Saturday, November 26, 2016

Birthday: "Dealing with network executives is like being nibbled to death by ducks."

Arnold Eric Sevareid (1912-1992)
Writer, journalist, broadcaster

When I was a boy, there were only three TV channels, and the Thompsons were a CBS family. I don't know why that was: it just was. My maternal grandmother, when we went to visit, watched NBC, and that was that, too.

In the scheme of things, it doesn't really matter, except that I got to see CBS News in its golden age, when every story on every continent, was reported by one of Ed Murrow's handpicked reporters from the radio network's groundbreaking coverage of World War II.

They were writers. They all got their start in newspapering, and made their way into the wireless world in its heyday- the 1930s and '40s- and then, into television.

My boyhood image of God was Eric Sevareid, who did two-minute commentaries on The CBS Evening News from 1964 to 1977. He looked, and sounded, the part. He was A Serious Man, Talking About Serious Things.

It was a long way from Velvot, North Dakota, where he was born to Norwegian immigrants the year the Titanic sank. His family ended up in Minneapolis. He and a friend, both of them just out of high school, won a newspaper contest to go on an expedition. They canoed 2250 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson's Bay in Canada, and lived (by contrast, half a century later, when I suggested to my parents taking my year after high school to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend, I got one of the more memorable, and multiyear, mockings my parents ever dished out. My friend found someone else and reached Mt Katahdin at the end of the summer of 1976, a few months after I hit a rough patch in college and my mother suggested, "why don't you take that hiking trip you used to talk about so much?" There are times I agree with those who think kids had it better when not being hovered over all the time).

At 23 Sevareid published an account of the trip, Canoeing With The Cree, that remains in print to this day.

He was a reporter for another Minneapolis paper while still studying journalism at the University of Minnesota. He graduated in 1935 and did further studies in London and Paris, where in no time he was city editor of The Paris Herald-Tribune. From that he moved to CBS, just in time to cover the outbreak of World War II and the fall of France; in April 1940, just as things were well and truly falling apart, his wife bore twin sons.

They made their way to London to cover the Blitz, then to Washington, where Sevareid was Washington bureau chief for CBS. He parachuted out of a crashing plane in Burma in 1943, got rescued, and got back to America in time to cover the forming of the United Nations.

In 1946, Sevareid published a memoir, Not So Wild A Dream, which remains a standard account of the Depression-era generation that fought to survive economic collapse only to fall, headlong, into a World War.  It, too, remains in print.

Uncomfortable on radio, more uncomfortable on TV, Sevareid nevertheless filled a variety of news program slots for CBS as television was invented. A measure of his success was a multiyear investigation by the McCarthy committee that produced exactly nothing on him. Sevareid decamped to Europe as a roving correspondent, then, after helping out with the Kennedy assassination coverage for CBS, settled into his commentary slot.

Sevareid would never last on TV news today: two minutes is a lot of wasted ad time just to hear what a craggy-faced guy thinks. He also committed the cardinal sin of letting events and new knowledge alter his views over time. He got the nickname "Eric Severalsides" from critics who thought they were being terribly clever.

He did two entertaining television conceits with the actor Peter Ustinov for the American Revolution Bicentennial. As himself, the grey eminence condicted interviews with Ustinov, first as King George III, then as the king's colony-losing prime minister, Lord North. His last big gig was a PBS series on business called Enterprise.

Sevareid retired in 1977, traveled,nourished his roots in Norway, and died just shy of his 80th birthday. His career earned him three Peabody Awards for journalism and two Emmys. He played himself in several movies, played himself as Tony Danza's fantasy alter ego in "Taxi", and was the idol of Ted Baxter on The "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Jim Dial on "Murphy Brown." The US Postal Service saluted him with a stamp.

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