Daniel Schorr dies at 93; controversial CBS and CNN broadcaster became elder statesman at NPR
Daniel Schorr, who became the elder statesman of public radio after decades as a feisty television broadcaster for CBS and CNN, has died. He was 93.
Schorr died Friday morning after a short illness at a Washington hospital, National Public Radio announced. His last broadcast on that network aired on July 10.
A working journalist for more than 60 years, the indefatigable Schorr was the last active member of Murrow’s Boys, the legendary group of journalists who worked at CBS News in the 1940s and ‘50s under Edward R. Murrow. He was a high-profile CBS reporter for 23 years before leaving amid controversy in 1976.
In 1985, after several years at CNN, he joined National Public Radio, where as a senior news analyst he was heard regularly on the “Weekend Edition” and “Week in Review” programs.
“Nobody else in broadcast journalism — or perhaps any field — had as much experience and wisdom” as Schorr, “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon said Friday. “I’m just glad that, after being known for so many years as a tough and uncompromising journalist, NPR listeners also got to know the Dan Schorr that was playful, funny and kind. In a business that’s known for burning out people, Dan Schorr shined for nearly a century.”
Having a long view of national and world events gave the reporter who once covered Watergate and found himself on President Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” a perfect second career as a sober commentator.
“He lived through so many years of history, and he put that to the service of his commentaries,” Geoffrey Cowan, dean emeritus of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, said in 2004. “He never lost his edge. He was always outspoken and independent.”
Schorr said he “breathed the breath of freedom” at NPR. “Nobody ever told me what not to do.”
During his CBS career, he addressed serious subjects in the U.S. and on foreign assignments and won a Peabody Award for his hourlong CBS documentary on “The Poisoned Air.”
But controversy followed him, because of both his aggressive coverage of stories and his sometimes cantankerous relationships with his superiors and co-workers. New York magazine in 1975 dubbed him “the great abrasive.”
That year, as a CBS reporter, Schorr covered the House Intelligence Committee hearings on CIA covert operations, including assassination plots. Schorr was slipped a copy of the intelligence committee’s draft report, the contents of which he reported on the CBS Sunday News. He was the only journalist to actually have a copy of the report, although the New York Times had seen it and had written about it that same day.
A few days later, partly in reaction to Schorr’s reporting, the House of Representatives voted to lock up the remaining copies of the draft report and keep the final report secret.
Schorr decided that, since he had the only copy of the report in general circulation, he had a responsibility to get it published in full.
When he turned to CBS for help, however, he did not get an immediate answer, so he offered the report to the Village Voice, a left-leaning weekly newspaper in New York. The Voice published a 24-page supplement with the headline: “The Report on the CIA That President Ford Doesn’t Want You To Read.”
The low point during this time came when Schorr “dissembled” — his word — by not disabusing a CBS executive of the notion that perhaps Lesley Stahl, who worked with Schorr and who was then engaged to (and later married) Village Voice writer Aaron Latham, was involved in getting the report to the Voice.
Schorr said later that he was stalling for time in order to figure out how best to protect the person who had given him the report. But Stahl, who felt he had fingered her or Latham as a thief, was furious. Their colleagues took her side.
Though Schorr called Stahl to say he was sorry, his behavior engendered so much ill will that he was no longer welcome in the Washington bureau where both had been working.
The second and more serious consequence of getting the report published came when the House committee demanded to know Schorr’s source. He refused to divulge it, risking a contempt citation.
CBS executives, upset at Schorr’s giving the Voice material that they considered CBS property, asked him to resign. They agreed to a secret suspension until the committee hearings were complete and provided him with legal representation.
Months later, when Schorr was questioned by the committee, he made a strong defense of the 1st Amendment: “To betray a confidential source would mean to dry up many future sources for many reporters. The reporter and the news organization would be the immediate losers, but the ultimate losers would be the American people and their free institutions.”
A week after he appeared, the House Ethics Committee abandoned its effort to have Schorr cited for contempt. And, oddly, CBS News president Richard S. Salant, who was impressed both with Schorr’s eloquence and the positive public response to his testimony, attempted to get Schorr to stay at the network.
“Difficult as Dan was from time to time, he was a great investigative reporter,” Salant wrote in his 1999 memoir.
After writing “Clearing the Air” (1977), which mostly gave his side of the events of the previous two years, Schorr taught briefly at UC Berkeley and wrote a syndicated column.
In 1979, Ted Turner recruited him for his new venture in 24-hour journalism, Cable News Network.
Schorr covered the 1980 presidential campaign and the release of the American hostages from Iran, among many other major stories.
He stayed at CNN through the 1984 GOP political convention in Dallas, when he tangled with Turner over the mogul’s desire to pair Schorr with former Texas Gov. John Connally as co-commentators during the convention.
Schorr balked, saying he would be happy to interview Connally “but not share the same side of the table” because he viewed Connally as a news subject.
“After Dallas, my relations with CNN management were strained,” Schorr wrote in his 2001 book, “Staying Tuned.” Several months later, he was put on “terminal leave” until his contract expired.
Not long after, as he neared 70, Schorr was asked by NPR, for which he had done occasional commentaries, to expand his role.
Schorr said he was “accorded some of the respect of an elder statesman” and became known for his ability to put current events — such as President Clinton’s impeachment hearings and the tumultuous 2000 presidential election — into historical context.
He seemed to mellow somewhat. The motto with which he had started his career — “Find out what they’re hiding and tell those who need to know” — evolved into this: “The people know a lot. Tell them what to make of it.”
Daniel Louis Schorr was born to Russian immigrants on Aug. 31, 1916, in New York City and grew up in the Bronx.
His father died when he was 6 and he worked at odd jobs to help his mother, a seamstress.
“I grew up with a sense that you had to make your own way without help,” he told the Washington Post’s Potomac magazine in 1976.
He began on a path toward journalism as a schoolboy, editing a monthly newspaper at the Bronx Jewish Center. At age 13, after seeing a woman jump out the window of his family’s apartment building, he coolly called in the details to the local newspaper and earned his first $5 as a reporter.
He received his bachelor’s degree from City College (now City University) of New York in 1939 and began his career at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York.
After a stint in the Army, during which he worked in public relations and intelligence in Louisiana and Texas, he worked at a Netherlands East Indies news agency and then freelanced for newspapers and magazines.
Frustrated in his ambition to be hired by the New York Times, he turned to broadcast journalism in 1953 when Murrow, who had heard Schorr’s on-the-scene radio reports of Holland’s floods, invited him to join CBS News’ Washington bureau.
Schorr covered Capitol Hill and the State Department before being sent in 1955 to open the network’s office in Moscow. After defying censorship regulations, however, Schorr was not allowed to return to Moscow following a visit to the U.S. in 1957.
In the ensuing years with CBS, he covered the United Nations and fielded assignments in Warsaw, Geneva, Paris, Havana and Germany.
Returning to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, Schorr covered President Johnson’s “Great Society” initiatives. At age 50, he married Lisbeth Bamberger, who was working on health issues for LBJ’s War on Poverty.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Jonathan, of Oakland; a daughter, Lisa Kaplan, of Boston; and a grandchild.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
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