The reviewer writes about television from Venice, Calif.
A deaf woman once wrote to Harry Reasoner to complain that he didn't open his mouth enough for her lip-reading purposes when he read the news. "If you ever fail in the news business," she wrote, "you should do very well as a ventriloquist."
Reasoner should have been pleased, for some of his colleagues would be better cast as the dummies than as the ventriloquists. They rely on their looks and on the words that others write for them. Reasoner, though, is one of the best writers in television news. The idea of a book by Uncle Harry sounds promising.
"Before the Colors Fade," Reasoner's memoir of his television years, fulfills that promise for anyone who wants to read a book-length Reasoner television commentary. Despite a title that sounds like something Walter Cronkite would pronounce and Reasoner would deflate, the text is wry, breezy, and full of charming little digressions and mea culpas. However -- like a TV commentary by Reasoner or anyone else -- the book is ultimately too muffled and soft-hitting. It's almost as if Reasoner were looking over his shoulder at the Fairness Doctrine and at the time strictures of television as he wrote.
Reasoner is most frank in the early chapters, which describe events so distant that it is easy to laugh at them. His TV apprenticeship was served in Minneapolis at a station that somewhat resembled an early version of WJM-TV on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" -- except, in this case, Reasoner played all of the characters.
His first big story at CBS was the Little Rock desegregation crisis. He regards his work on it as the best job he ever did, though details on exactly what he did are surprisingly sparse in his chapter on the subject. Much more vivid is his account of what he failed to do in his coverage of the West Virginia Democratic primary in 1960 -- he failed to stay up late enough to learn that Hubert Humphrey ended his candidacy. It was a blunder that will make every journalist cringe with empathy -- though, again, details on how or whether he was penalized are missing.
Reasoner begins to pull his punches at himself and at others as his narratives become more contemporary. Sometimes this is understandable; when hints about the strain on his marriage suddenly turn into an announcement of his divorce without further explanation, it's none of our business to ask for more. But it is our business to wonder why Reasoner doesn't have more to say about Walter Cronkite or why the plug was pulled on "Calendar," the morning talk show Reasoner enjoyed co-hosting in the early '60s.
More seriously, scarcely seven pages are devoted to Reasoner's stint at ABC from 1970 to 1978. He was a successful co-anchor with Howard K. Smith, then a less successful sole anchor and finally an unsuccessful co-anchor with Barbara Walters. In his book, Reasoner accepts some of the responsibility for both the initial improvement in ABC News' fortunes and for their subsequent slide. But he glosses over specifics; there is no mention, for example, of the published report that he asked Roger Mudd to reject ABC's overtures to join him as co-anchor.
Similarly, there is no reference to the controversy over his November 1979 "60 Minutes" segment on cost overruns at a nuclear power plant -- a story that led the power company in question to produce and distibute its own film rebutting Reasoner's report. And except for the solitary phrase, "I got into some trouble," there is no explanation of why "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt told The Los Angeles Times in June 1980 that Reasoner had not, until recently, been pulling his own weight on Hewitt's show.
This is the charge most frequently made against Reasoner -- laziness -- and Reasoner is candid enough to acknowledge it, to attribute its origin to one of his less favorite executives, Fred Friendly, and to concede that there might be some truth to it. However, he also attributes part of the laziness notion to his casual style and the fact that some find him insufficiently "serieux." He does not plan to change in order to accommodate his critics. In a surprising reference to the "TVQ" popularity surveys (most TV executives don't even acknowledge that such surveys exist), he notes that "I have a very high 'Q' rating, which may indicate that a lot of people in this country are no more serieux than I am."
He is right. Reasoner is more welcome on my TV screen than the tres serieux Dan Rather any day. But "Before the Colors Fade" is not a TV show, and it would have been a better book if Reasoner had opened his mouth a little wider.