Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remembering the "Good Old Days"

            Whenever two or more recovering journalists get together, chances are likely that at least part of their conversation will involve which were the best “good old days.”
            For me, the bookends were from 1963, with the March on Washington, the first national story that I covered, through 1993, when I decided that it was time to step back from the daily pressure cooker of network television news.
            But I never abandoned the reporting life; I just scaled it down a bit, briefly editing a small daily newspaper in Maine, writing about the media, and advising and teaching what I am hopeful will be a new crop of journalists who one day will make their own “good old days” arguments.
            Along the way on this journey, I was privileged to work with some of the great names in journalism – editors, reporters, anchors, producers, columnists, as well as other professionals whose jobs defied any easy labeling.
            To try to name them all, of course, would be an impossible task, due in part to normal memory cell deterioration but also because of a fear that inadvertently neglecting someone could end a friendship.
            Definitely on the list, though, is Walter Cronkite, who has no equal as a newsman. I worked with him as a CBS Evening News writer for seven years, the best years of my life as a journalist, and his presence is sorely missed in today’s news world.
Also on the list, without question, is John Chancellor, with whom I worked during my eight years as News Editor with the NBC Nightly News.  When John died on July 12, 1996, I was doing media commentary for the Bangor Daily News. I wrote a column then about John’s death, and I believe that what it said about him and about journalism is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

Chancellor remembered with own words

By Sandor M. Polster
BANGOR DAILY NEWS (BANGOR, MAINE Saturday, July 20, 1996)
John Chancellor died a week ago yesterday, two days short of his 69th birthday, three years after his farewell to NBC News.
Death from gastric cancer, a disease that he called "a damned inconvenience," cheated John of writing his book about how television has changed politics; it cheated us of a newsman who valued truth above all.
I first met John on a hot and humid day in June 1979, in Vienna, Austria, when President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II agreement.
My assignment that day, as a writer for Walter Cronkite's "CBS Evening News," was to study the 200-page summit communique, determine the significant parts, and prepare the script for that night's broadcast. I was working in a small office behind the Grand Gallery in the Schonbrunn Palace when I heard a light knock on the door and the clearing of a throat.
It was John Chancellor, then the anchor of the "NBC Nightly News." He asked if I would mind his sharing the office while he read the communique. For the next couple of hours, we dissected the documents like two graduate students preparing for a final exam.
Some of John's thoughts about the arms agreement were read that evening by Walter Cronkite on CBS. Some of mine were read by John Chancellor on NBC.
It was more than six years later, after I had left CBS to join "NBC Nightly News," that I again saw John; he had become the show's commentator. I was pounding away on a computer when I heard a gentle clearing of a throat and looked up.
"We met in Vienna," he said. "You may not remember me. I owe you a drink for letting me use your office."
Thus developed a friendship that was based on kinship: Each of us had started as newspaper reporters, each worshipped the written word, each regretted the changes that television news had undergone.
During the 1988 political party conventions in Atlanta and New Orleans, I worked with John in the anchor booth, one floor down from Tom Brokaw. John's only comment about the physical arrangement was, "Oh well, at least I have fewer stairs to climb."
He and I would walk together from the trailers where NBC News based its operations to the convention halls, and he would be embarrassed by the attention and the affection that people accorded him. He made various comments about this to me, none of which I accurately remember.
But he told The Washington Post in June 1993, "I've always believed the news is more important than you are. Being good at journalism does not mean being a big showoff or hot dog, but finding ways of making the substance of news interesting to people."'
John and I retired from NBC News a month apart. Our reasons were the same. We had, as he used to say, "outlived the culture." He told me, "It isn't retirement, it's liberation." He told an interviewer, "If I were a product on the shelf, I'd be in violation of food and drug laws."
Our friendship that began in Vienna and grew over the years while at work at NBC, and while at rest at bars and restaurants around Rockefeller Center, survived the past three years via the telephone and the fax machine.
John never complained about the chemotherapy and radiation treatments for his cancer -- "legalized poisoning," he called them. He always tried to be optimistic, and was dismayed about, but understanding of, the pessimism being expressed during this year's political campaign.
"I cannot recall when in a presidential political year that people were optimistic," he said.
When I sent John a note about an essay idea I was considering, he faxed back a suggestion that I make a comparison to Shakespeare; he even offered me the appropriate quote.
In 1990, John gave me a copy of his book, "Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America." When I learned that he had died, I took it from the shelf and read his inscription to me: "From his colleague, friend and fan."
There are no words more fitting than those for me to sign my tribute to John Chancellor.