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The newsman’s newsman

By
April 11, 2008

The gap between print and electronic journalists has narrowed considerably since the days when newspaper reporters childishly delighted in sabotaging interviews with loud expletives and pulling the plugs on microphones and cameras during important press conferences.

Those were the times when veteran reporters resented network “correspondents” as preening, overpaid surface skimmers who frequently became more important than the story they were covering.

They were regarded as little better than actors in a medium heavily weighted toward entertainment and substantially dependent on the print press for their daily direction. Hiding the required “black sheets” — carbon copies — of breaking stories from the Associated Press became standard procedure for newspaper reporters determined to prevent radio and television from scooping them on their own enterprise.

There were, however, a handful of radio and then television journalists who through their own initiative and hard work managed to overcome the stigma of shallowness and earn the respect of the underpaid “ink-stained wretches” of the print world. Walter Cronkite, who spent years toiling for newspapers and United Press, was one of these.

Among those who breathed the lofty atmosphere of Washington TV correspondence, few had more respect than Roger Mudd, a lanky Marylander with a rich, resonant voice, an easy smile, and a demeanor that indicated he didn’t take himself all that seriously. Unfortunately, he also had a penchant for blunt honesty that too often angered his bosses at CBS, what was then regarded as the creme de la creme of electronic news organizations. It was Edward R. Murrow and the team he assembled for CBS following his brilliant broadcasts from a London under siege in 1940 who brought fledgling radio journalism and then TV into the big time and it was Cronkite who gave it the cache of importance.

After years of high achievement, missed opportunity and disappointment, Mudd now approaching 80 has done what most good reporters ultimately do. In a new book “The Right Place to Be,” he has let it all out in an unvarnished, cleanly written, warts and all expose of a business he has been involved in for more than five decades. It would be untruthful to portray this book as totally without bitterness or to paint Mudd as somehow a purist without ego. More than that it would be unfair.

Both elements are clearly present, and with justification. He has pulled no punches in his relationship with his associates, including Cronkite and Dan Rather.

Having risen to a point where he, the viewing public and most of those close to him regarded him as the natural replacement to Cronkite — he had served as the super anchor’s regular substitute — the honor was unceremoniously withheld from him and handed to someone he and much of the world of journalism felt was inferior, Dan Rather. Rather’s deficiencies, so obvious to professionals, finally caught up with him, but not before the once mighty CBS had become an afterthought in nightly news, slipping to third in the dwindling ratings.

Mudd left CBS after 19 years and went to NBC. He continued to persevere both in broadcast and cable. But it is the detailed history and insights into the political machinations, personal struggles for position and Byzantine plots during the two most important decades in the rise of network news that make this book fascinating. For those who traveled those paths with Mudd, it is even more than that. It is a chronicle of an experience that modern journalists blogging away at home in their bathrobes will never know or understand, the worse for all of us.

In December of 1970, Mudd addressed his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.:

“It is now my belief . . . that broadcasting in sound or vision will not prove to have contributed to the advancement or the education of man as much as the printed word. The inherent limitations of our media make it a powerful means of communication but also a crude one . . . the industry somehow still is unable or unwilling now to move beyond the preoccupation with razzle-dazzle.”

That forthright and brutal assessment infuriated his bosses and probably spelled the beginning of the end for his aspirations. His print colleagues weren’t surprised. They regarded him as one of them.

One Response to The newsman’s newsman

  1. DejaVuAllOver

    April 11, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Nice little snapshot of history. I’m glad to know it’s not my imagination or that I’m not the only one who finds the AP to be so mind-numbingly insulting to anyone smarter than a potatoe. (a little Dan Quayle remembrance, here……)