Daniel Schorr’s Ethical Legacy

It was interesting, though a little jarring, to read and hear the outpouring of admiration for the late CBS and NPR journalist Daniel Schorr, who died last week at the age of 93, even as the same sources were decrying the biases of Fox News. For Daniel Schorr was the herald of ideologically slanted journalism, though he never admitted it and was notable for his self-congratulatory dedication to what he called journalistic ethics. His legacy is what we have now: self-righteous journalists who refuse to separate fact from opinion, and whose definition of “fair and balanced” is “expose the bad guys—that is, those who we think are the bad guys.”

Some of the odes to Schorr’s career themselves defy any reasonable definition of objective reporting. During his 25 years at NPR, Schorr comfortably settled into reliably pro-liberal, pro-Democrat reporting, calling, for example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, “a judicial coup” by “the Gang of Five, philosophically led by archconservative Antonin Scalia.”

“Some critics of Schorr and NPR felt his analysis veered into opinion — that he had a profoundly liberal take on the world that became more evident over time,” said NPR in its obituary of Schorr.

Gee…How could they think such a thing?

Schorr’s regard for his own ethics was so high that he had them declared untouchable in his contract with Ted Turner after he had been fired by CBS. Ironically, the episode that led to his firing had more than a few ethical problems, from Schorr’s giving an illegally leaked confidential House committee report to The Village Voice, to his cowardice in allowing colleague Leslie Stahl to bear the brunt of suspicion for what Schorr had done.

Several tributes to Schorr talked about how he had “the right enemies.” They were referring to Schorr’s famous presence on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Schorr got away with biased reporting on Nixon—stories delivered with a sneer,  and words carefully chosen to slant the audience’s view of the facts—because most journalist also detested Tricky Dick. President Obama also has an enemies list, but he and his administration are open about it, attacking Limbaugh and Hannity, Fox News and Glenn Beck in speeches and public statements, something even Nixon understood was beneath a President. Of course, none of these “enemies” claim to be objective reporters, and none are lionized for being “enemies” of an Adminsitration, as Schorr was, either.

He picked the “right” enemies, it is true, at least in the eyes of his colleagues. But a journalist isn’t supposed to pick enemies. A journalist is supposed to let the public decide who are the good guys and the bad guys by presenting the facts without distortion. Daniel Schorr, like today’s hyper-partisan journalists, really thought objectivity wasn’t inconsistent with picking sides, because, after all, he knew the truth of what was best for the country, and was just reporting it.

I do think he believed this with all his heart. We cannot fault Schorr for his integrity.

He showed his bias, and willingness to play dirty, in a 1964 report on Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, then the leader of the infant conservative movement. His report on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite began this way: “It looks as though Senator Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany’s right wing…Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.” Goldwater, Schorr continued, had given a Der Spiegel interview, “appealing to right-wing elements in Germany,” and had agreed to speak to a group of“right-wing Germans.” “Thus there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up.”

The so-called “Hitler stomping ground” was in fact an American military recreation center. Goldwater’s interview in Der Spiegel was actually just a reprint of an interview that had appeared elsewhere, and the candidate had not even considered addressing the “Right wing” German group Schorr referred to. In adddition to being unfair and inaccurate, Schorr’s vicious innuendo connecting Goldwater to German fascism was every bit as outrageous and irresponsible as the repeated use of “Hussein” when referring to candidate Obama, the questioning of his birth, or suggestions that he is secretly in sympathy with Islamic terrorists. Identifying Goldwater, who did his part to defeat Nazi Germany as a commissioned pilot in the Air Force during World War II, as a Nazi admirer was especially unfair, and Goldwater was understandably furious. Schorr, however, never once expressed regret for the report, and glossed over it in his memoirs. After all, Goldwater was one of the “bad guys,” and Schorr was just stating “facts.”

Those who bemoan the loss of “old fashioned journalism” would do well to consider the excesses and arrogance of Schorr and some of his colleagues. Not only did their willingness to report the news through the prism of liberal cant help bring Fox News into existance, it created the play book from which all biased reporters from both the Left and the Right now take their tactics. Schorr’s use of them is still viewed with reverence because those praising his career agreed with his choice of  “enemies,” then and now.

Today’s journalistic scene, in which news reporters are divided into ideological camps and take turns accusing each other of being biased, dishonest, lazy, racist, and more, is Schorr’s legacy to American journalism. He championed the theory that journalists should not merely supply the fodder for public opinion, but should actively attempt to shape it according to their own, supposedly superior, judgment about what is right and good for the country. In the hands of such journalists, as we have seen, the concept of journalistic objectivity is irrelevant.

Schorr believed in his approach to journalism, and openly regarded those who opposed it as fools, lackeys and knaves. He had integrity, and he had good intentions. Daniel Schorr, however was not an objective journalist, and despite his proclamations to the contrary, he wasn’t an ethical journalist either.

He just thought he was.

One thought on “Daniel Schorr’s Ethical Legacy

  1. Having had to deal with self-righteous reporters for much of my career, I am still waiting for the answers to 2 questions I have put to them:

    1. Who elected you?

    2. Where does the public’s right to know go during a writer’s strike?

    Most journalists are prostitutes, except that prostitutes are paid less and have higher ethics.

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