A few weeks ago, Roger Mudd, the longtime broadcast journalist, died at the age of 93. I had forgotten about Mudd, in recent years, but when I read the news of his death I was reminded of the life he lived and how it influenced my own. I am sure that when I was growing up, I wanted to be Roger Mudd one day. That was my first reaction when I saw his picture in the New York Times the day after he died.

Mudd was a reporter and anchorman for CBS News from 1961 to 1980. He described his time there, in one interview, as the height of his career. When asked why, he answered, because it was one of the most tumultuous times in U.S. history and we had a team of the best reporters in the business working all those stories.

It is still a great accomplishment in the world of journalism to make it to one of the big three broadcast networks or a legacy newspaper, like the Times or the Washington Post. But during the middle of Mudd’s career it was much more significant, because there were fewer outlets producing a daily news product, which gave the few who made it to the top great power and great responsibility. When the big newspapers and the big three networks decided something was news — made a news judgment about what was important that day — they were deciding for the entire country, and with few places to turn to for news, the country took it as the truth. If it is still considered prestigious to work for CBS News, it is because of the work put in there by Mudd and his colleagues.

Inside an elite group of national journalists, Mudd stood out as particularly dedicated to his craft, the truth, and personal integrity. He was always thorough, proper and courteous. He was always willing to show his sense of humor in a respectful way. When covering politics, he was willing to point out the absurdity of a moment without denigrating the politicians he was covering. His approach to his work was direct. Ask questions, find out what’s going on, and tell the American people.

He is credited with ending the presidential ambitions of the late Senator Edward Kennedy by simply asking him why he wanted to be president. When Kennedy couldn’t answer, his campaign fell apart. Years later, when Katie Couric (working for CBS at the time) asked Sarah Palin where she got her news, Palin’s unconvincing response hurt her public reputation and demonstrated the power of a simple question that Mudd fully understood. In neither case was the question complicated or meant to trick the subject, but the answers revealed the larger truth.

Journalism is a creative enterprise and when pursuing a creative career it has been said that first we emulate and then we innovate. When I began my career as a news reporter I, without question, had the journalists of CBS News in mind when I went out to cover a story. I was not following Mudd’s example specifically, but I was following the example of the hard-nosed reporter, always trying to ask the toughest questions, never backing down, and then turning the material I gathered into entertaining prose that often ended with a sardonic observation or a cliff hanging conclusion, meant to convey the idea that the story continues.

It is a style of broadcast news reporting that came to be known as the Sermon on the Mount and it is largely gone today, but is kept alive by people like Brian Williams of NBC News, Shepard Smith, currently of CNBC, and Keith Olbermann of…wherever he happens to be right now. The all knowing anchorman who not only delivers the who, what, when, where, why, but makes an effort to explain what we should think of it all.

In Mudd’s day, the opinions of reporters, and the news organizations they worked for, were cloaked under a promise of objectivity. When Walter Cronkite declared that the Vietnam war was an unwinnable stalemate, his conclusion was presented as the result of weeks of on the ground reporting. Today, anchors on cable news networks are more likely to begin with their conclusions and back into their arguments with hand picked anecdotes, gleaned from the constant stream of information being delivered to all of us, raw, and often without context, over the internet.

Whenever writing about the topic of journalism I always try to avoid the -ism of the good old days. We can argue over whether the approach taken by Mudd and his colleagues produced a better product than what we consume today, but we can only judge that work in the context of the time.

Broadcast journalism, in 1961, was just getting started. Radio had begun to rival print during World War II. In the early 1960s, television news was less than ten years old. The men, and the few women, entering broadcast news had largely come from print. The emphasis was on gathering the news and writing about it. The writing was then recited into a microphone on radio and later matched with moving pictures on television. As the ability to go live from the scene of developing stories grew, less emphasis was put on writing and greater emphasis was placed on being able to perform in front of the camera. This evolution no doubt led, in part, to Dan Rather’s decision to tie himself to a tree to report on Hurricane Carla as it hit Galveston in 1961.

If Mudd had started his career at CNN in 1980, rather than at CBS in 1961, he would have had no choice but to take a more performative approach to his work, if he wanted to succeed. There are few exceptions in the world of television news today. Put another way, I have often asked the question, would Edward R. Murrow tweet? There is no way to know for sure, but I have concluded that he would.

Murrow, seen as one of the great innovators of broadcast journalism, was a trailblazer in radio, and readily adapted to television once the option was there. His goal was to impart information, by whatever means possible. If he had been offered a Twitter account, my presumption is he would learn how to use it and try to adapt the platform to a style he was comfortable with. Toward the end of his career, Murrow very publicly criticized the mis-use of television as purely an entertainment vehicle. He might have taken a similar approach to his criticism of social media. He would have recognized its value, but he would have tried to make it more valuable by creating his own standards.

As I entered the world of journalism myself, around the time when Mudd was moving from CBS to NBC, I had the opportunity to run into a few of the people I had idolized from the world of television news, when our paths crossed at the scene of a local story that had gone national. It was at these times when I began to come to realize that the personas built around these very famous reporters did not always match up to real life. I got to overhear their conversations, watch their behavior, and generally came to realize they were often just “making television news.” They were creating an illusion of wisdom and authority using the smoke and mirrors of television and its power to influence.

This is not to discount the work of television journalists completely, it’s just to say that I found there was at least an equal balance between the journalism and the entertainment aspect of what they were doing. For many years, extending into the 1990s, news broadcasts were referred to as “broadcasts” or “programs,” to avoid calling them “shows.” Those in power never wanted to leave the impression they were providing news as a form of entertainment. Shows were something you went to see on Broadway. That long-standing tradition has since fallen and I often hear news anchors today thank their guests for “coming on our show.”

What Roger Mudd represented to me, and what I was reminded of when he died, was a person who was what he claimed to be; a news reporter. A news man, in the language of his day. He worked hard each day to get the story, put on a suit and a tie at dinner time, and with courtesy, style and grace, he came into our homes to deliver the news. He had standards and those standards followed him until the end of his working career. You can see it by reading his resume.

After his time at NBC, he moved to PBS, where older fashioned journalism was valued at the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. His last move was to the History Channel where a voice of authority was welcome in documentaries meant to be the final draft of history rather than the first. This last stop before retirement probably says the most about Mudd’s approach to his work, his reputation, and the importance of setting standards for yourself in journalism and life. When it came to finding someone who could personify a brand dedicated to truth, the long view, and the lessons of the past, the History Channel chose Mudd.

Mudd’s life, dedicated to honest work and high standards, was rewarded in the end with a reputation to be envied and a pattern of personal and professional conduct to be emulated.

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