VIEWERS LIKED Frank Reynolds because they could tell that it hurt him to bring them so much bad news. As a broadcast journalist, the ABC anchorman worked his way up through the ranks, had solid professional credentials and was admired by peers, but what particularly mattered on the air was that he came across human. In this, he was a defier of trends.
Very early yesterday, Frank Reynolds died, at the age of 59, of viral hepatitis and bone cancer. ABC News "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel said of his colleague on the network's "Good Morning America" program, "Frank felt other people's pain very deeply, and what we now know about him in retrospect is to just what extent he succeeded in hiding his own pain. He showed everybody's pain but his own." Koppel called him "an extraordinary man."
On the same program, "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather said the man against whom he had competed showed "class all the way" and said, "Frank had the rock and steel: integrity and character." Tom Brokaw of "NBC Nightly News" said, "He still had a sense of discovery about him" even after years as a working newsman. And Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, said, "He could never understand--nor could I, for that matter--why he was criticized sometimes for feeling so personally the stories that he had to report."
In interviews, Frank Reynolds liked to speak of journalism as "an important profession" in a democracy that depended upon "an informed electorate." He had a tendency to pontificate, but no one has suggested that he didn't really feel those things deeply. In person, he had a courtly, formal air; there was something a little Claude Rains about him. He was unmistakably serious about his craft and its social effects, and though he was hardly tall, he had grandeur.
When an alumnus of the old school falls, it's hard not to look around at the new school and find it wanting. The qualities Frank Reynolds brought to his work seem the least common of qualities evident in broadcast journalism now. But perhaps they have always been qualities uncommon anywhere.
On "Good Morning America," Rather had said, "There were things that Frank would not do; in this business, that's getting to be fairly rare." Asked to elaborate later yesterday, Rather said from his New York office, "Frank would not pander to sources. He had an opportunity during the Johnson years to do so and he wouldn't." Rather and Reynolds covered the White House during the same period. "LBJ courted him for a long time and thought he 'had' him. It must have been very tempting for Frank. A lesser person would have done it. He didn't play that game."
He also didn't play the games of "intra-network feuding" or of toadying to his own bosses, Rather said. "The refusal to do that may be rare in any business, but I think it's particularly rare in this business."
After stalwart marathon coverage of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981--one of many such tragedies he was called upon to anchor--Frank Reynolds talked about his reputation for letting his feelings show on the air, something newsmen are technically not supposed to do. "I can't say I decide how to be emotional," he said. "I really resented the criticism made of me for that, as though this were somehow contrived for effect. Well, I'm a lousy actor. I couldn't fake it if I wanted to. I just reflect what I feel at the moment. There is no planning."
He was widely chided for an angry outburst on the air ("Let's get it nailed down, somebody!") the day of the shooting of President Reagan. "I guess I did blow my top," he said later. He was angry about receiving, and relating, conflicting reports on the condition of presidential Press Secretary James Brady, critically wounded in the assassination attempt. "All day I had been resisting the urge to report that Brady had died. Finally I was told he had, and I had to report that. Then we found out it wasn't true. What I regret most is the factual mistake. I remember thinking at the time about the dreadful possibility that Brady's mother was in front of a television set when we reported he had died."
The outburst, if not a turning point in television coverage of ongoing crises, had the effect of putting on the brakes when they were needed, when coverage of an explosive, traumatic situation was getting out of control. TV journalists are still wrestling with the capabilities of technology and instant global access. There is the potential now not only for people to be better informed, but also more grievously misinformed, than perhaps ever before in history. With a brief, naked tirade, Frank Reynolds dramatically pointed out the dangers.
But in comments later, he also defended the practice of staying on the air to cover such stories as they broke, even when complete details were not available. "I know it's an entertainment medium, but television has got to be first and foremost a medium of information," he said. "When things like this are pending, it's a mistake to say to the country, 'We're going to retreat from reality now and go back to the network soap operas, and if anything really big happens, we'll break in again.' The country ought to share in it all the way, and that includes sharing in the uncertainty."
It was suggested to him that many viewers gravitated toward Frank Reynolds during these protracted nightmares because there was something reassuring in his presence. But he said, "I don't believe in gilding the lily or that I'm supposed to be a source of reassurance or keep the country calm. It's not my place to keep people from being frightened. Our function is supposed to be the truth.
"I don't think there's any chance of the country being benumbed to these things," he said. "We're learning how many shocks we can take and still keep going."
In her forthcoming book, "The Evening Stars: The Making of the Network News Anchor," Barbara Matusow calls Frank Reynolds "a strict Catholic and a highly moral man" but says a faction at ABC News considered him old-hat and pompous, and that Arledge failed to be as supportive as he might have been. When Arledge added David Brinkley to the network's election night team in 1980, and gave him star billing, it was perceived by Reynolds as a grievous insult, one he reportedly never forgave.
When his illness wore on in recent weeks, there was some unkind speculation within and without ABC that his absence would give Arledge a chance to tinker with "World News Tonight," a broadcast that for two years has steadfastly refused to jell. In fact, though, Frank Reynolds was its strongest link.
Arledge made such a habit of wooing talent from other networks that for some time, Frank Reynolds dismayingly saw news columns filled with tales of those who ostensibly might replace him. But Rather, one of those whom Arledge pursued with money and vigor, said yesterday, "I've tried to set the record straight about this before. These situations are difficult. Frank had a really good reputation in a business where good reputations are rare. When ABC was talking to people about coming over there--me, among others--Frank's reputation was such that Arledge and vice president David Burke would always start the conversation by saying, 'Frank Reynolds is going to remain a central person with us, a main man here.'
"I'm not sure Frank knew that. I think he did. I question whether that statement would have been made of any other single person in the business, with the exception of Walter Cronkite. And I think that speaks miles for Frank's reputation."
In a tribute on "NBC Nightly News" last night, commentator John Chancellor said, "Journalism is a craft in which nice guys don't always finish first. But Frank Reynolds was a nice guy and a big success. There was an essential decency about Frank. His fellow workers knew it and large audiences came to know it . . . One reason for that, as I see it, was that Frank Reynolds cared about the news. He thought bringing it to people fairly and accurately was the most important job in the world."
One can only speculate about what Frank Reynolds would most like said of him and his contribution now. Probably this: that he served his profession, and thereby his country, well. It's easy to say, because it is true.