Journalism icon Daniel Schorr died last week. He was part of my family, though we weren’t related by blood — he was the husband of my husband’s first cousin, once removed. I admit, not the closest of relations and somewhat accidental, but he was someone I had the privilege of getting to know a little bit at family events and celebrations over the last two decades. Dan was 93 when he died, so it shouldn’t have come as a complete shock when I learned that he had passed away. But it was, for both personal and professional reasons.
From a family perspective, Dan and his wife (who is the Bamberger family connection) provided a glimpse for our now ten-year-old PunditGirl into what it was like to spend time with a generation not many fourth-graders get to experience. My husband’s parents passed away some years ago and mine are quite a bit younger than many grandparents we know! Dan and his wife, who lived fairly close to us, always warmly welcomed PunditGirl. So I’ve always been grateful to them, along with a few West Coast relatives, for giving her a connection with a generation she otherwise might not have known.
However, there is more for me to mourn about Dan’s passing than the loss of a family member. Everyone in the world of journalism should be saddened not only by his death, but also by the missed opportunity to approach news coverage and commentary in the way that Dan always did — with unyielding integrity and a healthy skepticism toward corporate and governmental control of power and information.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I Was a Teenage Watergate Geek (I know that sounds like a semi-horror film that will never be successful at the box office!). My primary inspiration and role models that steered me toward my first career in journalism and how I view how journalism should be practiced were those who took on President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, including the duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as well as Dan Schorr. When Dan ended up high on Nixon’s enemies list, it was clear to me that Dan was a journalist’s journalist.
Because of those high profile examples, it never occurred to me at that point in my life, as a starry-eyed high school girl who wanted to charge into the world as a modern-day Nellie Bly, that reporters were anything less than bastions of truth-telling and scandal-revealing muckrakers who would dig to get to the facts, even when people like Nixon and his minions were trying to thwart the Fourth Estate, as well as the American people.
Yes, I was young and naive to think that all reporters shared the same principles and dedication to the truth as Dan and a few other Watergate superheroes — reporters willing to take on the establishment and challenge those who assumed it was their right to hide or distort important stories that had significant impact on our lives.
My journalism career was never as vaunted as Dan’s nor would I ever try to compare myself to him in any way as I write online political commentary today and try to get the word out that women in new media may well be this generation’s truth-tellers. But from the time I was a wet behind the ears 17-year-old radio news reporter, through my days as a television journalism, to today where I try to earn a bit of a living as a freelance journalist and online politico, I try to hold myself to the standards that old school journos like Dan held himself to.
And as I watch those cable news shows that seem to provide so many people with their perspective on the world, I wonder what the land of news and information would look like today if just a handful of reporters would explore, dig and critically question rather than taking the information that is spoon-fed to them at events like the White House daily briefings or in corporate news releases. I long to see, hear and read more of Dan’s version of journalism again — instead of tuning in to see the same loop of quick-hit stories played continually on our screens and shouting heads trying to pass themselves off as political analysts.
While some in the news establishment today might have considered Dan to be a contrarian, I will always look to him as someone who led by example — for journalists and news consumers alike — in showing us that covering and understanding the world, and those who run it, is more than just repeating verbatim what someone tells you and that true journalism calls for asking the hard questions, using critical and skeptical thinking, and being willing to be the one to say that the Emperor’s “new clothes” aren’t really clothes at all, and even going a step further by pointing out that maybe the Emperor even has ulterior motives for his actions.
I will truly miss seeing “cousin” Dan at family events. I’ll always fondly remember watching our daughter have discussions with him about the president, how she wanted to teach him about the Harry Potter series, and the time she asked Dan and his wife Li if they would ever consider coming to her school for her “special friends” day. But I’ll also miss his voice, — the one that he still used as an NPR news analyst until shortly before his death — his view of the world, and his example to me of what the life of a true journalist should look like.