Daniel Schorr, who died yesterday, is being remembered for his remarkable, decades-long career as a print, radio, and television journalist. I’m familiar with one small slice of this story: I did an intensive study of his coverage of the intelligence beat for CBS News from 1974 to 1976 – coverage that ultimately cost him his job. I came away from my research and from my interview with Schorr profoundly impressed by his commitment to disclosure and democracy. Schorr was true believer in the public’s right to know, and the historical record is richer for it.
It was not easy to get Schorr to talk with me about the most painful incident in his career. In the early 1990s, I began researching my dissertation on the congressional and journalistic investigations of the intelligence community after Watergate. Both the Church committee in the Senate and the Pike committee in the House included several members who fought hard to disclose information to the public, despite an intense and savvy campaign of resistance from the Ford White House (a campaign coordinated by deputy chief of staff Dick Cheney). But though there were many congressmen who fought for disclosure, I soon discovered that the category of “journalists who investigated the CIA after Watergate” was limited to two people, Seymour Hersh (then with the New York Times) and Schorr of CBS. The rest of the press was too easily intimidated by the Ford administration’s claims of “national security” to break any stories of significance.
Schorr played a dramatic role in the revelations of CIA abuses in 1975 and 1976. He was the first to disclose that the CIA had tried to assassinate foreign leaders, and that the agency’s plots against Fidel Castro might have played a role in John Kennedy’s assassination. “An arrow launched into the air to kill a foreign leader may well have fallen back to kill our own,” he said in his report. The revelation forced the Church committee to restructure its agenda and to write its comprehensive report, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.
Schorr also obtained a copy of the final Pike Committee report, which the House had voted to suppress. He did some stories for CBS on the highlights of the report, but he wanted the public to read the entire report, not just hear excerpts on the TV news. He talked to his bosses about arranging publication. “We owe it to history to publish it,” he said. When CBS refused to publish the report, Schorr secretly arranged for the Village Voice to run it. This provided the defenders of government secrecy with a tremendous opportunity. The contents of the report were potentially devastating to the CIA, but its unauthorized release allowed the Ford administration to divert attention from what it said to how it was disclosed. Schorr was hauled before the House Ethics Committee, where he refused to name his source. CBS fired him over the scandal.
To evaluate CBS’s coverage of the intelligence scandals, I watched every story that aired from 1974 to 1976 that mentioned the FBI or CIA. It added up to eight hours of stories, most of them by Schorr. Standing out amid the blandness of television journalism, Schorr was known for his literate pieces (he had begun his career as a print journalist) and for his rumpled appearance (a magazine profile described him as “gray, grouchy, and pouchy, looking like a refugee from an Alka-Seltzer ad”).
As I watched the clips, I became impressed by two points. First, Schorr’s stories were many times better than anything on the television news in the 1990s: he was smart, he made connections between events, he understood history, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge government claims of secrecy. Second, his stories were also much better than the ones by his colleagues at CBS in the 1970s. It wasn’t that a golden age in television news had come and gone: he was unique, even for the time.
Since many of the actors in my dissertation were still alive, I had an opportunity many historians lack: I could try to answer my questions by asking my sources directly. I planned a ten-day trip to Washington to talk to as many public officials, intelligence agents, and reporters as I could. Surprisingly, it was one of the journalists who proved the most unwilling to sit for an interview.
I sent a letter to Schorr, explaining my project and asking for a short interview, but heard nothing back. So I sent another. When no reply arrived, I started calling. I left polite messages on his voicemail at NPR, describing my project and my need to interview him. One day, I got a response from his assistant, saying that Mr. Schorr had received my messages, and would get in touch with me if he had time. It was not a complete refusal, so I continued to leave messages on his machine.
I should point out that I was not nearly so pushy with any of the former senators or congressmen I interviewed. But I was trained as a journalist, and I knew that journalists understood the importance of talking to sources. I was reopening a painful chapter in his life – the man had lost his job – and he had every reason to want to forget all about it. But I gambled that Schorr would be grudgingly impressed rather than annoyed by my persistence.
And I was right. On my last day in Washington, once again I started to leave a message on his machine, but this time that familiar voice interrupted me. “Well, Miss Olmsted, you’re persistent, I’ll give you that,” he said. “You have 20 minutes. Go.”
In the end, he gave me much longer than 20 minutes, and he answered all of my questions, except, of course, the name of his source for the Pike Committee report (I didn’t expect him to tell me, but I had to ask). He was pleasant and courteous, and asked me to notify him if I ever published anything.
A few years later, after the book version of my dissertation came out, I came home one day to find that voice on my answering machine. He left a long, positive message about the book, talking about what he described as our mutual interest in informing American citizens about what secret government agencies do in their name. I popped the tape out of the machine to save it. It was the best review I ever got.