Newsman Harry Reasoner stood for common sense, fair play to TV viewers

August 07, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Harry Reasoner didn't really belong in the world of inflated resumes and shameless self-promotion that network news has become in the last decade or so.

CBS' "60 Minutes" correspondent, who died yesterday of cardiopulmonary arrest at age 68, resisted doing interviews. And when he did do them, he was likely to be downright grumpy about it. The only topic he regularly warmed to was complaining about how hard it was to do good reporting and writing.

In a 1985 interview, Reasoner said he hated writing his reports for "60 Minutes."

"You have to do it alone, and you think a drink would help. But it doesn't. I like to contemplate writing. I like having done it. It's the actual process that bothers me."

Reasoner need not have worried. It may not have come easy, but it came. He was a good television reporter and writer, a very good one. But his link to greatness was what he represented on the TV screen -- common sense, fair play, objectivity, plain-speaking, decency and, by all accounts a good heart.

That is to say he represented those values we most want to believe America stand for. He was our emissary -- perhaps a BTC better word is proxy -- at some of the more important moments of our post-war history.

He reported the racial crisis at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1958. He called it his most important news assignment and he returned to the theme of civil rights regularly. Reasoner's "The Harlem Temper" was an award-winner for "CBS Reports" in 1963.

He was one of the stars at CBS News during the 1960s, covering the national political conventions and taking over as White House correspondent in 1965.

But in 1970, he entered a realm he never quite suited: He became anchor of the evening news at then-struggling ABC. His reputation was such that commercial minutes during the newscast, which had been selling for $7,000, zoomed to $38,000 with word of his appointment.

The ratings didn't follow, however. In 1976, ABC brought in Barbara Walters as co-anchor. Neither she nor Reasoner liked it, and the public liked it even less.

But returning to CBS as a correspondent for "60 Minutes" two years later, he found his niche again. It was a position he he held until May, when he was named an editor emeritus and the expectation was that he would contribute this season on a limited basis.

With "60 Minutes," the essential Reasoner re-emerged -- the no-frills, from-the-heartland American asking reasonable questions about Swiss bankers and small-town savings & loan shenanigans.

The Humboldt, Iowa, native wasn't the white knight Mike Wallace was or the sophisticated, rapier-tongued Morley Safer. Reasoner was someone who behaved as probably thousands of solid, middle-class, Americans of his generation imagine they would have behaved had they been present for the integration of Little Rock schools or been asked to wrestle with Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam years. He was a television reporter who helped them believe the best about themselves.

Reasoner, of course, never allowed such grand assessments of himself to stand unchallenged. This spring, when his semi-retirement was announced and the accolades started sounding, he said he didn't know about all the high-sounding stuff about what he represented in viewers' mind. He said his 15 years at "60 Minutes" were mainly fun. "I can't imagine anything I could have done that would have been more rewarding."

That's another thing about those straight-shooting fellows from the heartland: modest to the end.

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