Let me explain how this book came to be in the twilight of a journalistic career stretching over some seventy years. Or perhaps I should say "careers," as I learned to adapt myself to one medium after another.
In the beginning was the newspaper. In the years after World War II, I reported from Europe for the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the London Daily Mail.
In the 1930s radio began to purvey news, something that was resisted at first by the newspapers, fearing competition. Eventually the Associated Press, owned by America's newspapers, agreed to furnish radio stations with five-minute newscasts in return for their agreement not to develop their own news-gathering organizations.
That could not last, and as war approached, it didn't. I did my first radio broadcast on ABC in 1948, reporting from Amsterdam on the first meeting of European notables after the war. I can still remember trying to make myself heard over a squawky shortwave signal. Winston Churchill delivered a historic speech about uniting the wartime enemies in a European council. Hard to remember, but there was no tape recording.
Television was in its infancy. I had seen the first demonstration of this experimental medium at the 1939 New York World's fair. I had no inkling of how this interesting toy would come to dominate the news business.
And I hardly knew what Edward R. Murrow had in mind when he offered me a job with CBS News, reporting from Washington, at first for radio, but soon for television.
I had joined CBS just in time to become involved in coverage of the hearings of the red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy. But it began to become clear that a reporter's words were peripheral to the drama of the live event. ABC found that the hearings attracted more viewers than its afternoon soap operas.
In 1973, television came to dominate the hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee. From outside the hearing room, I did commentary on what was happening inside. But nothing I said could match the drama of former White House counsel John Dean telling how he had warned President Nixon of a "cancer on the presidency." Not even my discovery, while I was on the air, that my name appeared on a list of White House "enemies."
Each new development in communications technology seemed to accentuate the drama of the medium and diminish the role of purveyor of information. During the five years I worked for CNN, having been Ted Turner's first editorial employee, I learned how the camera had come to take precedence over the reporter. The key word in cable television has become the word "live."
That does not mean that we are starved for verbal information. Indeed, we are deluged with information, served up to us in myriad new ways. In the era of the Internet, everyone can be a reporter, an editor, a publisher. Every blogger seems to have an audience. I found it amazing when Internet rumormonger Matt Drudge served up some gossip about President Clinton's having an affair with a White House intern, and pretty soon the president was on the road to impeachment.
So why this book? Stay tuned. This has to do with my sense that we threaten to be overwhelmed with information, and we frequently do not have the ability to understand what it means.
Until 1985 I had been mainly a dispenser of news in one or another medium. When I parted company with CNN and had no wish to retire, I decided that, in my next job, I would do less reporting and more analyzing—more thoughtful and less strenuous.
Providentially National Public Radio provided the answer. Robert Siegel, at the time the news director, offered me a position that would be called senior news analyst. This was the department of "What does it all mean?" Having traversed the world from Jakarta to Little Rock, I could now bring my experience to bear on trying to make tangled events understandable. My quest was for meaning.
In retrospect, it appears to me that the seventeen years charted in those day-to-day and week-to-week essays also serve to chart the passage to a new era of history. The old era was dominated by the cold war, two great systems, capitalist and Communist, represented in two great countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, locked in what was called a nuclear stalemate. With the collapse of the Soviet system, the early years of a new millennium were shaped by a new kind of conflict with a radical Islam that defied national borders.
A short numerical expression—9/11—denoted a lethal assault on America. And 9/11 began the era of the suicide bomber, whose depredations left much of the Western world gasping. This was a new age of anxiety, whose frustration was measured in phrases like "weapons of mass destruction" and "homeland security."
But let me say in all candor that anxiety can be a news analyst's friend. I found people more ready to pause for reflection and seek meaning in the jumble of events. For me, a microphone and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter) became the tools of a new career. Radio liberated me from having to don makeup read a teleprompter, and go out and stand in front of a camera. I could spend more time on content and less time on the mechanics of communicating. A computer. A telephone. C-SPAN and CNN kept me in touch with the world.
My longest trip of the day is a few hundred yards to a studio (one of them bears my name as a gift from NPR on my ninetieth birthday). In bad weather I can record from a microphone in my study at home.
NPR has afforded me a kind of journalism long on thinking and short on running around—for the senior citizen now called senior analyst.
Journalism has been called a first rough draft of history. I hope you have as much pleasure looking at the past this way as I had telling it to people on the radio.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Come to Think of It Copyright © Daniel Schorr, 2007.