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Daniel Schorr: Guarding The Source Of His Strength

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

[Editor's note: Despite their similar surnames, the subject and the author of this article are not related.]

"...to betray a source would for me be to betray myself, my career and my life. And to say that I refuse to do it isn't quite saying it right. I cannot do it." --Daniel Schorr, testifying before   the House Ethics Committee

On Wednesday, September 15, 1976, the showdown came.

For Daniel Schorr, a life-long journalist, the question was simple. Could the U.S. House of Representative force him to reveal the name of the person from whom he had obtained a classified report?

Schorr knew that it could not, that he would go to jail before he would ever divulge the identity of his source. Two months prior to his confrontation with Congress, Schorr, through a public statement, told the House Ethics Committee investigating the leak that he would "not give any testimony about the source." Nevertheless, the panel issued a subpoena requiring the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) correspondent to testify and face contempt of Congress charges if he refused either to appear or to answer question under oath.

Schorr had provoked the confrontation, not only with Congress but with his employer, CBS, in February 1976 by arranging for publication in the Village Voice, a weekly newspaper in New York, a classified report written by the House Intelligence Committee after its investigation of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) activities. Although much of the information contained in the document already had been made public by Schorr and other journalists, the actual publication of the report piqued many Congressmen, who viewed the incident as symptomatic of a well-known Capitol Hill malady, the inability of Congress to keep secrets.

To crack down on Congressional leaks, the House authorized its Ethics Committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the report's publication and discover who had leaked the report to Schorr.

Sensing stormy weather ahead, CBS waffled in its support of Schorr, suspending him from all reportorial duties until after the investigation. The aggressive but controversial reporter had caused CBS executives, particularly board chairman William S. Paley, some consternation in the past, and they were not inclined to risk on his behalf a confrontation with the politicians who regulated their industry. Furthermore, Schorr's reliance on the Village Voice rather than his own company as a vehicle for the release of the document irritated the network, even though he had offered CBS an opportunity to publish the report before resorting to a competitor.

Schorr admits now that he made several mistakes in his handling of the report, but using an outlet other than CBS was not one of them.

In his recently published book Clearing the Air, Schorr described how his offer of the material to CBS was brushed aside, though never specifically refused. His superiors put off making a decision, and Schorr was certain they would decide negatively. "They had not officially communicated [their decision] to me, but I knew CBS was not going to use it," Schorr said in an interview last week. Convinced the public should have an opportunity to read the report, he sought an alternative outlet.

Choosing the Village Voice as that outlet was his first "mistake," Schorr said. The Voice was "perceived by many as an anti-establishment publication," he noted. The paper tended toward sensationalism in its treatment of the report, running it under the provocative headline "The Report on the CIA That President Ford Doesn't Want You to Read."

A second error only became a "mistake," which according to Schorr's definition of the term is "anything that turns out badly and leads to misunderstanding," after a New York Times editorial criticized him for "Selling Secrets." While Schorr himself accepted no money from the Village Voice in exchange for the document, he did ask the publisher to donate to the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press any money that Schorr would have received as a result of its publication. The Times pounced on this deal, decrying it as "commercial traffic in such documents...an attempt to launder the transaction by devoting the proceeds to high constitutional purposes."

Schorr's final, and most serious, mistake was his initial attempt to hide his own identity as the person responsible for the report's release. Schorr said he intended to write an introduction and commentary to accompany the report, thinking that others in the media, particularly The New York Times, were also planning to release the document. When he realized that he possessed the only copy, he decided on anonymity to protect his source. "I should have perceived that to make an act of disclosure a covert act in itself was a very serious mistake," Schorr said.

Secrets, whether the government's or a reporter's, seldom remain secrets for very long. The morning after the report appeared in the Village Voice, the Washington Post broke a story identifying Schorr as the Voice's source. Within a week he acknowledged the Post's story and CBS suspended him from further duties until the completion of the investigation.

From that moment unti his appearance before the Ethics Committee in September, Schorr was in limbo. He became a cause celebre, a defender of free speech to some, a Benedict Arnold to others. He describes that period as "unreal." He said he could not understand what he "was doing on the other side of the microphone." After devoting an entire life to reporting, to asking the questions, now he had to answer them.

Like a heretic defending himself before the Inquisition, Schorr was summoned to testify before a hostile Congressional investigatory committee, armed with questions tailored to trap him into revealing his source. Schorr withstood the pressures of the committee inquiry, braving threats of prosecution for contempt. He told the committee:

..for a journalist, the most crucial kind of confidence is the identity of a source of information. To betray a confidential source would mean to dry up many future sources for many reporters. The reporter and news organization would be the immediate losers, but I would submit to you that the ultimate losers would be the American people and their free institutions.

As a defender of both the reporter's right to report and the public's "right to know," Schorr emerged from the hearing room victorious. His own market value, which had plummeted to an unprecedented low in February 1976, soared once again. The CBS brass offered to take him back--but Schorr had had enough. Demoralized by the lack of support shown him during the controversy by the network and some of his colleagues, Schorr could not bring himself to return to CBS.

"Paley ordered me fired, but when he saw a turn in my fortunes he switched as he would on a program if its ratings suddenly rose," Schorr said.

He continued, "They wanted me because they didn't dare to fire me, but I had no future left there."

Eventually, Schorr believes, CBS would have found a way to fire him, after the furor had died down. "They would have offered me a `great' post in Luxembourg," he specualted sarcastically, "and when I wasn't producing many stories from Luxembourg they would have said, `Schorr, you just don't have it anymore. All that attention went to your head."

So Schorr left CBS and the life of a reporter he had led since the age of 12. He has spent the past year lecturing and working on his book, which tries to treat his turbulent career with rigorous, journalistic objectivity (see accompanying book review). At the age of 61, he probably will not return to the hectic pace of a daily reporter, although he appears vigorous and much younger than his age.

In retrospect, Schorr's career involved him directly in more controversies than most journalists. Although he always considered himself a a reporter, one who tells people the news but does not himself make it, somehow he frequently managed to become news himself.

This involvement was not always of his own doing. He did not place himself on former President Nixon's enemies list, but his name appeared there nevertheless. His reporting provoked that administration's ire, more so than that of most of his colleagues, and so there he was, in the "top 20--Number 17, to be precise."

Schorr discovered his name on the list while on-the-air, covering the Senate Watergate hearings. When the list's existence was disclosed, Schorr grabbed a copy and, unaware of its contents, began reading it to his audience. When he reached his own name, he hesitated for a second and then continued to read. Schorr said that if he had found his name on such a list in 1971, he would have "collapsed," but by that time "it was a joke and couldn't be taken seriously."

The Nixon administration, however, always took Schorr seriously. In 1971, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a "background check" on Schorr, ostensibly for security reasons prior to his appointment to a post in the administration. No appointment was ever made, or even mentioned to Schorr, and most observers have since concluded the check was intended to intimidate the aggressive reporter.

Schorr maintains that the national media harbored little bias or animosity toward Nixon at the beginning of his administration. "The press only wanted to cover them [the Nixon administration] as we had covered other administrations," he said. This relationship was altered, Schorr added, when the White House "acted as if they were going to go after us. They created hostility and turned us against them. By declaring some of us their enemies, they made us enemies."

Schorr's statements indicate that he retains little respect for the man who resigned the presidency in disgrace. "There was a terrible immaturity in that administration called paranoia."

He describes Nixon's recent appearance on television, when he answered questions posed by British interviewer David Frost, as "pure, vintage Nixon... self-deluding, frequently factually wrong." Schorr feels Nixon must delude himself to survive, that he would not survive "if he had to live with the truth."

Living with the truth, never an easy task, presents unusual moral dilemmas for investigative reporters as well as presidents. The reporter's entire occupational orientation compels him to make public all the information that can be unearthed. Ordinarily such disclosures merely embarrass public figures, but occasionally the release of certain information could endanger the national security. In such instances, the reporter must weigh the risks of exposing sensitive information against his professional obligation to report all that he knows.

Schorr faced such a choice when he obtained a copy of the Intelligence Committee reportfl but he said he had little doubt which way to decide. Noting that a government report "has no copyright and is the people's property," Schorr maintained that it was his responsibility to make the report available to the public. Too often people in the government expect reporters to help them keep their secrets, he said. They fail to realize that once a reporter knows something, that information ceases to be a secret. He added.

Schorr can imagine few cases where a reporter should cooperate with the government and squelch a story in the national interest. "If I were to have information where I could tell that disclosure would kill somebody, then I would run the story but bypass that information," Schorr said, but he added that he had never had to worry about that problem because such "life-or-death" information seldom reaches the press.

"Leaking is a form of whistle-blowing," Schorr explained. People leak information that will embarrass public figures, or implicate them in crimes or scandals; they do not expose "atomic secrets." "The real secrets are pretty goddamn well kept," Schorr insisted.

He should know. After spending a lifetime trying to uncover those secrets, he should know

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