SHORT OF a political assassination, presidential campaign, or space mission, few headline-making events grab the attention of Americans like the death of a national celebrity. Indeed, the passing of a famous actor, musician, even author is usually occasion for an impressive show of public adoration, inspired largely by the shared sense among us that we have lost a close family friend. Often, though the deep shock that millions feel at the passing of particularly popular stars. John Lennon comes to mind is quickly softened by our collective ability to replay a favorite song, watch again a favorite movie or otherwise recall part of the recorded legacy that makes some celebrities truly immortal.
Frank Reynolds longtime ABC News correspondent and since 1978 the central fixture on that network evening news program, enjoyed an audience of millions, and probably was one of the best known faces on television. Although many journalists might grimace at the suggestion it is clear that Reynolds was a celebrity--someone people identified with recognized, cared for and were willing to allow into their homes on a nightly basis, usually at the family dinner hour. Yet following his sudden death last week after an intensive hour with hepatitis and bone cancer, there is no evidence to suggest that Reynolds will receive anything similar to the we won't let you die in our hearts treatment accorded countless others with star status.
Of course ABC received thousands of condolence notes, following thousands upon thousands of get well messages received since the April day when Reynolds fell ill at 59 and took leave from his anchor duties. And Reynolds' funeral at Arlington National Cemetery this weekend attracted hundreds of mourners, including friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan. But beyond family members and a few folks back at the studios, it's hardly likely that any of Reynolds' fans even the die-hards who couldn't eat dinner without him starring into the living room--will continue to feel much prolonged agony over his passing, let alone seek comfort by playing some videotape over and over again. Once ABC settles on a new anchor setup for World News Tonight. Reynolds will likely fade from our collective memory fast. Some might think this a reflection of his popularity, an indicator of the square-boy-on-the-block image he portrayed. More likely, it's testimony to his overall success on the job, as a journalist who always seemed more interested in getting across the story than in getting through the story just so he could carefully pronounce his name at its conclusion.
After Reynolds passing last week, the close-knit society of network newsmen paid tribute to their fallen colleague, praising him left and right as one of the industry's giants ABC devoted 35 minutes of its hour-long Nightline broadcast to Frank and it silenced the trumpeteering musical intros that warn viewers of its newscasts of the end of all commercial breaks. John Chancellor and Walter Cronkite remember them spoke of what a "professional" Reynolds was, of how he had fought his way through a 35-year rise from a radio reporter in his native Indiana to the top spot at ABC News Others noted his initial reluctance in 1967 to "sell out" as a field correspondent to become a co-anchor with Howard K. Smith, a position he subsequently held for three years, until ABC--seeking a ratings boost--replaced him with the more avuncular Harry Reasoner. But since resuming anchor duties on ABC's revamped news program in 1978, his friends continued, Reynolds had helped pull the once-struggling network into a solid second place behind long-dominant CBS. And finally, they said, ever since--because?--Reynolds took ill several months ago, World News Tonight had dropped to last place in the all-important Nielsen ratings.
ESSENTIALLY, Reynolds came across last Wednesday night as television's shining knight, remembered in the most glowing terms by those who knew him best. "He was not someone you could push around," said NBC's Tom Brokaw. ABC's media critic Jeff Greenfield said Reynolds never favored," "style over substance," as so many in the television industry do. CBS's Harry Reasoner was among the few who tried to put things in perspective, cautioning, "I don't think Frank would like to be pictured as the last of a vanishing breed." But, he quickly added, "What he was was a gentleman--and there are not many of those in any profession."
Some news watchers might have felt betrayed by the remarks of Reynolds' friends, believing that objective reporters shouldn't permit themselves to blur the line between fact-telling and story-portraying, especially when the subject of the story is a close friend. But we should consider the circumstances. What it came down to was a bunch of close friends doing what came naturally--recalling the best moments of their departed colleague's career, trying to be journalists and humans at the same time, pursuits not yet mutually exclusive, Said Reynolds' co-anchor Peter Jennings. "What we did today was what we felt--I don't think we made it up."
Ironically, the bit of human nature in clear evidence among respected television journalists last week was precisely the trait which earned Frank Reynolds his greatest notoriety as a newsman. It happened live, on the 1981 afternoon when President Reagan was shot. After airing conflicting reports as to the fate of presidential press secretary James Brady, Reynolds lost his composure, turned his head into the newsroom behind him, and pleaded, "Let's get it nailed down somebody' Let's find out!" The remark was uncharacteristic and highly unusual, and for both those reasons it has gotten a lot of attention, as it did once again last week. It even prompted old hand Walter Cronkite to familiarize himself once again with the cameras and conclude. "Frank had a real emotional connection with the news. He felt it and sometimes he let that feeling show--and that's not always a bad idea."
Not a bad idea, and not altogether conventional or acceptable. But for a brief moment, Frank Reynolds broke the age-old notion of the unemotional, stolid newsreader, seemingly detached from all that he sees and does. He proved that he was hardly part of a dying breed--above all, he was a human being, and he showed that at a time when it was perhaps most understandable. In the all-important, ultra-professional, multi million dollar business of television news, sometimes that aspect of things is all too easy to forget.