For a few years back in the 1980s, I wanted nothing more than to be Bruce Morton, the CBS News correspondent who died Friday at the age of 83.
The obituaries online pretty much all describe Morton the way the New York Times does, as an ” a solid reporter of expansive breadth and expertise, with special gifts as a writer.” The last is the important part, because over the years I have come to think of Morton as representing the road-not-taken by TV news, the writerly road, for lack of a better word.
Now “writerly” is not necessarily a good thing, and certainly not a common thing, in TV journalism. As the medium has matured, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and in general, very plain, functional writing works, but even a little bit of literary flourish does not, especially when you move away from feature pieces and toward hard news. Writing that calls attention to itself is competing against TV’s primary selling points, pictures and sound, and you end up with stories that are more about style than about the subject at hand.
As I remember it, Morton fought this problem to a draw; I paid the most attention to him when he was writing about politics for CBS, and his pieces were deft; you got the point, got that there might be more points worth exploring beyond the horizon of the particular story you were watching and got that there was an intelligence behind the story, that the piece at hand was part of a larger narrative. He was seldom merely clever, though like all writers, he had his off-days.
– I met him once, in New York City, while I was in town working on a story. A guy at the network knew I was a fan and decided to surprise me by introducing him. I’d like to say it was memorable, but I was too flustered and worried about my own story. What I remember most was, he was surprisingly tall.
– The very best memory I have of Morton is from the CBS News coverage of Tiananmen Square in 1989; Dan Rather was anchoring from there, and CBS had a murder’s row of correspondents on the ground including Morton and Charles Kuralt. While the details have long since faded, there came a point during the coverage where Morton delivered a magnificent “it doesn’t get any better than this” story wrapped live, and then Rather went to Kuralt, who did a piece that, impossible though it seemed to me at the time, was even better. Here were two great reporters, right in the middle of history, who were working at such a high level it was almost like play.
Of course, TV news isn’t built for such things – the Mortons and Kuralts are rare, since writers tend to gravitate to mediums where they can, well, write. And it’s easy to go wrong with writerly TV news; I know, I’ve done enough of it. But Morton reminds us that TV news had the potential to be somewhat different, a little more open to different ways of telling stories.