Harry Reasoner: How the famous TV anchorman delivered news & insights to the country

TV news man Harry Reasoner

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Harry Reasoner, famed TV anchorman & interviewer, discussed the news — and his place in it — in this 1970s interview.

This Q&A was written just after he left CBS and moved to ABC. There he stayed for almost eight years before heading back to CBS and 60 Minutes, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Harry Reasoner finally retired on May 19, 1991, and less than a month later, had surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain. He died on August 6, 1991, his passing ultimately due to cardiopulmonary arrest.

Harry Reasoner: An anchor man answers some questions (1971)

From TV Guide – March 20, 1971

Iowa-born Harry Reasoner is a former Minneapolis newspaper reporter. Last November, he quit CBS News, and is now co-anchor man (with Howard K Smith) of the ABC Evening News show. Recently he discussed his career and opinions with TV Guide writer Neil Hickey.

TV news anchorman Harry Reasoner (1971)

TV Guide: What are the facts behind your leaving CBS after 14 years and jumping over to ABC? It was a move that surprised many people.

Harry Reasoner: Well, the basic reason for it was that I had a seven-year contract with CBS, which is a long time to be unable to argue with your bosses. At the end of the seven years, there were some things I wanted, and it just didn’t seem we could get any of them. The conversations were just not very productive.

Also, when we approached ABC, it turned out that this is the only network right now or in the foreseeable future where I could get what I wanted, which was to be an anchor man.

TVG: An anchorman’s job is a position of inordinate influence, isn’t it? Many viewers think the anchor man is almost as important as the news he’s transmitting.

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HR: I don’t think he should be. It’s a tremendous responsibility if people feel more comfortable getting their news from Walter Cronkite than from David Brinkley or vice versa.

But it’s the same kind of responsibility that an editor has who has a paper that people like, and who can then manipulate the way he places his stories and how they are written. And it’s a responsibility perfectly within the capability of journalists to fulfill without corruption — not that they won’t make mistakes.

But being an anchor man is indeed a funny kind of job in journalism. You are what people are familiar with, you’re what they have confidence in. They like some anchor men better than others the way they like some newspapers better than others.

And I enjoy doing it. I like having that influence. I have confidence in how I use the influence. And then, of course, you get more money, more attention, and more fun as an anchor man.

TVG: Does it bother you that you, as a newsman, are subject to the same ratings pressures as, say, Doris Day or The Beverly Hillbillies? TV news is, at least partly, show biz, isn’t it?

Harry Reasoner on TV Guide (1971)

HR: I don’t know that it’s show biz. Newspapers have always been highly conscious of circulation. A great deal of what a newspaper does is designed to increase circulation.

On a good paper, it’s done through promotion and trying to be excellent. On a bad paper, it’s done by catering to the lowest common denominator. I think it’s exactly the same thing in television news.

One of the things that has interested me is that in these 20 years of television news, nobody at the network level has ever gone to a tabloid approach. And yet at any given moment, whichever network was last in the ratings must have been really tempted, because sensationalizing the news would almost certainly greatly increase your circulation and your ratings. But nobody ever has.

MORE: Kennedy: Society grows or withers according to the power of its ideas (1961)

TVG: The early indications seem to be that your presence is helping the ratings on ABC.

HR: If that’s so, I’m pleased. I assume ABC had some reason to think that would be true or they wouldn’t have hired me.

My attitude toward how good I am at this business is not a matter of modesty, false or otherwise. If I am good, I don’t know why. I can’t parse out or dissect why I am appealing, if I am, and I suspect that if I tried, I would lose whatever it is I am. Basically what I try to do is read the news without stumbling too much.

TVG: Recently you said this: “There are 50 million people tuned into the three network news shows every night, and they are the best-informed mass citizenry in the history of the world. And it’s because of network television news.” What do you mean by that?

Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters at ABC in the 1970s
Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters at ABC in the 1970s

HR: I don’t think people read the newspapers very thoroughly. Therefore, any comparison between the amount of time involved in a half-hour news show and the amount of print in a typical newspaper is not valid.

I think most people who watch a half-hour news broadcast watch the whole thing. I believe that the news on the networks is presented in a balanced way so that you have more people hearing a balanced, if brief, report of what’s going on in the world than ever before.

The second element that makes them the best informed is that television news, when it’s done right, hits home. I don’t think there’s any dispute about the fact that the reason the Vietnam war has been such a matter of concern to America is that it’s the first war in history that they’ve really known anything about before it was all over.

ALSO SEE: Walter Cronkite: Famous newscaster’s motto was ‘Have story, will travel’

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