuckle. “Honorary degrees are one thing. This is a real one. I’m proud of it.”

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Reasoner is survived by his wife, Lois, of Westport, Conn., and two sons and five daughters from his first marriage to Kathleen Carroll Reasoner, who died in 1986.

Funeral services are pending.


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