Television can make you famous, but it can’t keep you famous. Once the red light goes off, the half-life of the small-screen star is likely to be dismayingly short indeed. A mere quarter-century ago, Harry Reasoner was a famous man, but now he is almost entirely forgotten, though he was one of the brightest people ever to anchor an evening newscast and-when he took the trouble to knock out his own scripts-a stylish writer.
It was Reasoner’s practice to end his TV newscasts with a brief, pithy commentary on some aspect of the day’s events. Usually his “end pieces” were dryly witty, but not always. When Ernie Kovacs died in a car crash in 1962, Reasoner wrapped up “The CBS Evening News” with these poignant words:
All prayer books ask for protection from sudden death. It is nice to think we will have a warning, time to think things out and go in bed, in honor and in love. Somebody dies in an unprepared hurry and you are touched with a dozen quick and recent memories: the sweetness of last evening, the uselessness of a mean word or an undone promise. It could be you, with all those untidy memories of recent days never to be straightened out. There’s a shiver in the sunlight, touching the warmth of life that you’ve been reminded you hold only for a moment.
It’s been a long time since anybody said anything remotely like that on a nightly newscast, which may help to explain why fewer and fewer people bother to watch TV news these days.
A handful of Reasoner’s end pieces made it into Before the Colors Fade, his slight but graceful 1983 memoir, and a few more are to be found in Douglass K. Daniel’s Harry Reasoner: A Life in the News (University of Texas, 270 pp., $29.95), a book that has the distinction of being, so far as I know, the first non-gossipy primary-source biography of a TV newsman other than Edward R. Murrow ever to make it into print. Frankly, I’m surprised that anybody bothered to write such a book about Reasoner, who died in 1991 and is now remembered, if at all, for having been one of the original co-anchors of “60 Minutes,” along with a better-known gent by the name of Mike Wallace. For all his not-inconsiderable gifts, Reasoner’s celebrity was almost entirely a function of the fact that he appeared on TV, and once the appearances came to an end, so did the celebrity. Such is the inevitable fate of all who chooses to earn their livings by talking into a TV camera.
If you’re old enough to recall Harry Reasoner and curious about what he was like off camera, A Life in the News will tell you everything you want to know, along with a fair amount that you’ll be sorry to learn. Reasoner, it turns out, was a lazy, somewhat aimless man who drifted into electronic journalism for lack of anything better to do. His bosses at CBS discovered that his penny-plain Midwestern accent and straightforward, slightly amused demeanor were hugely appealing to viewers, and Reasoner soon became, after Walter Cronkite, the best-loved figure in TV news. He was so popular that he didn’t have to work very hard for a living: all he had to do was show up and read what was written for him, and over the years he grew increasingly willing to let other people ghost-write his scripts. It was, to be sure, a common enough practice-Peggy Noonan got her start writing Dan Rather’s radio commentaries-but I was sorely disappointed to learn that Reasoner was one of the many talking heads of TV news who ended up being little more than just that.
Douglass K. Daniel tells Reasoner’s story plainly and without frills, making no effort to posthumously inflate him into something other than what he was, acknowledging his talent but also making room for the devastating summing-up of George Herman, one of his colleagues at CBS: “He was extraordinarily lazy. Harry was one of the best news readers in the business and, I thought, an excellent writer. But he didn’t have the nose for news and the drive and the inquisitiveness and whatever else it takes to be a good reporter, I don’t think.” All of which strikes me as a not-unjust epitaph for network TV news itself, which even in its glory days was never much more than a headline service and is now fast approaching its well-deserved demise.
As for Reasoner, he died a few weeks after retiring from CBS, perhaps from disappointment as much as anything else. He had been a hard drinker who in middle age turned into a full-fledged alcoholic, no doubt because he found his well-paid professional life to be more than a little bit unsatisfactory. His fate reminds me of the equally bleak tale of the decline and fall of Robert Benchley, a wonderfully witty essayist and drama critic who spent his last years playing himself in Hollywood movies and drinking to devastating excess, no longer capable of writing anything more than bits and pieces of dialogue. Like Benchley, Harry Reasoner must have known better than to believe that a talented writer who lets others do his work for him is anything other than a fraud. After such knowledge, the grave looks good.