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Remembering John Chancellor

July 15, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNOUNCER: The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC.

TOM BROKAW: For more than four decades, John Chancellor helped define television news. When he joined the NBC station in Chicago in 1950, just 9 percent of American homes had television.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: It was a sort of primitive caveman television that we were putting out at that time.

TOM BROKAW: In 1957, Correspondent Chancellor was at the center of the battle to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: The number of guides with the nine Negro students has been considerably diminished.

TOM BROKAW: His reporting on the civil rights struggle resonated through American society.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, Journalist: And John was a signature figure of that story. I think it’s the first time in American history that the signature figure of a great breaking story has been a television reporter and not a print reporter.

TOM BROKAW: He went on to report from more than 50 countries. In 1961, he saw the coming of the Berlin Wall.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: The German Communists can be expected to build an administrative wall, a kind of bureaucratic barricade against this flow of refugees.

TOM BROKAW: That same year, John became co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” program, but after 14 months, he knew that he was out of place.

LARRY KING: (“Larry King Live”) Was the “Today” Show fun?

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Well, the “Today” Show was awful. I found myself introducing musical acts at 7:45 in the morning, and that was, that was just too much for me. I wanted to get back to work.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: The new country is called the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria. Fourteen months ago, it achieved independence and joined the kindergarten class of undeveloped nations.

ANNOUNCER: There’s John Chancellor down there looking as though he has swallowed the Midwest.

TOM BROKAW: John had a passion for politics. He reported on 11 presidential elections, from Eisenhower to Clinton.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Well, I don’t know what to say.

TOM BROKAW: In 1964, he found himself in the spotlight at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.

SPOKESMAN: John, John, call us when you can.

DAVID BRINKLEY, ABC News: On the air he was very relaxed. He always talked as if he were talking to a good friend at the table or at a bar, or whatever. And I think that was one reason he was as successful as he was.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: This is NBC Nightly News.

TOM BROKAW: John Chancellor anchored the NBC Nightly News for a dozen years.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The Watergate bugging case tops the news tonight.

JULES WITCOVER, Columnist: He always saw himself essentially as somebody who reported a story and not somebody who was, who was a big news maker in his own right.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Richard Nixon has provided the presidency with more moments of high drama than many Presidents, perhaps any.

TOM BROKAW: With clarity and restraint, Chancellor guided viewers through a difficult decade.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Every evening for more than 10 years at family time, the war was in our living room. What we saw is impossible to forget and necessary to remember.

TOM BROKAW: From 1982 until his retirement, he was the senior commentator for NBC News.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: What’s an Israeli army doing here in Beirut? The answer is that we are now dealing with an imperial Israel, which is solving its problems in someone else’s country, and world opinion be damned.

TOM BROKAW: John saw dramatic change in more than 40 years as a reporter.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: And so it ends. Born in cynicism and now dying in cynicism, the great fake Russian empire in Eastern and Central Europe.

TOM BROKAW: In one of his final commentaries, he left his viewers with this:

JOHN CHANCELLOR: It was a privilege to be in your home all these years. Thanks for your letters, not all of which I was able to answer. Some of those letters, you realize, were not complimentary. That goes with the territory. Commentary sometimes works best when it makes people angry. I owe a great debt to a multitude of colleagues at NBC News who encouraged me, instructed me, and put up with me. I’ve seen some of them become accomplished broadcasters, and Tom Brokaw is certainly a fine example of that. It’s been a lot of fun. There’s a little secret about journalism. We would do it for free if that were possible, but they actually pay us to do it. Finally, I want to thank those of you in the audience for your patience, courtesy, and hospitality over these many years. It was an honor to be a guest in your home.

MR. LEHRER: Now for more on John Chancellor and the changes in the television news business he leaves behind. Ken Auletta of the “New Yorker” Magazine is one of our regular media watchers. Ken, John Chancellor was truly among the last of his brand, was he not?

KEN AULETTA, The New Yorker: (New York) I think he was. I mean, among other things, he was–he, like Walter Cronkite, came from a print background. He was a newspaper reporter, and then he went to this infant industry called television, as Tom Brokaw pointed out. That’s a rarity today. Today most people in television news come from the world of television.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Why–I noticed that you even used the term “dinosaur” in terms of describing his, what his approach to television news is compared to what it, what it–what his was compared to what it is now. Explain that.

MR. AULETTA: Well, I think it’s a couple of things. One, he was a linear person coming out of print. He was someone who thought you needed some time and space to create a narrative. He was–which is something you have less of in a world of shrinking sound bites which television news, because of time limits, has today. Second, he was a man of great civility in a world where if you go to a press conference you see reporters shouting questions. I remember asking Nixon’s last press secretary, Darryl Warren, what was it like to deal with Chancellor, and he said he was always a gentleman. Even when we didn’t like his questions, he asked them in a very civil way. And so he was . And so he was a man of civility, really, and, and increasingly, the business of journalism and politics is the world of people shouting at one another.

MR. LEHRER: What’s happened in that, Ken? What has caused this, this bringing of incivility or uncivility? Which is the right word, by the way?

MR. AULETTA: Either.


MR. AULETTA: Incivility works for me.

MR. LEHRER: To television news, I can–maybe politics is one thing, but in television news, what brought this to us?

MR. AULETTA: Well, competition has a lot to do with that. I mean, inevitably, as you–for instance, if you think of the three networks and public television, 15 years ago, they were a kind of a monopoly. Today you’ve got Cspan and CNN and local news, at least two, sometimes two and a half hours, an evening in news, and you’ve got online news services, and so everyone feels that they’re in competition with everyone else, which creates a kind of a frenzy, inevitably, and you’ve got more than one news cycle a day, and if you’ve watched the evening news and then the New York Times says and all the morning newspapers say, well, how do we give you something different tomorrow, and the 11 o’clock local news says, how do we give you something different at 11 tonight, so it creates this kind of a frenzy of, of–and this game of gotcha, that journalism plays more and more.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. And speaking of the new competition, of course, NBC, John Chancellor’s old outfit, entered a new era today, did it not, with its new cable news network, MSNBC? How did it go today? What’s that all about?

MR. AULETTA: It was an impressive press conference, as it was an impressive announcement when they made it this winter. Uh, they managed to scare ABC-Cap Cities and now Disney out of the 24-hour cable news channel business. They have a partner with deep pockets and with the software technology and, and knowledge that’s very valuable in Microsoft, so NBC and Microsoft together are creating both a 24-hour cable news outlet to compete with CNN in the short-term. In the long-term, they hope, even though they started today, it’s fairly primitive, the content of news is way ahead of technology, but they hope that this online service that you can sit in front of your computer, not just your television set and call up anything you want, any time you want it. The problem is to get–

MR. LEHRER: You don’t have–you’re not watching the program literally, are you, when you’re sitting there on the interactive part of it?

MR. AULETTA: You’re watching your computer screen, and the problem is that the pipe, or what they call the band width, into your computer is so narrow that in order for you to get the motion pictures from the NBC Library of 800, I think they said 800,000 pieces in their library today at the press conference, in order to get the pictures, you have to wait a long time. There’s a traffic jam. The pipe is too narrow for those pictures to go over. So I think it’ll be a while before, as, as Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, said at the press conference today, it’ll be a while before you see those, those pictures. But you can get starting today a competitor to CNN.

MR. LEHRER: Yeah. And, is there–is there a market for it? Is there money to be made?


MR. LEHRER: I mean, what’s the prognosis?

MR. AULETTA: Well, that’s the big question. I mean, the pie now, the CNN pie, is about six hundred to eight hundred thousand viewers in any given hour. If you don’t expand that pie, uh, you just cut it in half, let’s say when NBC gets in there, and then when Murdoch and Fox get in there, it’s cut in thirds. Then it’s hard to see where the economic model is. If, on the other hand, you assume that you will expand the size of that pie so instead of six or eight hundred thousand viewers an hour for news on cable you’d have one point two, one point four million, which is the most optimistic projection I’ve heard–


MR. AULETTA: –then you might have a better economic model. On the other hand, if the online service–the computer service expands–and once the technology catches up with the content–if that expands, then you may have a whole other business.

MR. LEHRER: What is, what is the avenue toward expansion in both of those? What is the selling point? What do you tell people, to watch our cable service, or to online–what is the–what’s the gimmick?

MR. AULETTA: Well, for instance, at the press conference today, they had John Lennon being interviewed by, by a former NBC news man, and John Lennon was talking about the early days of the Beatles, and then they had Jane Pauley talking to the Apollo 11 astronauts who went to the Moon. If you could actually call that up to your time, sitting at your home, and say, gee, I’d really like to watch the Apollo 11, or I’d like to watch the John Kennedy funeral again, or I, as a reporter, I want to access some material for a story I’m working on, and I could do it any time I want, I have a library in my home, and I have an entertainment jukebox in my home then. That is very exciting because no longer am I dependent upon your NewsHour when you come on, or am I dependent on NBC News at 6:30 at night or “Cheers” or “Friends” or whatever, I can watch anything I want anytime I want it. That’s the problem.

MR. LEHRER: And, Ken, isn’t that also the excitement, though, that nobody knows how this is going to end or where it’s going to end, or whether the people are out there for it or not?

MR. AULETTA: Yeah. We’re–the truth is that in the communications business, Jim, we’re jumping off a bridge, and we don’t know whether there’s concrete or water below it.


MR. AULETTA: Or how the bridge is.

MR. LEHRER: Okay, Ken, thank you very much.

MR. AULETTA: My pleasure.