What if President Trump actually had the power to do something about journalism that he doesn’t like? Unfortunately, we already know the answer. A number of media organizations operate under government auspices, and until recently they’ve enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for independence and truth-telling. Now, though, they are in danger of being dismantled or turned into organs of Trumpist propaganda.
One day maybe eight or 10 years ago, I was sitting at my desk at the Boston Phoenix when the phone rang. “This is Andy Rooney,” the caller said in what seemed like an exaggerated attempt at imitating the legendary “60 Minutes” commentator. “Yeah, right,” I responded, wondering who was really on the other end of the line.
It was Rooney. While we were taping “Beat the Press” one Friday afternoon, his daughter Emily, the host, mentioned the name of someone who had been bugging her father over some perceived offense. It turned out that I had heard from the same person a few times as well. She told her father, and he decided to give me a call. I can’t remember what I told him — it was all I could do to recover from my inauspicious opening. Now that Rooney has died, I wish I could recall exactly what he said that day.
Andy Rooney was rooted firmly in CBS News’ golden era. He was friends with Walter Cronkite, he wrote for Harry Reasoner and it was “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt who came up with the idea of having Rooney deliver a monologue at the end of each episode. It was a master stroke, as Rooney’s essay quickly became the most popular part of the program.
Rooney’s death follows his retirement by such a short stretch that “60 Minutes” last night simply recycled the Morley Safer piece (above) that first aired in early October. That’s all right. It was really good and worth seeing again. CBS has posted other Rooney material as well, including video of some of his classic commentaries.
As is well known, Rooney considered himself a writer first, and indeed he rarely found himself in front of a camera until near the end of his career. He wrote for Stars and Stripes, for Arthur Godfrey and for Reasoner before he ever wrote for himself. Yet his curmudgeonly commentaries worked as well as they did not only because they were written by a craftsman, but because he was a first-rate performer as well.
By all accounts, his crankiness was not an act. That he was able to take that crankiness and use it to inform and entertain millions was his gift to us. Andy Rooney was such a skillful writer that he would have been able to find a way to avoid ending with a cliché such as “he’ll be missed.” I lack his skill, and I don’t want to close without acknowledging the obvious.