Commentary: 'Thank you, Mr. Edwards' started it all, so it's a fitting way to say goodbye
EmptyNEW YORK -- One of the many things I will take with me as I leave the media beat and The Hollywood Reporter after five great years is that I have met all five anchors of the "CBS Evening News."
Two, Bob Schieffer and Katie Couric, have been exceptionally gracious to and open with me. And it was a chance encounter with the first anchor, the late Douglas Edwards, that got me started on a career that ends this week, when I move to the nonprofit world.
Beyond my journalist parents, Paul K. Gough and Harriet Davies Shelton, it was Edwards who inspired my love of the news.
In 1983, I was a 15-year-old Southern Californian who never missed "The World Tonight," which Edwards anchored, on KNX-AM. While visiting my father in Connecticut, Edwards was speaking to the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, and Dad brought me along.
Afterward, I told Edwards he had a fan in Coronado, Calif. He seemed surprised his show skewed so young; I was floored when he invited my father and me to visit him at CBS News headquarters at West 57th Street.
That day, Edwards showed us the studios, control room, his office and the newsroom. He told stories, explained how breaking news made it to the air and spent more than an hour with us. I wouldn't have been more excited had Joe Strummer invited me backstage. I never wanted to work in TV, but the glimpse behind the curtain fostered a passion for breaking news and a love of the history and lore of journalism. It was the best prep I could have had for what I do here.
You don't hear much about Edwards or his contributions to the business these days. By the time I met him, he was nearing the end of a long career. He doesn't get a lot of credit for being around in the early years of broadcast news, but he was, along with NBC's John Cameron Swayze, the first TV news anchor. And Edwards was the consummate newscaster in his 45 years at CBS News.
"He was affable and charming and had a terrific broadcast voice," "60 Minutes" founder Don Hewitt told me the other day. Hewitt was Edwards' producer-director.
Hewitt's enduring memory of Edwards is their coverage of the sinking of the Andrea Doria, an Italian cruise ship that collided with the SS Stockholm off Nantucket in 1956. When Hewitt heard, he called Edwards at home and convinced him to charter a plane to fly over the stricken ship. They arrived at the airport to find that they had been beaten by others but went anyway.
But over the wreck, camera rolling, they caught a break.
"The pilot said, 'Don't stop that camera, it's going down,' " Hewitt said. "Doug and I were the only ones flying over it when it sank." The film clip is famous.
"It was dumb luck, but Doug and I lived on it for years on the banquet circuit," Hewitt said with a laugh.
Edwards would continue as anchor for six years but was replaced in the chair in 1962 by Walter Cronkite. Edwards took it in stride.
"He never pretended to be anything other than a newscaster and not a reporter of the caliber of a Cronkite, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid or Howard K. Smith," Hewitt said. "He was in awe of them."
Added Richard Leibner, a longtime agent and force in broadcast news: "He was a very mild-mannered, easygoing guy. He was one of the nicest gentlemen you could ever meet."
Edwards spent 25 more years at CBS, mostly on radio, and did the midday and afternoon newsbreaks on TV. His last broadcast was in 1988; he died two years later.
I never got to thank him for his kindness, though I wrote his obituary for the daily paper near his home. But the interest he fostered has stayed with me as I've chronicled TV news in a later era. I've thought a lot about it during the countless times I've written about the "CBS Evening News," covered how the media reports breaking news or visited West 57th Street. It's true that you don't have to have a background or interest in TV news to cover it effectively, but I've found it sure makes it a lot more fun.
And I'll say again what I said that day in the summer of 1983: Thank you, Mr. Edwards.
You truly brought me inside the box.