Sander Vanocur, Longtime NBC and ABC Newsman, Dies at 91

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Sander Vanocur

He questioned John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 and George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992.

Sander Vanocur, the longtime correspondent for NBC News and ABC News who logged more than 40 years in print and television journalism, has died. He was 91.

Vanocur died Monday night in a hospice facility in Santa Barbara of complications from dementia, his son, Christopher, told The New York Times. He made his home in nearby Montecito.

Vanocur worked in various positions at ABC from 1977-91. He covered the Falklands War in 1982 and the 1980 and 1984 U.S. presidential elections and anchored Business World, a weekly business program. 

At NBC News from 1957-71, Vanocur was the network's White House correspondent, the D.C. correspondent for the Today show, a contributing editor to The Huntley-Brinkley Report and host of First Tuesday, a monthly two-hour newsmagazine.

Vanocur was one of the four journalists on a panel on Sept. 26, 1960, who questioned candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. It was watched by an estimated 70 million viewers. 

Later, he was one of the three who posed questions during a 1992 debate that featured George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

Vanocur hosted History Channel's Movies in Time. Among his broadcasts, he interviewed Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins in a discussion about their 1995 film Nixon while offering insights about the real president. 

Later, Vanocur spoke in public and delivered caustic remarks about the 24-hour TV news phenomenon. "I call it the electronic tapeworm," he said during a speech at Emerson College. "You can never satisfy its appetite. There are no shadings or subtleties. It just has airtime that has to be filled."

Vanocur complained that the news cycle forced information to emerge prematurely and opined that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 would have played out differently today. "If you had the kind of media we have now, could we have gotten through the crisis the way we did?" he asked.

Vanocur often criticized the role the media play in politics in such talks as "Media Malarkey: Can Democracy Survive the Mass Media?" He noted that Americans are awash with information, but "what we need is knowledge."

He was awarded the Carr Van Anda Award by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

Sander Vanocur was born on Jan. 8, 1928, in Cleveland. He received a bachelor's degree with an emphasis in political science from Northwestern University's School of Speech, then spent a year in graduate study at the London School of Economics.

Vanocur began his career as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian newspaper, a commentator for the North American Service of the BBC and a stringer for CBS News. Moving back to the U.S., he became an assignment reporter for The New York Times

Following 14 years with NBC, Vanocur landed a job as the senior correspondent of the National Public Affairs Center for Television of PBS. He went on to become a consultant to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and a professor of communications at Duke University.

From 1975-77, Vanocur served as the chief television critic and a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. When he left for ABC, he was succeeded by Tom Shales at the newspaper.

At ABC, Vanocur was one of the first news hires made by Roone Arledge, who had recently taken over that division after running sports. He was put in charge of special reporting units and a newly formed investigative journalism unit for the network.

In 1991, Vanocur formed his own communications and consulting corporation, Old Owl Communications, then was a professional-in-residence at The Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia. 

He appeared as himself in cameos in the political satire Dave (1993), in the Jack Lemmon comedy Getting Away With Murder (1996) and in the 1994 CBS sci-fi telefilm Without Warning.