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Review: Schorr's 'Staying Tuned' comes in clear

"Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism"
By Daniel Schorr
Pocket Books
368 pages

By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- To the first generation of television viewers, he was the man in Moscow or Berlin, providing a fever chart of Cold War tensions. To the current generation of news consumers, he is the voice of history and perspective on developments at home and abroad. To journalists, Daniel Schorr is something of an icon. To broadcast executives, he is remembered mostly as a pain in the neck.

Schorr looks back on a career spanning more than sixty years in "Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism." The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he chose his path early, working on his high school newspaper in the Bronx.

But the path was anything but a straight line to fame. He worked for a newspaper called the Jewish Daily Bulletin, then for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, re-writing cables from all over the world. He did a stint with the Dutch news agency ANETA before serving in World War II (stationed mostly in Texas).

After the war, he returned to ANETA and his first overseas assignment in The Netherlands. His reporting brought him to the attention of both the New York Times and CBS News. Edward R. Murrow offered him a regular job as a correspondent while the Times dragged its heels. So it was Daniel Schorr began his rise to fame and, eventually, to a measure of infamy.

Expensing refrigerators

In "Staying Tuned," Schorr fills this part of his life story with interesting and amusing anecdotes. In fact, the book is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Take, for instance, one of his early battles with CBS brass when he was opening the network's first news bureau in Moscow.

"One lack I felt was a refrigerator," Schorr writes. "That need was filled when New York Times correspondent Welles Hangen, ordered expelled on forty-eight hours notice, offered to sell for $50 a General Motors original bell-topped Frigidaire ... I routinely charged the purchase on my monthly expense account. When CBS News auditors disallowed the item as household rather than office equipment, I listed it on my next expense account as a water-cooler."

Schorr's tenure in Moscow corresponded with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev. He offers first-hand observations about the Soviet leader's energetic style and his efforts to modernize the Soviet system, foreshadowing the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev thirty years later.

Some things didn't change, however. In 1956, Schorr was part of the first contingent of Western journalists allowed to tour and report from Siberia. The trip was abruptly cancelled midway through because, as Schorr later learned, the reporters were dangerously close to a Soviet nuclear test site.

"We reflected," he notes, "that this probably made us the first people ever exiled from Siberia."

Making enemies

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr  

The skills he honed rooting out the news in Moscow and Berlin served him well when he returned to the United States to report on domestic issues during the turbulent 1960s. His Washington experience made him the point man for CBS coverage of Watergate. During the Senate hearings on the scandal, existence of a White House enemies list caused a great stir. He found himself reading the newly unearthed document live on the air -- and reading his own name enumerated among President Nixon's top 20 domestic enemies. He calls it "the most electrifying moment" of his career.

A few years later, CBS executives found themselves sympathizing with Nixon. Schorr became the target of a Congressional investigation for leaking a report on abuses at the CIA (a report that remains classified today). In "Staying Tuned," he tells his side of the story, explaining what compelled him to turn the document over to the Village Voice. When the smoke cleared, he was through at CBS.

But a new adventure awaited: CNN. He was the first editorial employee when the network started up, hired personally by founder Ted Turner.

Alas, that partnership was also doomed and for the same reason. Schorr is ferociously independent and committed to his journalistic principals. He is seldom willing to bend his ethics to the will of his corporate masters. Perhaps that's why his tenure as commentator for National Public Radio has endured for the better part of two decades -- there are fewer corporate axes to grind there.

"Staying Tuned" covers a lot of ground, but despite its scope, it remains a very personal story. Schorr has been at the center of events that have shaped history. He recounts them with humor and humanity. (The story of his German medal is a microcosm of the crosscurrents he has faced throughout his career and downright hilarious.) The person who emerges from the pages of the book is very much like the public persona of Daniel Schorr -- a sharp-eyed observer of the human condition in all its glory and all its failings.

• Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster)

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