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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,126

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This is the grave of Daniel Schorr.

Born in 1916 in The Bronx, Schorr would have been Daniel Tchornemoretz if his parents hadn’t simplified their name in English (or had it simplified for them by an Ellis Island immigration agent) when they immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Schorr started in journalism in something of a weird way. A woman in his family’s apartment building jumped off the top to her death in 1929. Schorr is who found her. Now, normally this would be a traumatic experience. I don’t know, maybe it was for him too. In any case though, he called the police. Then he called the local newspaper. They paid him $5 for the information. Evidently, he thought, hey I can make money for this? So he decided to become a reporter.

Schorr worked on his high school newspaper and then went to City College. He put himself through school by writing for the Jewish Daily Bulletin and he graduated in 1939. Then World War II struck and he was in the Army, mostly doing intelligence work at forts in the U.S. I don’t think he ever saw action. After the war, he found work as a stringer for news services, but that wasn’t the kind of success he wanted. However, Edward R. Murrow came calling after he did some impressive reporting on storm damage in the Netherlands. Murrow was a legendary talent scout for good reporters, which went back to the war. In 1953, Murrow had CBS News hire Schorr and that worked out well for all involved. Ambitious and interested in the world, Schorr worked hard to get CBS to send him to Moscow as its Soviet correspondent in 1955. That lasted for only a few years. It was the period of the post-Stalin thaw. But that only went so far. Schorr actually scored an interview with Nikita Khrushchev in 1957. But he also pushed the censorship laws and in 1958, he was denied a visa renewal to stay in Moscow.

Schorr was not easily dissuaded though. He was not only interested in communist nations but he realized that Americans were too. In 1962, after spending a significant amount of time in East Germany and somehow avoiding security enough to be able to do some actual reporting and filming, he had a documentary completed for CBS called The Land Beyond the Wall: Three Weeks in a German City. This was a sensation, showing Americans something they had never seen before. It also made Schorr’s name as a major figure in journalism. He had conned the government of East Germany by saying he wasn’t going to do a propaganda film and then just did interviews. But more subtly, it was propaganda becuase it focused on the poverty and desperation of the East Germans, making it very clear why that nation had built the Berlin Wall since who would want to live there.

Schorr pretty much didn’t care what he had to do get his story. Dean Rusk as Secretary of State once laid into Schorr for getting in the way of national security by paying off sources in sensitive areas, but Schorr didn’t care. And he could get sloppy. In 1964, he reported that Barry Goldwater was traveling to Germany to meet with far-right elements and pay his respect to the Nazis. That got him in a lot of trouble with his bosses, who mostly didn’t really like Goldwater but certainly didn’t want to be accused of being a station that printed lies about Republicans. This didn’t seem to bother Schorr much either though.

Richard Nixon really hated Schorr. Of course Nixon hated everyone, but this kind of journalist was exactly what Nixon ranted against. In 1971, after something that really pissed off Nixon, the White House had the FBI start an investigation against him, which of course it later denied. Yes indeed, Schorr made it to the Enemies List, the pride of anyone on there. Now, Schorr did not know this at the time, but he was doggedly reporting Watergate and won Emmys for his reporting in 1972, 1973, and 1974. In fact, the way Schorr discovered he was on the Enemies List was pretty entertaining. The existence of the list came during a broadcast. As it was breaking news, Schorr was just given the list in the middle of the broadcast. He started reading it and got to the 17th name….and it was his!

Schorr did not take to being told what to do, from anyone. So he banked a lot of his reputation on being able to get away with stuff. In 1976, he went public with the secret report from the Pike Committee, which was a investigation going on at the same time as the Church Committee on much of the same things–illegal activities by the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies. CBS was furious and so was the CIA. Congress called him to testify. Schorr refused to divulge his sources and basically dared them to imprison him. He left CBS after this.

In the aftermath of the Pike Committee issue, there was a lot of accusations between Schorr and Lesley Stahl that were pretty nasty, where he accused her of leaking it all before he could and her considering filing a slander suit against him. In fact, it was Schorr who did this and let Stahl take the blame. This is some pretty bad stuff on his part. And that’s really my takeaway from all of this discussion of Schorr. I don’t doubt he was a good reporter, but he also very much helped create the Beltway class of modern journalism in which reporters think of themselves as above scrutiny and criticism. In his case, a lot of his work was actually good in exposing some pretty bad things, but he was also quite sloppy at times, as in the Goldwater incident. I can see why CBS would eventually decide to cut bait here.

He was a little lost after this. He taught journalism at Berkeley for a bit but hated it. He was so desperate he started a column for the newspaper in Des Moines, who didn’t even renew his contract after two years. It wasn’t as if Schorr was through. In fact, he was the first reporter hired by CNN in 1981. That helped give the new network legitimacy. Barry Goldwater immediately tried to undercut CNN by demanding it fire Schorr, but Ted Turner told him to put a sock in his big fat mouth. However, Schorr only stayed for four years when CNN decided not to renew his contract. This was at Schorr’s outrage about CNN bringing politicians into the media, specifically teaming him with John Connolly for the 1984 RNC. Have to give Schorr a lot of credit on this one–the mixture of political analyst and media figure has been a real blight on anything like decent political coverage in this nation and especially at CNN. At that point, he became the person I know him for, a long-time contributor to NPR, where he worked until almost the very end of his long life.

Schorr died in 2010. He was 93 years old.

Daniel Schorr is buried in Parklawn Memorial Park, Rockville, Maryland.

If you would like this series to visit other television journalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Marguerite Higgins is in Arlington and Chet Huntley is in Bozeman, Montana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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