Ruled by conscience
WASHINGTON — It took about seven years for Daniel Schorr to tire of being a journalist for Jewish media.
The distaste of digesting for JTA’s readers the news of the emerging Holocaust, combined with what he saw as the blinkered parochialism of Jewish news, led him to quit JTA in 1941 and search for work elsewhere.
But Schorr never stopped being a Jewish journalist: events and his conscience would not let him.
Schorr, the crusading broadcast journalist who died last Friday at 93, is best known for his clashes with the powerful, including his employers. His tough reporting of the Watergate scandal earned him three Emmys and a spot on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. His revelations several years later of CIA malfeasance won him threats of prosecution and ended his 23-year career with CBS.
Schorr never forgot his roots in print and parochial journalism, however, recalling his stint with the Jewish Daily Bulletin, JTA’s daily newspaper, and then after the Bulletin with JTA in his 2001 autobiography, “Staying Tuned, a Life in Journalism.”
His job at JTA was “cable rewrite”: He would convert the reports condensed from “cables,” written to save money when cable operators charged by the word, to everyday English.
“At JTA we received chilling cable reports of anti-Semitic depredations in Europe from refugees, Jewish organizations and neutral travelers,” he wrote. “These reports occasioned screaming headlines in the Yiddish press, but were largely ignored by the general newspapers. Editors were being counseled by the State Department to be wary of Jewish propaganda.
“Years later, declassified records would show how far the American and British governments went to keep Americans in ignorance of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. For fear of distracting the Allies from pursuit of the war, it was said.”
The horrors didn’t diminish the newsroom’s earthy atmosphere, however. Decades later, Schorr could still recall editor Victor Bienstock’s cable to an exceptionally prolific correspondent: PROCRISSAKE OFFLAY — Lay off, for Christ’s sake.
Schorr’s account of his seven years at JTA — starting as a high school student stringing for the Jewish Daily Bulletin — demonstrates how little has changed in how Jewish reporters cobble together news Jews can use.
Among other assignments, he wrote, he “provided a weekly packet of mimeographed news and editorial material for several dozen Anglo-Jewish weekly newspapers around the country. Their demand was as great as their financial resources were small. So, I churned out copy using several pseudonyms, as well as my own name.
“The rule was to emphasize the ‘Jewish’ angle. In my music column I favored conductor Bruno Walter over Leopold Stokowski, pianist Arthur Rubinstein over Claudio Arrau. (For free concert tickets and phonograph records I had relented on my contempt for music criticism.) Each week I summarized ‘The War and the Jews.’ Each year I did an article asking, ‘Was Columbus a Jew?’ (No, but his navigator may have been Jewish.)”
It wasn’t all free concerts: Schorr volunteered for Bund duty, covering the pro-Nazi societies that flourished in that period among German Americans.
John Kayston, a JTA staffer at that time, recalled Schorr’s resourcefulness in a 1997 interview marking JTA’s 80th anniversary. Kayston joined Schorr as an interpreter at one of the Bund events.
“The storm troopers at the door asked for our press ID, and refused us entry when they saw we were from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency,” Kayston recalled. “We went to another entrance, and when showing our ID, we covered the word ‘Jewish’ with our thumb.” They got in.
By 1941, two years out of college, Schorr had had enough, and found his complaints at the wrong end of Jacob Landau, JTA’s founder.
“After seven years of this I began to bridle about this contorted view of a world in crisis,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I made my discomfort evident enough so that Landau finally suggested it might be time for me to move on. Fired, you might call it. For the first time, but not the last.”
Schorr’s clashes with management, at CBS and later CNN, would become the stuff of his cranky legend. He never quite won the job he longed for throughout his youth, a correspondency with The New York Times. As a freelancer in 1953 for the Times, he filed thorough coverage of an outbreak of floods in the Netherlands, earning front-page play each day and the respect of the paper’s managers.
Yet when Edward Murrow, the legendary CBS correspondent, offered Schorr a job, he cabled the Times to ask his editors what they thought. They told him to accept the offer.
Two years later, Schorr recounted at the luncheon marking JTA’s 80th anniversary that he discovered why during a dinner with two Times editors. War was looming in the Middle East (it would break out in 1956), and “we need to have flexibility,” they told him.
“My dream of becoming a New York Times correspondent was dashed because I was a Jew,” Schorr said.
The scoops that made Schorr a household name had little to do with his being Jewish.
He opened up the CBS Moscow bureau and scored the first televised interview with the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, in 1955. Schorr would be told not to come back to the Soviet Union from a vacation in 1957 for repeatedly defying the Soviet censor.
Schorr was the first to obtain Nixon’s enemies list, released during the Watergate hearings in 1973, of 20 people the president hoped to “screw” through tax audits. He immediately read the list on air, gasping when he reached No. 17: himself. He was listed as a “real media enemy.”
“I think I tried not to gulp,” he told PBS years later. “I tried not to gasp.”
After filing, Schorr said, “I wanted to collapse.” He later said it was one of his proudest moments.
More vexing for him was the reaction by CBS in 1976 when he obtained a congressional report showing that the CIA had engaged in massive domestic spying; the report eventually would lead to major reforms. CBS would not allow him to report the scoop, so he handed it to the Village Voice. The FBI launched a probe of Schorr, and he risked a contempt charge for refusing to reveal his source. (He never did.) CBS eventually cut him off.
Schorr landed at CNN at its inception in 1979, until he fell out with founder Ted Turner in 1985 over Schorr’s refusal to accommodate former politicians as commentators equal to journalists. Since then he worked for NPR, providing commentaries.
Schorr as a boy was a proud, Hebrew-speaking Zionist. He wrote of the irritation he felt at the Yiddish spoken in his home, saying he favored the language of the Jewish homeland. He told JTA’s 80th anniversary luncheon that JTA played a critical role in bringing news of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
But he was also a reporter who earned the criticism of CAMERA, the pro-Israel media watchdog, as recently as June. Speaking of President Obama’s posture after Israel’s deadly raid on an aid flotilla aimed at breaching Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, Schorr said on NPR: “He has never really yet taken a position against Israel. And so he expresses a great regret over lives lost. He hopes for the best and so on. He is stuck there in the middle, in a position where he clearly does not like this blockade. On the other hand, he doesn’t like taking a position against Israel.”
CAMERA argued that Obama has taken positions against Israel, noting NPR’s own reporting on U.S.-Israel tensions over settlement expansion.
In a career of history-changing scoops, however, perhaps the one most revealing about Schorr was one he let go: Speaking at a New Israel Fund dinner in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, he recalled coming across a group of Jews fleeing the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1950s. He wanted to report the scoop; the fleeing Jews begged him to refrain.
Schorr consulted his conscience as a Jew and a journalist, and made the decision: He didn’t file.
Schorr is survived by his wife of 43 years, Lisbeth; a son, Jonathan, a daughter, Lisa; and one grandchild.
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)