Below is the text of a speech I delivered at the University of Redlands, California in October, 2012. I was privileged to have in the audience both Mr. Pierpoint’s wife, Pat, and his sister, Ruth.
Most of us in this room had role models when we were growing up—people who we wanted to be like because we sensed they were so good at what they did, at what we wanted to do. If someone were to ask me back then for my role models, I could name a half dozen without taking a second to think. I’ve asked that question of hundreds of journalism students over the last quarter century and, at first surprisingly, but now sadly, it takes minutes to receive an answer and then it is more likely to be someone with the last name Stewart, Colbert, Seacrest, or Winfrey.
I spoke at another university within the last month where the person introducing me included mention of the fact that I once taught Christiane Amanpour when she was a student in one of my broadcast journalism classes. “How many of you know who that is?” she asked. In a class of thirty, not one hand was raised. And these were journalism students. Needless to say, the name Edward R. Murrow brought no stronger recognition. And if they don’t know Murrow, there’s no reason to believe they know the name Robert Pierpoint. But they should.
How do we best learn to be the kinds of journalists many of us who are now of a certain generation believe society needs? I would suggest not primarily through journalism classes, but by gaining an appreciation for things outside our own sphere of familiarity. Robert Pierpoint didn’t study journalism. He used his studies to practice journalism. It’s possible to do both, of course, but it seems to me that the stronger path is the one followed by Mr. Pierpoint. It wasn’t the linear route, but the U.S. Navy, studies in Stockholm, and reporting from Korea certainly laid the foundation for covering the White House and six presidents over four decades.
While he no doubt had his own role models, Bob (and I feel as if I’m coming closer to being able to use the familiar rather than the formal), inspired many junior members of the television news profession as their role model. When I talked recently with current CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plant, he described Bob Pierpoint as “always good natured, friendly, and well disposed toward those, like my self, who were young and green.” Whether he realized it then or not, he was not just informing a nation about the current occupant of the White House; he was inspiring the next generation of TV journalists who would cover the White House.
Susan Zirinsky, with whom I also spoke recently, was in her late 20’s when she met Bob Pierpoint. Then a desk assistant at CBS News, she is now the executive producer of “48 Hours” on that network. “He was a player and I was a kid,” she told me. One thing that impressed her—and still does today—is how Pierpoint was obsessive about detail, getting everything right—a “detail guy,” she called him. Eventually, she helped him with the research for his 1981 memoir At the White House. Her job, assigned by Pierpoint, was to help separate historic memory from historic reality. In other words, her fact checking was to extend not just to dates and places and names, but also to ensure that what her boss remembered, in fact, actually happened. How many reporters today would want that much scrutiny or be able to have their words withstand that rigorous a test?
“He was part of a time in journalism, an era when it was pure, when you built relationships,” Zirinsky told me. “It was inspiring to me as a kid to see the amazing politics that go into being on the inside of the White House.” Robert Pierpoint, she said, saw clearly the “dynamic of personality in the politician, which was more profoundly interesting in the pre-cable news days.” He brought stories to the American public that helped us understand the inner workings of government, rather than the inner sanctum of the President’s bedroom. He resisted what many would have considered the temptation to focus on the salacious within the Oval Office (he was not alone in certainly knowing the stories of JFK and other women in the White House) and focused on policy over promiscuity. In our current climate of Twitter and TMZ, his methods are, sadly, dated.
Bob Pierpoint, as he reflected on his 40 years and 6 presidents, his coverage of the Korean War and the Asian continent, couldn’t have found much common ground between the sentient nature of his reporting and the sensationalism of today’s news media. His son, Allan, shared with me that Bob, while optimistic about the future of our nation, saw “many dark clouds ahead” for journalism. “He is discouraged by what he sees as the docility of the White House press corps,” Allan Pierpoint wrote not long before his father’s passing, “and the infiltration of tabloid journalism into the mainstream press.” He had reason to be discouraged. However, the seeds of the conflict between reasoned, principled, fair reporting and the demands of a for-profit news media weren’t sown recently.
I call Robert Pierpoint “the last Murrow Boy” not because he and Edward R. Murrow were close personal friends or that he was part of that inner circle of those who Murrow—often dubbed the “father of broadcast news”—anointed with his attention. It’s true, of course, that Bob did the first story on the ground-breaking CBS documentary program “See It Now,” which Murrow hosted. His report from Korea used natural sound and amazingly modern, for their time, camera techniques, combined with fine storytelling to help launch what would one day be considered a classic television news series. But I call him the “last Murrow Boy” primarily because he was there when television news was in its infancy, as it was figuring out what it wanted to be when it grew up. He was at the epicenter of a time when news was seen by those who helped invent it as a public trust, not a private profit center.
But, to honor Mr. Pierpoint is to ensure that we don’t allow historic memory to obscure historic reality. Television news has never been immune from the need to make money, nor has it ever existed in a vacuum, standing separate and apart from the less serious pursuits surrounding it on TV. No less than the great Edward R. Murrow himself not only hosted the afore-mentioned “See It Now;” he also hosted a celebrity interview program titled “Person to Person,” in which he feigned interest in singers and movie stars, the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” of its day. Murrow was smart, or at least savvy, enough to know that the price for giving the audience what they need was sometimes giving them what they want.
Bob Pierpoint’s own perspective, relayed during a 1990’s program on the California PBS station KRCB-TV, took into account the shifting terrain underneath television news from the medium he, Murrow, and others had helped invent, to the commodity others bought and sold. “Bill Paley sold us out to a family by the name of Tisch,” he said, referring to CBS chairman Lawrence Tisch, “and Mr. Tisch was not very interested in news…he was interested in making money.”
There have been a long line of owners, CEO’s, and investment bankers (a new term coined since the days of Murrow) whose interest in news extends just as far. But I’d like to think that the more I’ve come to “know” Mr. Pierpoint, the more I’d like to believe that his realization of what TV news had become didn’t discourage him to the point where he stopped fighting for the kinds of standards that he, Murrow, and the others in their circle—Sevareid, Friendly, Hottelet, among them—helped invent along with the medium in which they worked.
While I can’t speak for the last few years (I’ll leave that to the Pierpoint family in the book), I can say that those with whom I’ve spoken have an unflinching respect for what Robert Pierpoint embodied, qualities that often put him in conflict with people higher up in the news hierarchy, including Walter Cronkite (who he saw as “big footing” him on an important story which Bob had researched and covered first) to Dan Rather. Speaking of his relationship with Rather, current CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plant told me “they were two different kinds of reporters. Rather was willing to take a flyer on a story, go out on a limb; he was more of a cowboy.” In contrast, says Plant, Bob “did everything by the book.” There were people, he says, “probably including Rather, who thought his standards were too rigorous.”
At the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where I’ve often been privileged to teach professional journalists, we use the word standards a great deal, practically in every conversation. The word that’s assumed before “standards” is “enduring”—those values that, regardless of the time in which we live or the news platform on which we work, are presupposed to have survived. Among them are fairness, objectivity, accuracy, sensitivity, and judgment. Not among them are pandering, pimping, and promulgating.
So much of the discouragement that we might share with Bob Pierpoint about the state of today’s news media really has to do with its partisanship. People can read, listen, and watch news with which they agree and shut out all the rest. How do they know that what they are ignoring may, in fact, be important? Add to that a generation that has never known the shared, common experience of watching the day’s news in real-time with their families around the radio or, later, on television, at a set time each night.
Face it. To the digital generation the audience newscasts are trying desperately to attract, news is boring. If it looks like news and sounds like news, then (to use the old joke quacking duck joke), it must be news and news, I repeat, is boring. No wonder it’s cleverly disguised to look like “fun” to those we call digital natives. Hide it in and among celebrity news, the latest youtube video, or the latest fashion trend. As Frank Rich of the New York Times put it, “we have seen a 20 year trend in which the media have steadily replaced journalistic standards with those of show business.” In other words, news, as experienced in the virtual world, where increasing numbers of Americans now get all their news, has to be fun. Fun is good. News reminds us of work. It’s so damned serious.
But so is democracy. It’s a serious business, especially when the only time some Americans actually vote is for their favorite singer, dancer, juggler, or whatever person of so-called “talent” they see on some prime time reality show. The fact is news—especially local news—already reduces complex issues down to dangerously low levels of simplicity. Citizens need more, even if they’re happy with less.
Even when we are exposed to something resembling actual news, it’s hardly differentiated from one medium to the next. The “reverb” effect in news dissemination, once described by former NBC News President Lawrence Grossman is leading to journalism that is less reporting and more repeating, On the cable news networks, especially, it’s also repeating what viewers want to hear and reinforcing what they already believe.,
While on the subject of news networks, it’s also worth noting that expertise and experience were once thought to distinguish network news correspondents—those like Bob Pierpoint–from their local counterparts. In a world where anyone with the means (a laptop, a cell phone, a tablet, or any number of devices not yet envisioned) can gain access to an audience, some things get lost—among them the specialized knowledge that comes with years on the job. A lot of those specialists are gone from our newsrooms, the victims of down-sizing and reorganization, many replaced by bloggers—considered to be a better return on what is already a minimal investment.
|[we have seen] a 20-year trend in which the media…have steadily replaced journalistic standards with those of show business.Frank Rich, The New York Times|
There may be reason for hope. The Pew Research Center’s latest research on TV News credibility done last April shows an interesting trend. Of all the news outlets ranked by audiences as “credible,” tied at the bottom are Fox News and USA Today, which each got ratings of 49 percent positive vs. 51 percent negative. To the extent that the first fosters partisan commentary on important issues and the latter reduces them to absurdly short headlines, maybe that’s a reason to celebrate. Maybe.
But, I want to believe that Robert Pierpoint, if he were standing here today, would take exception with the idea of ranking journalism based upon research studies. The ethereal, missing element in such an approach is the need not so much to observe, but to learn. If we discount any news sources based solely upon their ability to entertain or to offend, we short change our own learning about our world. The kind of television news that Robert Pierpoint helped invent, way back in the 1950’s during the Murrow era was a medium that helped us learn about each other, about the world right in front of us and the far off worlds we may never visit. The best journalists, I like to believe, are teachers. They show us what we couldn’t find on our own or expose to things we’ve never even considered interesting or important. The best journalists are also learners.
As Bob Pierpoint himself put it regarding this very institution:
Here I learned the joy of learning and the discipline of thought as applied to facts, a discipline we in broadcast journalism call analysis. It was here at the University of Redlands that I began to absorb something of the foreward sweep of history…of the progress of mankind toward what can be a better world.
Journalism and education are not all that different. When done well, each provides the tools necessary to understand the complexities of both those in and those without power in our society. When my daughter Casey was sworn into the RI bar, the Supreme Court justice who administered the oath had this advice: “be kind to all you meet for we are all fighting great battles.” Robert Pierpoint fought and won many battles for intelligent reporting in his 40 years at CBS. He tempered knowledge with humility, expertise with excellence. Hopefully, there are students sitting in classrooms right now who will one day be asked “who are your role models?” and their answer will be Robert Pierpoint.