Harry Reasoner

[ Biography/Memoir ]

Harry Reasoner

A Life in the News

By Douglass K. Daniel

The first biography of the broadcast journalist who was once rated second in credibility only to Walter Cronkite and who co-founded the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes.

Don Carleton, series editor

2007

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Paperback

6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 292 pp. | 17 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-72217-0

Harry Reasoner was one of the most trusted and well-liked journalists of the golden age of network television news. Whether anchoring the evening newscast on CBS in the 1960s or on ABC in the 1970s, providing in-depth reporting on 60 Minutes, or hosting numerous special programs covering civil rights struggles, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, Reasoner had "that almost mystical quality it seems to take for good television reporting, exuding this atmosphere of truth and believability," in the words of Walter Cronkite. Yet his reassuring manner and urbane, often witty, on-air persona masked a man who was far more complex and contradictory. Though gifted with the intelligence and drive to rise to the top of his profession, Reasoner was regarded by many colleagues as lazy and self-indulgent, a man who never achieved his full potential despite his many accomplishments.

Harry Reasoner: A Life in the News covers the entire sweep of this enigmatic journalist's life and career. Douglass K. Daniel opens with Reasoner's Depression-era Midwestern upbringing and follows him through his early work in newspapers and radio before he joined CBS in 1956. Focusing on Reasoner's thirty-five-year tenure in television news, Daniel presents fascinating, behind-the-scenes accounts of Reasoner's key role in founding the top-rated newsmagazine 60 Minutes. He also explores Reasoner's highly publicized move to ABC in 1970, where he anchored the nightly newscast, first with Howard K. Smith and later with Barbara Walters—a disastrous pairing from which Reasoner's career never fully recovered.

Based on scores of interviews and unpublished letters, memos, and other primary sources, this first biography of the man once rated second in credibility only to Walter Cronkite illuminates an entire era in broadcast journalism, as well as many of the unique personalities, from Andy Rooney to Mike Wallace, who made that era distinctive.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. The Most Wonderful Place in the World
  • Chapter Two. A Comfortable Life Upended
  • Chapter Three. Secure at Home, Adrift at Work
  • Chapter Four. Taking a Chance at CBS News
  • Chapter Five. On the Air and Everywhere
  • Chapter Six. 60 Minutes and a Bruised Ego
  • Chapter Seven. At ABC, New Duties and Old Habits
  • Chapter Eight. Trouble, Turmoil, and Barbara Walters
  • Chapter Nine. A Rocky Return to CBS
  • Chapter Ten. Behind the Camera, a Difficult Farewell
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

In the days when Americans relied on just three television networks for news and information, the world must have seemed to many a simpler place. It was not, of course, but there likely was a reassuring feeling to know that, whatever was going on, CBS and NBC and ABC would explain events each weeknight. Three out of four people watching television in the early evening were tuned in to the networks' news broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, before twenty-four-hour news channels, only a handful of anchormen enlightened a national audience. They helped shape what tens of millions of people thought was important and how they thought about it.

One was Harry Reasoner. For much of the 1960s, he was the regular substitute for CBS evening news anchor Walter Cronkite, who became known as the most trusted man in America. "Harry reflected in his personal work that almost mystical quality it seems to take for good television reporting, exuding this atmosphere of truth and believability," Cronkite recalled. "He looked like a rather handsome but regular fellow. He looked like a man who came from Middle America. He didn't have any special air of region or accent. He was immediately acceptable as being imminently believable." Surveys near the end of the decade showed Harry Reasoner to be second only to Cronkite among viewers' favorite newsmen.

ABC took notice of Harry's popularity—and his desire to anchor his own newscast. Hired in late 1970, he was ABC's leading broadcast journalist for nearly eight years. Unlike Cronkite, he also delivered commentaries on Vietnam, Watergate, and other current events. Even with the smallest audience among the network newscasts, Harry and coanchor Howard K. Smith often reached from twelve million to fourteen million viewers each night. With their newscast, ABC began its long and eventually successful climb from last to first among the evening news programs.

Cronkite retired from the evening news in 1981, prompting TV Guide to ask its readers who on television they now trusted most. More chose Harry than anyone else. By then he had left ABC and was a correspondent on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, one of the most-watched television series on the air. For most of the decade, and for the rest of his life, Harry could be found on Sunday night reporting on an offbeat topic as more than twenty million people tuned in.

Harry's features—the hint of a smile, a knowing look in his eyes when he was being ironic or downright humorous—had been televised nationally since he had joined CBS News in 1956. Those who worked with him considered him one of the great writers of television news, facile with language yet insightful. "It was the grace of his language," longtime evening news anchor Dan Rather remembered, "whether it was something he had written out or was speaking ad-lib." Even more than his writing, his ability to read a script with authority but a conversational tone—honed through a variety of news and feature assignments—put Harry in the first rank of broadcast journalism.

Yet there was much more to Harry. After he died in 1991 at age sixty-eight, his frequent collaborator and close friend Andy Rooney observed: "If you have a clear impression of what Harry Reasoner was like from having seen him on television, I can promise you, you are wrong. Whatever you think he was like, he was not like that. I could not possibly explain to you what Harry really was like, even if I was sure I knew myself."

Those words presented a challenge to me as a biographer. In these pages I explore Harry Reasoner's life in the news—and his life beyond the newsroom. It began in rural Iowa in the 1920s and encompassed the Depression, a world war, and the beginning of the medium that would bring him national acclaim. Harry met the great men and women of his day and traveled around the world, but he kept many of the best qualities of small-town America.

As Rooney suggested, Harry's life contained surprising contradictions. He built a career on reporting but revealed little about himself, even to those close to him. He rose to the top of a highly competitive field but could appear lackadaisical. He sought the spotlight and public attention but was shy and quiet. He was a writer who did not enjoy writing. He was intelligent and well-read yet allowed indulgences to damage his work and his health. He was a man of morals who likely felt guilty for not living up to his own ideals. 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt put it this way: "Harry Reasoner had only one enemy . . . Harry Reasoner."

He was an uncommon observer of life who carried with him some of life's common flaws—and, from the standpoint of journalism, a thoughtful man in a profession that has never had too many thoughtful men. How that came about is one story Harry never told.

By Douglass K. Daniel

Douglass K. Daniel is a writer and editor with the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. A journalist for more than twenty-five years, Daniel has also taught reporting at Kansas State University and Ohio University. He is the author of Lou Grant: The Making of TV's Top Newspaper Drama.