The journalist Daniel Schorr died today at age 93. I wish I could claim him as a landsman — the Yiddish term for someone from your hometown or shtetl — and it is within the realm of possibility that there is some distant genotypic relation since my family name was sometimes spelled the same way back in the same general geographical area (Belarus in his case, Galicia/now the Ukraine, in mine). But I note his death on A Year of Positive Thinking because my work as a painter and a writer is not only marked by various art influences but also by the models for political courage that I witnessed and heard about over the years (I do not place myself in the league of such figures but that such models existed helped form my political focus just as such figures today help me get through moments of political despair).
The presence of principled journalists is a necessity for the survival of a democracy. The transmission of political memory through the living presence of such individuals as they remain percipient in our time is a great resource and thus it is sad to lose this particular individual’s political memory and conscience. That all sounds pompous, so let’s just say how interesting it could be to watch TV network news when a certain weight and trustworthiness attached to TV anchors and reporters in a smaller, more centralized but less polarized media environment (the past). It was fun to watch as some mainstream reporters got a kick out of engaging with political outrage: I think of seeing Dan Rather being assaulted on the floor of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 by Mayor Richard Daley’s thugs during CBS News’s live, gavel to gavel, coverage. Despite what was taking place it was a treat, even a moment of a kind of sheer political joy, let me tell you!
[I get that sense of joy from Jon Stewart’s inspired comedic riffs on The Daily Show but there is a dark undercurrent to my pleasure because Stewart’s existence is predicated on the utter failure of much TV “news” media to engage with facts and pursue injustice. Daniel Schorr was part of a generation of journalists with high standards in that regard. Thus, during Watergate for example, our Democracy still seemed fundamentally sound even when the President was undermining the Constitution– as people used to say, “the system worked,” even though paradoxically it had nearly failed. To be fair and not to totally lapse into unquestioning nostalgia for the past, Schorr, his mentor, Edward R. Murrow, and even Dan Rather, eventually lost the support of CBS when corporate fears of political retribution overwhelmed journalistic principles].
So I enjoyed Schorr’s pride at being on Nixon’s enemies list (here’s a link to Nixon and Colson talking about “putting the screws” to CBS and asking for the network to put pro-Nixon commentators on in order to have a more “balanced” point of view, in December, 1972; also link to the transcript of an interview with Schorr on PBS in which he discuses the “most electrifying moment” of his career, when he got hold of the enemies list and read it out loud on live TV and discovered that he was on it, #17) and admired his courage at risking various jobs on principle as well as his good-natured sense of humor about political ignominy and folly. There was a certain buoyancy to his view of the world that was great to hear. Today we do have people with a passion for justice who take great risks to expose uncomfortable truths that threaten power, and likely such people have always been rare. However, thinking of a recent example of the leaking of key information relevant to recent American history — Julian Assange of Wikileaks— it would seem this is a function of our society that has been globalized but, speaking as a citizen of the United States, one could also say that it appears to have been outsourced.
When I heard today that Schorr had died, the first thing I thought of was a fairly recent broadcast on NPR where he recalled the Great Depression as he has experienced it as a young man. The end of that broadcast, from July 6, 2008, when Schorr was 91 years old, was deeply touching. Asked if he remembered any songs from the period, he sang, a capella, the first few verses of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” I hope you will listen.