The Texas-bred anchorman on his latest novel, the future of television newsand how he stays sane.
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Your new novel, No Certain Rest, is set during the Civil War, which is a popular backdrop these days for fiction and nonfiction. Why do you think that is?
I think there’s a lingering interest in the war because a lot of what really happened has never been explained. It’s the only time in history that Americans took up arms against one another. We talk about the Bosnians and the Serbs and what’s going on in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and yet we did this ourselves.
This is your fifteenth book. How do you find time to write, discharge your duties as a newsman, and maintain your sanity?
Writing is what helps me maintain my sanity. It’s an integral part of me. It’s not something I do sporadically—you know, “Okay, I’m now going to write a novel.” Writing is something I do every day of my life. My mind automatically thinks in novelistic terms. It’s like a low-grade fever: I always have a story in me.
Is it true that you first started writing when you were sixteen?
Yeah. It was 1951. We were living in Beaumont, and I would write short stories. There was a lot going on at the time, a lot to write about. There was a big oil refinery in town, and there was baseball, which was my big interest. This was when the Dodgers were playing in Brooklyn and the Beaumont paper ran one-column photos of the starting lineups—only they didn’t have all the pictures, because some of the Dodgers were black: Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella. I complained to my dad one day and he said, “Call ’em up.” So I did. I got the sports editor on the phone and he started yelling at me: “What? Are you trying to make trouble?” All I wanted to know was why they wouldn’t run photos of black players. “We just don’t do that.” It was a jarring experience.
Let’s talk about today. How do you assess the media’s performance, generally speaking, since 9/11?
In the first few weeks, I was very proud to be a journalist. What the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal did right after 9/11 was extraordinary. What I’d hoped was that something permanent would come out of this incredibly superlative refocusing of American journalism. We’ve got people’s attention; now let’s build on it. We’re here to inform people about things that really matter. It’s okay to make the decision that the potential for a terrorist’s bomb to go off overseas is of greater journalistic value than the murder trial of a movie star accused of killing his wife. I’d hoped that kind of globalization would last, but I live in fear that we’re swinging back.
Apart from 9/11, this is an interesting time in particular for TV news. Tom Brokaw has announced he’ll retire. Dan Rather is 71. Peter Jennings is over 60, as are you. Pretty soon we’re going to see a generational shift in talent.
We are part of the last of the generation of newspaper people who went into television. We were the last of the written-word people who awkwardly decided to go before the camera. The folks who’ll take our places started as television journalists. TV skills were what they learned first. I tend to believe that journalism is journalism is journalism, whatever area you’re in, and I still think the most effective way to learn the profession is by working for a daily newspaper. My concern is that people who go into journalism to become stars on radio or TV miss some of that grounding.
You, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Bob Schieffer. Is there something about growing up in Texas that makes for trusted news anchors?
Liz Carpenter once asked me that question, and I told her it’s because we’re smarter than everyone else. Really, the reason is that we’re not threatening. In the Deep South everyone’s a preacher. On the West Coast everyone’s a little cool. In Texas we say, “Here’s the deal.” There’s no reason to play games with you.