Eric Sevareid's life is a model for other journalists

July 10, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Eric Sevareid lived the American version of the hero quest. For a lot of us, when it comes to broadcast journalism, he's the model."

Bill Moyers told me that. And the context he said it in is important to understanding the legacy of Sevareid, that remarkable CBS correspondent, who died yesterday at his home in Washington, from stomach cancer at the age of 79.

Moyers was on the road in Texas in the summer of 1989 filming a PBS show about heroes, quests and journeys. And I was tagging along, doing a magazine story about Moyers' journey. Quests within quests.

We were talking about the archetype journey for American TC heroes -- from a humble log cabin to the White House -- when Sevareid's journey from tiny Velva, N.D., to the capitals of the world came up. That's when Moyers called Sevareid a "model" and realized that in his own way he was chasing Sevareid's shadow out on that hot, blacktop, Texas road.

That's the kind of impact Eric Sevareid had. There are hundreds of broadcast and print journalists from several generations chasing Sevareid's shadow today. Accolades poured in yesterday in the wake of Sevareid's death from some of those who understand his legacy.

CBS Anchorman Dan Rather called Sevareid "a teacher . . . and a heroic figure in the broadcasting profession."

Like Moyers, Rather said his journey from a small Texas town to network correspondent was inspired by Sevareid. It was Sevareid to whom an insecure young Rather came a few years after arriving at the network, asking if the elder journalist could draw up a list of great books for him to read. Sevareid did.

Education, a passion for knowledge and the belief that ideas could move mountains were at the center of the image of the great correspondent that Sevareid came to embody.

His account of his college years in the 1930s at the University of Minnesota in "Not So Wild a Dream," his autobiography, should be must-reading for every college freshman. His descriptions of lectures, books, politics and protests lighting a fire in the mind and soul of this young man off the prairie are literally an ode to the best possibilities of the university experience.

From the Depression, left-wing student politics and newspapering in Minnesota, Sevareid entered the burgeoning and then perfectly unrespectable field of radio broadcasting just as fascism was locking its stranglehold on Europe.

The relative instantaneousness of radio, though, was a good match for the blitz kreig military maneuvers of Adolf Hitler, and Sevareid became a household name as one of the "Murrow Boys," the corps of correspondents hand-picked for CBS Radio by Edward R. Murrow.

There are Americans of a certain age today who can vividly remember Sevareid's radio broadcasts of France about to fall to the Nazis in 1940. He got out a half step ahead of Hitler's troops.

Sevareid spent all of his career from 1939 on at CBS. His positions: war correspondent, radio news broadcaster, TV commentator, roving European correspondent, chief Washington correspondent and national correspondent. He retired in 1977, but his image remained very much a part of CBS News. In recent years, he became a touchstone for the glory-that-once-was-but-is-no-more at CBS News in the minds of some critics.

His last appearances on CBS were doing commentary and political analysis during the 1988 national conventions and in the "Remembering Pearl Harbor" special that aired Dec. 7. His presence at the conventions in 1988 was an attempt by CBS to cosmetically restore some of the luster to its news division, which had suffered severe budget cuts in the mid-1980s. Those cuts resulted in the closing of many bureaus and the elimination of many of the kinds of correspondent jobs Sevareid once held for the network. According to CBS, Sevareid remained a consultant to CBS News in Washington from his retirement in 1977 until his death yesterday.

But Sevareid was not the stuff of which corporate consultants are made. The position was a kind of emeritus title for a pathfinder, someone who drafted the map we still use to measure our journey.

Charles Kuralt, another journalist who has made the journey from Smalltown, America, said of Sevareid yesterday, "His autobiography inspired in thousands of aspiring young reporters the wish to be like Eric Sevareid. . . . None of us came close."

But the best of the newspapers you read and television news programs you watch today are better because of the benchmark Sevareid set and the shadow some continue to chase.

Sevareid is survived by his wife, Suzanne St. Pierre, a former producer for "60 Minutes," and three children from previous marriages: Tina Kennedy, of Frederick; Peter, of Swarthmore,

Pa.; and Michael, of Mount Joy, Pa.

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