A salute to a journalist and reluctant TV star ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

July 12, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Anyone who knows much about the news-gathering business is aware that the relationship between print journalists like us -- the pencil press, or printheads as our detractors often call us -- and our cousins in television is not always one of mutual adoration. What reporters of both ilks have been known to say about politicians -- that the only way to look at them is down -- often is how we printheads feel about the glamour boys and girls of the pervasive tube.

That's why it may seem strange for us to lament the retirement of one of the biggest stars in the television news galaxy, John Chancellor. Of all the network television luminaries with whom we have rubbed elbows down through the years, none has earned more respect and admiration than Chancellor, himself an old printhead in Chicago who has never forgotten his early days as an ink-stained wretch.

In an era in which many television anchormen and news analysts seldom see the outside of a studio or let their eyes stray from a TelePrompTer, Chancellor has remained a foot soldier in the news-gathering trenches. In his years as the anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," it was his habit on days off to pop up in election campaigns in the most remote corners of the land, wanting to see for himself. And in his later role of delivering thoughtful commentary on the "Nightly News" show, he has continued to use his shoe leather as well as his easy manner of breaking down the complex into the understandable and witty.

At a time when many printheads yearn for the chance to escape the routine of sitting in front of a computer (formerly a typewriter) every day pounding out prose, and hope to enter the high-paying, high-visibility world of television, Chancellor has been the reverse. To friends he has often talked nostalgically about his good old days as a print reporter in Chicago and his desire to get out of the television spotlight and more seriously into book-writing, in which he has already made a successful start. With his long NBC stint over, he is relocating from New York to Princeton, N.J., where he can stroll the campus, use the excellent library there and write to his heart's content.

Being in the television spotlight has always been a mixed blessing for him. On campaigns, he has often attracted as much attention as the candidates he has covered, a source of embarrassment to him, not to mention the candidates. In his anchor days, he was such a celebrity that the network worried about his security, persuading him to take driving lessons on how to elude pursuers. It was a talent he once demonstrated on a lonely road between Americus and Plains, Ga., spinning a speeding rented car completely around as a terrorized passenger hung on in the "death seat" alongside him.

On the campaign trail, Chancellor took every occasion to escape the world of television to hang out with his printhead cronies, willingly suffering their endless if playful barbs about his chosen field of endeavor and lamenting the celebrity status that deprived him of the anonymity of newspaper reporters.

Once, at a Democratic caucus in a packed high-school auditorium in Portland, Maine, during the 1980 presidential campaign, Chancellor was standing in the back trying to look inconspicuous when a young local turned in his direction. "There he is! The guy on television!" the local said, heading toward Chancellor, who braced for the encounter. The fellow, however, walked right by him without so much as a glance, and up to a local television star.

This non-encounter did not go unnoticed, or unmentioned, by the greatly amused printheads who had accompanied their celebrity pal to the event.

It has been an almost impossible task, but John Chancellor over the years has gone about as far as any individual in television news gathering can go in convincing us printheads that there is still hope for a medium that increasingly is being dominated by the Geraldo Riveras, the Phil Donahues and the Rush Limbaughs of the world. He deserves the anonymity he craves -- or says he craves.

We'll see, after a few years in darkest Princeton, N.J. It's a safe bet to predict that you ain't seen the last of him yet.

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