TERENCE SMITH: The book is "Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism." The author is veteran news man Daniel Schorr. He has covered the news for more than six decades, starting as a stringer for The New York Times, working for CBS alongside Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, then joining the fledging cable news network, CNN. Today he's a commentator on National Public Radio. Dan Schorr, welcome to the broadcast.
DANIEL SCHORR: Glad to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: In a lifetime of reporting, there must be stories that stand out as the best and maybe the worst. What are they?
DANIEL SCHORR: Well, best or worst. Let me mention one which lives in my memory. That was the fact that I learned about a meeting that President Ford had held with some New York Times people, at which he let loose the fact that the CIA had been involved in assassinations conspiracies. The Times, for reasons of its own, decided not to use the story. I learned about it and broke the story. And as a result of breaking the story precipitated a very intensive investigation both by a commission headed by Vice President Rockefeller and by Senator Church's Senate Investigations Committee. The result of that was to bring back Richard Helms, who had been around at the time, who was furious with me. The result of that was to open up the whole question of the attempts to kill Castro and the result of the CIA's involvement with the mafia and Jack Kennedy's involvement with both.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you conclude from that in terms of the way our government works and the way it works with a journalist when a very sensitive story has come to the fore?
DANIEL SCHORR: What I learned about that was, first of all, that power exercised in secret is frequently exercised in the stupid... most stupid possible way. A lot of things that were done by the CIA that were wrong, but in the light of day they probably would not have done them. To plan all these assassination attempts on President Sukarno of Indonesia -- of one person or another seems for the people who did them, when you get to know them, to be an almost impossible thing. And because they are accustomed to working in secret, they deeply and deeply resent the press coming in and exposing what they don't want to have exposed, and they don't forgive it.
TERENCE SMITH: You also, of course, devote much time in the book and did in your career to Watergate and to its aftermath.
DANIEL SCHORR: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And, in fact, you describe that moment when on live television you read the "enemies' list," as it was so called.
DANIEL SCHORR: The most electrifying moment, I think, of my most entire career.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us about it.
DANIEL SCHORR: Here was I covering Watergate. There were hearings on going on. Three networks carried them gavel to gavel. And John Dean says, "and another thing, they've been keeping lists called enemies' lists." They were submitted in evidence but not read during the hearing. And so we ran outside the Senate caucus room and waited for a copy to be given to us. And I was handed a copy live on the air, had never seen it before, read it, and there it was from John Dean to H.R. Halderman. "Subject: On Screwing Our Political Enemies." This is a priority list of 20. And I read down a list. At 17 came to my own name with the notation next to it "a real media enemy." I think I tried not to gulp. I tried not to the gasp. So I read on. Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, now back to you. But then I broke out …
TERENCE SMITH: You read it without comment?
DANIEL SCHORR: I read it without a comment. I just tossed it right back. I wanted to collapse.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, in the film that was made after Watergate "All the President's Men," you write in the book that Robert Redford asked you to play yourself in the film.
DANIEL SCHORR: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And that you declined because you thought it would be crossing a line.
DANIEL SCHORR: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: But later in your career, you did appear in films. So I wonder what your thought was and what changed.
DANIEL SCHORR: Well, consistency is a hobgoblin of very small minds. Through most of my career, I said I am the defender of reality, and I cannot play a part in illusion of any kind.
TERENCE SMITH: Such as a film.
DANIEL SCHORR: Such as a film. And when Redford asked me to play the part of what I had actually done in that, except I would be playing opposite an actor playing Hugh Sloan -- and I was not going to be an actor -- and I thought that would create a certain confusion, and I said no. But you're absolutely right to point out that subsequently I did little small in a picture called "The Siege," other small pictures of that sort. And when The Boston Globe said to me, "How come you, the great defender of reality and all that will play a part in these pictures?" I said, "Well, because it amused me. That's why, and I don't have any defense to make." So thank God I said it with unusual candor. (Laughs )
TERENCE SMITH: So his defense was no defense.
DANIEL SCHORR: Defense was no defense.
TERENCE SMITH: You write also towards the end of your book about what you describe as a decline of journalism in public esteem.
DANIEL SCHORR: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And you particularly have television in mind, I think. Tell me what you're talking about.
DANIEL SCHORR: Well, first of all, there have been some polls that indicate that people don't respect journalists anymore. But they used to... The whole idea of a guy with a hat band and a press card and drank too much and $25 a week who considered to be the defender of the public no longer prevails.
Most people regard the press, and especially the television press, as being a part of the establishment or an establishment of its own, and "they're not protecting us, they're just doing things in order to titillate us. They're giving us sex, they're giving us violence. And we don't regard them as being on our side." More and more, you get that, especially with regard to television. It is very difficult to take somebody, get millions and millions of dollars for sitting in front of a camera and reading off the teleprompter and say, "that's my First Amendment hero." It's very hard to do.
TERENCE SMITH: And yet you wouldn't argue that the fact that they're a little better dressed and maybe don't drink so much is necessarily a bad thing?
DANIEL SCHORR: No, not at all. But what is necessarily not a bad thing, but it's a phenomenon in which we have to live with today is that more and more are people who are chosen for how they look, what they sound like, as anchor people reading off teleprompters who are not truly journalists anymore. My profession has become a part of a little thing on a vast entertainment stage playing its part in that entertainment, using the tools of entertainment, and frequently confusing people about what is real and what is not real.
TERENCE SMITH: You had a suggestion in your earlier answer then that maybe the intrusion into public lives and personal lives of politicians is too great. Is that what you were suggesting?
DANIEL SCHORR: No, it is very hard to say after the whole... After the whole episode with President Clinton. I mean, after all, when things become impeachable offenses, it's very difficult to say that these are trivial things anymore. But it does remain true that everybody is looking for the next scandal to get you the next Pulitzer Prize or the next Emmy Award. And it usually is if you can really find a scandal.
And there are lots of things going on in this country that need to be covered, which aren't scandalous, per se, but need to be covered. And they're being neglected as our young people grow up trying to imitate Woodward and Bernstein, trying to imitate those who have made fame and fortune on scandal or violence or sex.
TERENCE SMITH: The book is called "Staying Tuned." The author is Dan Schorr. Dan, thank you very much.
DANIEL SCHORR: Thank you.