NPR's 'Voice Of Experience,' Daniel Schorr, Dies

NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr died Friday morning at a hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 93. Schorr broke major stories at home and abroad during the Cold War and Watergate. Robert Siegel discusses the life of the "walking history book."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Im Robert Siegel.

And it's with great sadness that we acknowledge a death in the family.

Daniel Schorr died today at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. Dan was 93.

After an illustrious and turbulent career as CBS News, Daniel Schorr began a long association with NPR that continued right up to his death. He wrote commentaries for this program in the late 1970s and early '80s. He returned in 1985 as senior news analyst at NPR. He contributed essays for us at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, as well as for WEEKEND EDITION on Sunday. And every Saturday morning, he discussed the week's news on WEEKEND EDITION with host Scott Simon.

Dan's many awards included three Emmys and the Alfred I. DuPont Columbia University Golden Baton for Exceptional Contributions to Radio and Television Reporting and Commentary.

Dan Schorr's name also appeared on one of the most exclusive lists of the 20th century: President Richard Nixon's enemies list.

In 2006, to mark Dan's 90th birthday, we sat down together and recorded a series of interviews. Dan reflected on his life and his career in those conversations, and today we return to those talks to hear his story. It started in his family's ground-floor apartment in the Bronx when he was 12 years old. A body fell past his window and crashed on to the sidewalk. Dan said he called the police and then he picked up the phone again.

DANIEL SCHORR: I called our local newspaper, The Bronx Home News, which offered $5 for original news stories.

SIEGEL: That was Dan Schorr's first scoop. He worked on his high school and college newspapers. And after he graduated from City College of New York in 1939, he stayed in the city and worked for a Dutch news service until 1943, thats when he was drafted.

Dan served in Army intelligence but he was never sent overseas, where he really wanted to work as a reporter.

SCHORR: As soon as I was discharged from the Army, I said okay. Now, I want to be a foreign correspondent.

SIEGEL: So he went to the Netherlands and worked as a freelancer for the Dutch news service, the Christian Science monitor, The New York Times, the London Daily Mail, and just about anyplace he could sell a story.

In 1953, a violent storm caused Holland's elaborate dike system to rupture. Years later, in a commentary on NPR following Hurricane Katrina, Dan recalled what he'd seen.

SCHORR: Standing atop the great Viadra Dike south of Rotterdam, I could see the water lapping up on one side, on the other, 15 feet below, lay fertile farmland and a group of farmers who showed no signs of evacuating. I yelled to them to warn of the danger of the rising water. One of them yelled back: Where should I go. This is my home. I would rather drown here.

SIEGEL: Dan sold the story to CBS and his report caught the attention of Edward R. Murrow, the legendary war correspondent, who offered him a job.

SCHORR: I received a cable, the wording of which I shall never forget: Would you at all consider joining the staff of CBS News with an initial assignment in Washington?

SIEGEL: Dan took the job, but within a few years he was back overseas. This time he was a foreign correspondent for CBS News based in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev was the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And Dan scored a coup, an exclusive interview with Khrushchev at the Kremlin. It aired on "Face the Nation."

(Soundbite of archived program, "Face the Nation")

SCHORR: We know that the Soviet Union has been more in favor of a total and immediate ban on hydrogen atom bomb tests and weapons. And the question of control has made it very difficult.

Do you see any hope for an agreement on the basis of the current American approach, a first small step?

Secretary NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV (Communist Party of Soviet Union): (Through Translator) For the time being, I know not of the steps that the United States is prepared to take...

SIEGEL: Western correspondents in Moscow in the 1950s had to deal with strict censorship rules. Dan pushed the limits, and in 1957, he was barred from the Soviet Union. The Cold War was still hot and Dan moved to Western Europe to cover it from the frontlines.

In Berlin, he reported on the construction of The Wall, as he recalled in an NPR commentary last year.

SCHORR: In the early hours of August 13th, 1961, I was awakened in my Berlin hotel to come and see what was happening at the border between East and West Berlin. We had been expecting some move to stem the exodus of people from East Germany that was threatening the viability of the communist state.

What I saw was East German police sealing the sector border with rolls of barbed wire that would soon be replaced by a masonry wall.

SIEGEL: By the mid 1960s, Dan had returned to Washington for CBS News. He reported on President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And when President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, Dan's reporting so irked the White House that at one point they told the FBI to investigate him. Agents started questioning his friends and neighbors.

SCHORR: And eventually, a FBI agent came up to the CBS office and asked to speak to me. I said whats this all about. Well, sir, you must know you're in line for a position of trust and confidence in the United States government.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: And I haven't forgot that. I said, who me? I said it can't be. I dont know of any job thats anybody is considering for me in the Nixon White House. And they called the White House to say that I wasnt being cooperative. You told Schorr that we wanted him investigated? Cut it out right away. But then they said, it's going to get into the papers, let's do some damage control here. And one of them said, well, crazy though it may seem, there's only one way out: We say we were in fact considering him for a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: That investigation ultimately led to Dan being mentioned in the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon.

SCHORR: When the Bill of Impeachment was drawn up, count two was abuse of governmental power and under that was the unwarranted investigation of Daniel Schorr, CBS correspondent.

SIEGEL: During the impeachment hearings it was also revealed that the White House had kept an enemies list. The list immediately became the most sought after document in Washington.

SCHORR: Our bosses back at the office said get the list, we want the list. Who's on the list? And eventually copies were distributed to us. And, boy, when we got those lists, we went very fast.

SIEGEL: He went on the air with it with very little time to prepare and among the names that he read out was his own.

SCHORR: Sixteen: Congressman Ronald Dellums of California who is black. Seventeen: Daniel Schorr of the Columbia Broadcasting System in Washington. The note here is: A real media enemy.

SIEGEL: Richard Nixon resigned before the Senate could vote on impeachment.

SCHORR: Some 20 years later, Im invited to a dinner where Nixon, just back from a trip to the Soviet Union, is going to give a report on Yeltsin and the Soviet Union. The end of dinner, I walk up to him and said, Mr. Nixon, Im not sure you'll remember me. And he put his hand on my shoulder. Dan Schorr, damn near hired you once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: In 1976, Washington was consumed with an investigation into the American intelligence community. The House Intelligence Committee wrote a report, The Pike Report, and the House voted to keep it secret. Dan got a hold of a copy but CBS decided not to air the story. So Dan sent it to The Village Voice.

SCHORR: Still a painful moment for me in this whole thing. When The Village Voice came out with the report, I was called into the bureau chief's office, Sandy Socolow, said to me, is there really anything that Leslie Stahl used to wait for her boyfriend to come and pick her up...

SIEGEL: Aaron Latham, who wrote for the...

SCHORR: Aaron Latham.

SIEGEL: ...for The Voice...

SCHORR: Right,

SIEGEL: ...and for New Yorker magazine.

SCHORR: Is it theoretically possible since the thing appeared in The Village Voice, and Aaron Latham works for The Village Voice? Do you see any connection there?

SIEGEL: He asked you this.

SCHORR: Right. And I said, hmm. Who knows? I allowed him to entertain that thought for one day. The next day I decided I wasnt very honest with Lee.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SCHORR: And I went into Sandy Socolow's office and said forget what I said yesterday. Stop looking for who it was. And so they knew within one day what the truth was, but found it for their purposes useful to suggest that I had not been very frank about it.

SIEGEL: And that you had contributed to casting suspicion on a colleague, on...

SCHORR: I had contributed to casting suspicion...

SIEGEL: ...Leslie Stahl.

SCHORR: ...on a valued colleague.

SIEGEL: Dan was called to testify before Congress and he refused to tell who leaked The Pike Report. For that he was threatened with jail for contempt of Congress. The Congress backed down but CBS took him off the air.

Dan eventually went to work for the fledgling cable news network CNN. He reported on politics and international affairs. And when he left CNN, Dan found a new and enduring professional home here.

SCHORR: It very quickly became evident in NPR, there are those who valued me primarily - perhaps entirely - because I was a walking history book. You want to know about Nikita Khrushchev? You want to know about Stalin? You want to know about why Truman did this and about General McArthur? Ask Dan, he was there. A colleague, stuck his head into my office and said to me, Dan, excuse me, you covered the Spanish-American war, no? He saw the look on my face. He said, no, I guess not. That was earlier, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: And there are an awful lot of the people not quite sure when was the Korean War and when was the Vietnam War and when did we do Panama, and I enjoy it.

SIEGEL: Dan's prominence sometimes drew improbable attention. One day, he got a call from a rock musician, Frank Zappa. An unlikely friendship developed between the rocker and the newsman. Zappa was concerned that young people were not participating in politics. He asked Dan to help with an effort to encourage youths to vote by joining his band on stage one night at the Warner Theater in Washington.

SCHORR: And there we came out in glaring light on the stage. He said, here's Dan Schorr. He's going to talk you about you got to get out and vote. And I did that and finished. And he said, well, listen, while you're on the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHORR: ...while you're on the stage anyway, would you like to sing something? And I, ham that I am, said, yeah. I'd like to - he said, well, what would I want to want to sing? I said, well, I don't know whether your band can play what I want to sing. Well, you try us. Is there something maybe from "Porgy and Bess?" He said, okay, just let me hear a couple of bars of that. And I said -once I said...

(Singing) It ain't necessarily so.

Okay, one more line.

(Singing) It ain't necessarily so.

(Soundbite of song, "It Ain't Necessarily So")

SCHORR: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so.

SIEGEL: Fortunately, Dan Schorr had his day job to fall back on as senior news analyst at NPR. In addition to his work on WEEKEND EDITION and here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, he used to do a lot of live commentary on special events. In those 2006 interviews, he told me how much he liked doing that.

SCHORR: When I think of the things that stand out in my mind, it is being with colleagues on the air on a big, big event like the hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal, with all this young group of very bright people sitting there hour after hour after hour adlibing. I found that that is more fun than anything I've written.

SIEGEL: Being live on the air?

SCHORR: Being live on the air. It's a great thrill.

SIEGEL: Still?

SCHORR: Still.

SIEGEL: Well, a lot of us who have watched you, listened to you and worked with you are very pleased with your career choice, and we're very proud of you here.

SCHORR: Thank you. It's been fun.

SIEGEL: It was fun for us, too. Dan was our venerable voice of experience. He was our link to some of the most important moments in the history of broadcast news. He was also our friend. To his wife, Lee, his son, Jonathan, his daughter, Lisa, and son-in-law, Alex, and his granddaughter, Nora Rose, we send our condolences.

Daniel Schorr died today at the age of 93.

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