To Tell the Truth
by Nick McMillan, 2023 Journalism Fellow
The life and decisions of Daniel Schorr offer a compelling look into the ethical demands of journalism. Schorr's life shows us that our ethical framework may evolve throughout our careers as we see the impacts of our choices reverberate throughout the world.
Born in the vibrant heart of New York City on August 31, 1916 to Jewish immigrants Schorr's first encounter with journalism occurred at the tender age of 12 when he tipped off a local newspaper about a woman who had fallen from his apartment building. He received $5 (today about $140) for his trouble.1
Schorr began his career as a foreign correspondent in 1946. He wrote about postwar reconstruction, the Marshall Plan, and NATO for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Schorr's talent attracted the attention of none other than Edward R. Murrow, leading to a job with CBS in 1953. 2
During his time at CBS, Schorr made a name for himself as a journalist unafraid to challenge authority. As Moscow bureau chief, Schorr secured a groundbreaking interview with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first time the leader had ever appeared in a television interview.3
Shorr deeply believed that "a journalist has an obligation to report newsworthy information ascertained to be accurate."4 His commitment was so strong that he ignored the Soviet's strict censorship laws during his reporting and eventually was barred from reentry after taking holiday leave.
During the early 1970s, Schorr's indomitable spirit resurfaced when he reported extensively on the Watergate Scandal. His reporting earned him three Emmys.5 He was relentless, famously reading aloud President Nixon's "enemies list" and discovering his own name at number 17.
In a similar way, Schorr's commitment to source protection highlights his commitment to journalistic ethics in the face of pressure. It also reveals that our choices can have side effects. In 1976, armed with a leaked intelligence committee draft report, he faced a conundrum. While CBS was leaning toward not publishing the document, Schorr believed in the people's right to know and mailed the report anonymously to the Village Voice. As CBS tried to figure out who at the company was responsible, Shorr allowed the blame to fall on his colleague Lesley Stahl for a short time, who the bureau chief suspected because she was in a relationship with a writer from the Village Voice.
This moment distills much about our profession. As journalists, our careers are built on our trustworthiness and ethical commitment. In this case, a lie by omission is still a lie and Shorr’s decision to not come forward immediately when Stahl was implicated was unethical. Later, Schorr said that he delayed admitting that he had given the documents because he was figuring out how to best protect his anonymous source.7
The use of anonymous sources in journalism constitutes a tightrope-walk between ethical commitments and potential consequences. Michael Farrell, a member of the Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ)'s Ethics Committee, encapsulates the dilemma, emphasizing the fine line between honoring promises and facing legal repercussions. "Keep your promise not to identify a source of information and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge, and a jail cell," Farrell writes. "On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit."8
Schorr's predicament underscores this delicate balance. In fact, today in many newsrooms the use of anonymous sources is viewed as a last resort. Not only for the above-stated reasons but because the public deserves as much information about the sources' reliability as possible.9
Testifying in front of the House Ethics Committee, under threat of being charged with contempt for Congress, Shorr laid his cards on the table, "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 future reporters. The reporter and the news organization would be the immediate loser. I would submit to you that the ultimate losers would be the American people and their free institutions. But, beyond all that, to betray a source would be to betray myself, my career, and my life. I cannot do it. To say I refuse to do it is not saying it right. I cannot do it."10
On the one hand, this decision to risk jail time shows Schorr to be a journalist willing to stand up for his ethics. On the other, in the quest to protect his source, he also harmed his colleague by initially letting her take the blame. While our promises are important, so is minimizing harm. The fact that even a veteran journalist like Schorr struggled with this balance shows how important it is to consider the consequences of our actions. .
In a 1992 article in the Washington Post called "See It Not,"11 Schorr reflects on the specific ethical situations that broadcast journalism presents.
In broadcast journalism, often there is only one camera filming an interview. In order to edit for television, you need things like close-up reactions and a wide shot to establish the scene of the interviewer and interviewee talking. It's a common thing to film these "small deceptions", as Shorr called them in his Washington Post piece, out of order or without the other person there.
Shorr admits that these reverse shorts are not "exactly honest, but a conventional tool for re-creating a semblance of reality in a journalistic form whose heart is in Hollywood." Shorr adds, "Reality is a relative thing in television, but it has always been my belief that journalists should do their best to guard it."
In 1989, a broadcast segment that aired on ABC News troubled Shorr. In it, ABC simulated a briefcase handoff between diplomat Felix Bloch and a Russian agent without clearly identifying that it was a recreation. When does a “small deception” cross the line and become unethical?These reaction shots and recreations are still common today. Reflecting on this fact has made me consider how they have been misused in the past. The 1942 German unfinished propaganda film "Das Ghetto," shows the Warsaw Ghetto two months before the massacre of its inhabitants. When the film was found, historians used the footage as a primary source of the daily life of those living in the Warsaw Ghetto.12
Another reel, however, showed the truth behind the footage. Nazi filmmakers staged many scenes, implying the footage was to be used as a propaganda tool. Is this not an even more dire problem now? With visual journalism, especially in today's world of generative AI, journalists need to be supremely careful about the work they produce and cite in their stories.
In the Washington Post piece, Schorr provides insight into the symbiotic relationship between broadcast journalism and violence. It offers a chilling reflection on the media's responsibility and includes his admission of his own role in sensationalism. In these ways, he reveals the moral tightrope journalists tread to secure viewership: "In the mid-1960s, covering urban unrest for CBS, I perceived that television placed a premium on violence and the threat of violence. I found that I was more likely to get on the 'CBS Evening News' with a black militant talking the language of 'Burn, baby, burn!'' than with moderates appealing for a Marshall Plan for the ghetto."13
Schorr then reveals his own contribution to TV's relationship with violence. In
February 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Washington D.C. to announce the Poor People's March. King faced immense pressure, and some members of the civil rights community wanted to break away from King's policy of non-violence.
Shorr said that he came to the news conference to "Do what TV reporters do—get the most threatening sound bite I could in order to ensure a place on the evening news lineup. I succeeded in eliciting from him phrases on the possibility of ‘disruptive protest’ directed at the Johnson administration and Congress."
After the conference, Schorr saw King looking sad, approached him, and asked “why”?
"Because of you," King said, "and because of your colleagues in television. You try to provoke me to threaten violence and, if I don't, then you will put on television those who do. And by putting them on television, you will elect them our leaders. And if there is violence, will you think of your part in bringing it about?" 14
While shaken, Shorr still put out the clip on the evening news.
In today's world, where sensationalism reigns, Schorr's actions serve as an unsettling reminder of the media's power to shape narratives.
Schorr’s story, however, offers a complication. A few years before this, Schorr decided to withhold a story from the public.
In 1957 while working on a documentary for the series "See It Now," Shorr came across a caravan of Jewish people on the Polish/Soviet border who were fleeing to Vienna and Israel. Shorr filmed and interviewed them for the documentary. Before sending the footage off to New York, he asked an Israeli minister to explain how the group was immigrating (at the time Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to Israel was officially banned). The minister explained that thousands of Jews were stuck in a Polish territory that had been taken by the Soviet Union and a secret negotiation between the Soviets, Poles, and Israelis allowed passage to Israel through Poland.
If anything about the program came to light, however, the Soviets said they would end it.
At that moment Shorr had a decision. Would he follow the credo not to suppress information, the one that had guided his journalistic career? Or would he hold onto the film and potentially save many lives?
Shorr ended up not sending the film, killing the story.
Schorr's life serves as a testament to the power of principled decisions, the tumultuous difficulty in making ethical considerations, and the eternal quest to minimize harm while holding steadfast to the pursuit of truth.
Shorr writes in his Washington Post piece, "I have learned, I think, that one is not only a journalist, but a part of other human circles, and that there are other values than journalistic ethics to be observed."
Shorr finished his career at NPR as a senior news analyst and was on the air up until he passed away in 2010. In reflecting on the life of Daniel Schorr, we are reminded that journalism involves a delicate balance between principles and practicality. Shorr’s legacy challenges us to continually examine our own roles and responsibilities as journalists who cover stories that shape the world.
Nick McMillan was a 2023 FASPE Journalism Fellow. He is a reporter at NPR, specializing in data and investigative journalism.