It was September of 1960, and NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur was on the campaign trail. “I was covering [Richard] Nixon in Mississippi,” Vanocur tells TVNewser, “and I got a call from NBC in New York to say, ‘Get to Chicago.'”
He was being summoned to serve as a questioner in the first-ever televised presidential debate. The face-off between Nixon and John F. Kennedy would end up being watched by an estimated 70 million viewers.
TVNewser met up with Vanocur on Sunday in Chicago, where he participated in a panel discussion to mark the 50th anniversary of the debate.
Vanocur began his broadcast career in London with CBS News. After a stint with the New York Times, he returned to TV in 1957, joining NBC News and covering politics and the White House. Vanocur moved to PBS in 1971 before joining ABC News in 1977, where he spent 14 years.
Today, at 82, Vanocur lives in Santa Barbara, California and runs a consultancy, Old Owl Communications. He’s also developing television programming for seniors. “We’re living longer,” Vanocur says. Such viewers “ought to be appealed to.”
TVNewser: Were the 1960’s the golden age for television news?
Vanocur: No, I don’t think they were the golden age. They were just a wonderful time. You see, there weren’t any rules in those days. So we more or less made things up as we went along. And there were no people who could say, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘You can’t do that’, because nobody knew what you could do or couldn’t do.
TVNewser: What network newscasts do you watch today? And what cable newscasts?
Vanocur: Since Charlie Gibson’s not on ABC anymore, I’m entirely devoted to Brian Williams on NBC, because it’s my alma mater.
I watch Fox [News Channel], and I watch MSNBC – Keith Olbermann – and I watch CNN.
TVNewser: You once said that “the media claims to be reflecting our discontents, but I have come to believe that they are inciting our discontent”. Can you explain what you meant by that, and are there any broadcasters in particular who come to mind in this regard?
Vanocur: I won’t answer the last question [laughs], but yes, I think they incite…They stir us up, and I don’t think that’s the responsibility of journalism. That old line in the detective movies, ‘Just give me the facts, ma’am’ – that’s what we used to try to do. Now I think there is too much incitement.
TVNewser: You also have said that in today’s media world, “the line between opinion and news has disappeared”…
Vanocur: It has.
TVNewser: …so is there anyone – or any network – keeping that line intact?
Vanocur: I think the three major networks do.
TVNewser: Is there anything you’d say to our readers who work in the TV news industry?
Vanocur: I wish them all luck, and I hope they have a good time. Because I think that’s what journalism is all about, having a good time. And also, it parallels the Hippocratic Oath in medicine: First, do no harm.
TVNewser: And so you’re referring to the ‘inciting discontent’ we discussed earlier? You feel the industry is veering toward doing harm?
Vanocur: It hasn’t just veered, it’s already turned the corner.
TVNewser: We recently learned of the death of your NBC colleague Edwin Newman. What do you think it was about him that made him one of the greats?
Vanocur: He was one of the greats. I think he was very careful and eloquent in his use of the English language. He was a great grammarian. He didn’t make grammatical errors. And he had a very wry sense of humor.
TVNewser: When you look back on your career, how do you think of it?
Vanocur: I think about it, simply, as a time when we took our work seriously – but we didn’t take ourselves seriously.[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
To watch a clip of the debate (Vanocur introduces himself at about 4:40), click here. Photos of the Chicago debate event, which also featured former FCC chair and debate negotiator Newton Minow, and former CBS Morning News anchor/current WBBM-TV anchor Bill Kurtis:
(Photos: Alissa Krinsky)