John Chancellor, a TV man even newspapermen respected

July 15, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- John Chancellor, who died Friday two days before his 69th birthday, personified as few others the old school the gentleman journalist.

In a time when it is the fashion to achieve journalistic prominence by revealing the personal peccadilloes of public figures, Mr. Chancellor became an icon in the business of gathering and commenting on the news without resorting to such tactics.

Instead, as a newspaperman in Chicago and network correspondent and eventually anchorman and commentator, he relied on shoe-leather reporting and fairness. Rumor-mongering and digging for dirt on politicians were never part of his repertoire.

For all the celebrity his work in television justly brought him, and for all his proper and distinguished demeanor, our good and dear friend was a regular guy, with an enthusiasm and professional detachment that made him one of the most trusted Americans in the public eye.

He handled pressure with a gently sardonic good humor, as in the famous incident at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964 when he wisecracked his way out of the convention hall as he was evicted by police. On the air and off, he was unfailingly unflappable.

Mr. Chancellor's achievements as a reporter and commentator were only the most conspicuous aspects of his true profession, which was teacher. By example and counsel, he inspired and encouraged generations of young reporters to emulate his high journalistic and personal ethics.

Unlike many other television celebrities, he never stopped being, first and foremost, a reporter. Even when he was anchoring the NBC Nightly News five days a week, he routinely spent his weekends during election years on the campaign trail, seeing for himself.

Although he became one of television news' brightest stars, he had a special place in the hearts of print reporters. On the road, he chose to spend much of his time in the back of the campaign bus or at a late-hour hotel bar with the ink-stained wretches of the newspaper business.

Beyond his own beginnings as a newspaperman, Mr. Chancellor shared the best print reporters' reverence for the written word, always writing his own scripts and aspiring to a writing career during and after his brilliant tenure in television. Upon retirement from NBC, he moved to Princeton for solitude to write, and for access to a great university library.

It is no secret that many newspapermen look down their noses at their television counterparts. Sometimes it may be out of envy of their celebrity and salaries. More often it is out of limited regard for the depth and breath of their reporting.

John Chancellor never engendered that attitude. Always he extended the same courtly friendliness toward his print colleagues as he did toward those in his own medium, and exhibited the highest integrity and ethics in his work and personal life.

He quietly enjoyed his celebrity and esteem, yet was often embarrassed by it. He used to say it interfered with his ability to blend into the woodwork as non-famous reporters could in pursuit of a story.

Once, in Portland, Maine, a young woman at a political rally looked his way, shouted ''There he is!'' and rushed in his direction. As he braced himself, she dashed past him to reach a local television anchorman. Once the NBC star got over his shock, he laughed heartily with the rest of us.

''Living legend''

At a political rally in Los Angeles, the master of ceremonies spied him in the press section and introduced him as ''a living legend.'' He waved sheepishly to the crowd, amid many taunts from his buddies in the press pen. Ever thereafter, he was addressed by them as ''Living Legend.''

Now John Chancellor has, sadly, graduated to the status of a genuine legend, not only in the relatively young history of television broadcasting, but also in the broader history of reporting and commenting on the news of the day, and his era. He enriched both with his intelligence, his humility, his integrity and above all his good humor and fellowship.

Last December, an old friend created the John Chancellor Award for excellence in journalism, a whopping prize of $25,000 to be given annually starting this year.

There would have been no worthier recipient than the ''Living Legend'' himself.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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