Richard Heffner revisits a 2003 program with guest Andy Rooney, in memoriam.
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GUEST: Andy Rooney
AIR DATE: 12/31/2011
ORIGINAL VTR: 11/13/03
Richard Heffner’s Open Mind occasionally interrupts its regular weekly schedule of contemporary on-air conversations to present — In Memoriam — a past program with a distinguished guest who has recently passed.
Today we celebrate the last CBS newsman/writer Andy Rooney, known best perhaps for his years of delighting us on the network’s “60 Minutes”. Born January 14th, 1919, he died November 4th, 2011.
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I must say that I’ve watched my guest today just about every Sunday evening as he puts his sly, wry concluding remarks to what, for me, is still, week in and week out the best program on the air … 60 Minutes on CBS.
Well Andy Rooney first joined me here on The Open Mind fifteen years ago to talk about fair play. Both the concept and the book by that title written by our mutual friend Bud Benjamin on how a CBS television documentary, on the Vietnam War, had gone wrong. Our discussion, of course, was about much more than that single documentary.
It was really about whether television news itself often goes wrong; whether it often falls short in the sacred precincts of fairness and balance. And at the time, a long time ago in terms of what has happened since to the then commanding almost exclusive presence of essentially but three main broadcast news outlets … CBS, NBC and ABC … at the time Andy Rooney seemed quite determined that American broadcast journalists were pretty doggone honest and fair.
“Why in the world”, my guest asked, “network news held to these high standards when they were producing so much junk in their entertainment divisions, I don’t know. But they did. And it was a marvelous thing for the United States. The American public did not know what a good deal it was getting.”
And in typical Andy Rooney style he suggested that, “Most journalists are more honest than most businessmen in America. Honesty is a hobby with journalists, it’s what they talk about at lunch, it’s what they think about a lot, and so I just think that they have something going in that respect that most businessmen don’t.”
But that was then, this is now and I wonder whether the incredible growth of so many more so-called news outlets and the presence of so much more entertainment oriented journalism since those halcyon days of CBS, NBC and ABC News, particularly the commercial competition between and among them all since the last time we spoke at this table, whether all of that has at all changed my guest’s viewpoint. Has it? Different point of view now?
ROONEY: I quite enjoyed what I just heard you say, I kept forgetting that [laughter] you were quoting me. That’s probably why I liked it so much. It has changed to some extent. Certainly television news has deteriorated.
It is …does not maintain the same standards it once did; they aren’t spending as much money on it. We don’t have the same number of foreign correspondents at the networks; any three of the networks that we once had. And it’s gotten to be more a matter of money than news.
However, there are some aspects of journalism that are encouraging. I think the people getting …young people getting into the business now are better educated. They are thoroughly familiar with the ethical standards that they … are expected of them. And for the most part they live by them.
I don’t think …I don’t think that individual journalists are any less good than they, then they were when I said that last time I was on … 15 years ago. But I do think the standards for the broadcasts themselves have deteriorated.
HEFFNER: Meaning that the broadcasters, the people … the media moguls, those who own stations and networks … they’ve changed?
ROONEY: They have put more pressure on them to attract broader audiences. You … they have segmented the shows and they put cute names on various segments of the shows that have nothing whatsoever to do with news. And its down … a half hour news broadcast now is down to about 20 minutes. And if you took the junk out of it, all the “thank you, Bill and thank you, Jacks” and all that fluff in there and, and promos for upcoming segments of the broadcasts there would probably be 18 minutes, not a half an hour.
And I think that while people don’t specifically say, “Well, there are too many commercials”, or “there’s too much junk in a news broadcast”, I think at the end of it they feel that it might not have been worth the time and that may be why a lot of people are tuning out.
HEFFNER: Is it true? I mean one hears a lot about people not watching the news so much. But also about people not watching … reading their newspapers so much. Are we losing out on an informed public?
ROONEY: Well I don’t know, gosh, I look at the New York Times … I picked it up this morning and it’s daunting. I feel bad every day of my life because I haven’t read the whole New York Times and it’s, it’s just too much to read.
I once asked Harold Raines, who was editor for a period of time … a couple of years … of the Times … how fast he read. And he told me [laughter] he wasn’t a fast reader. And I said, “how many words are there in The New York Times every day?” Well, if he had tried to read all of the newspaper of which he was Editor, it would have taken him nine days. You know, by which time there would have been nine more editions of paper out. So, he said, “Well, it’s like a buffet, you read what parts of it you want.” But that’s not very satisfying.
I bet, I just had this idea the other day. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the near future, a year or two somebody didn’t come out with a Readers’ Diges” of The New York Times, or a “daily digest” to the paper. I don’t’ know how they’d pay for it because you’d have to eliminate most of the advertising.
But someone’s going to do that. I don’t think people are satisfied. The Times is even having those fold-outs in that when you pick it up from your driveway, the stuff falls out … the scattered advertising they fold in with the paper. I think people are, are … it’s such an unpleasant experience to feel that you aren’t doing the right thing by the paper that a lot of people probably just aren’t buying it.
HEFFNER: Stop buying it because they feel …
ROONEY: I buy the …
HEFFNER: …too guilty.
ROONEY: I buy the New York Post. Usually Saturday morning I get both The New York Times and the New York Post. I mean if you want a really bad newspaper … everybody ought to read a bad newspaper … and if you want a really bad one … you get the Post. I mean it’s great for bad, bad newspaper. And I find myself reading that for ten minutes and the Times for 45 minutes … but you can’t touch the Times in 45 minutes.
HEFFNER: Okay, but let’s go back to this question. Are you serious when you say you feel that a) the younger people coming into broadcast news are better educated …
ROONEY: Oh, I think they are better educated than the people who came into when you and I were young. Yes. I think they’re better educated and I think they have been indoctrinated in, in the ethics of the news business, they know what’s expected of them. Yes. I, I don’t find any, any deterioration in that at all. I think the young people I see are determined to be good, honest, respected journalists.
HEFFNER: Are you trying to get rid of that “old curmudgeon” …
ROONEY: [Laughter] Yeah.
HEFFNER: … reputation?
ROONEY: Is this too much of a nice guy of me. I just feel that way. I knew an awful lot of newspapermen when I was just starting out in the twenties when I first became exposed to the newspaper business. And there were a lot of them who were not what we think of when we think of the best.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, reading through Years of Minutes, one of the more recent Andy Rooney books and reading through Common Nonsense, one of the other more recent Andy Rooney books, I have the feeling in a couple comments there and something you said when we did our program before … you don’t think so all that highly about those first guys in broadcast news. Am I … did I … am I reading it wrong?
ROONEY: Well, I knew a lot of them. I was in London in 1942, I was with the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes and I was young. But I got to mingle with the “big boys”. I got to know Ed Murrow in London in 1942. And I got to know Walter Cronkite, became a great and enduring friend; we’re still best friends. And Dick Hottelite was there and I knew a lot of the good newspaper people and broadcast journalists. And I had great respect for them, but they were the best, the people who were sent to the war or overseas as reporters … were the best we had and I don’t think they were all that good in the United States.
I mean I remember reading my newspaper in Albany, New York. I worked for it one summer. And they were not …the reporters were not as educated as the reporters are today.
HEFFNER: Okay, let me go back to the question of the owners and the fact that we’re talking about making money, rather than reporting news. I gather that’s what the point is. What about the issues, the ethical issues … we talked about this to some extent when we met before … like the Fairness Doctrine. What’s your own fix on that now? We haven’t had a Fairness Doctrine in some years. The FCC did away with it a long time ago at President Reagan’s request. Have we suffered for that?
ROONEY: Well, I think they expect the media … I hate the word “media” … [laughter] … and I hate the word “journalist”, but I’ve decided I have to use it. I used to use the word “newspaperman” and I loved that. But then it came … it was too gender specific and newspaperperson never seemed the same to me. But anyway … so now I use “media”. But I, I don’t think … I’ve lost your question …
HEFFNER: Well, I’m asking about …the, the question of some the … the question I’m raising has to do with some of those older notions, and I mentioned fairness and balance as one …the Fairness Doctrine …and I wonder whether the loss of the Fairness Doctrine has impacted upon you.
ROONEY: Well, I don’t think … I don’t think any law can keep a dishonest newspaperman from being dishonest. And I think … I approved of the Fairness Doctrine, it was too bad that it was ever abandoned. But I don’t know as that has a great affect on, on journalists.
HEFFNER: Did you l think it had a chilling affect … as our friend, the late Fred Friendly said at one point.
ROONEY: Well, it must of …
HEFFNER: He changed his mind.
ROONEY: Yeah. I agree with almost anything that Fred Friendly said about journalism; he was much more of a philosopher about it than I am.
HEFFNER: But the question of fairness …you … do you feel … and I’m really pressing you on this … that with all of the wild comments … for instances … I thought the other night, watching you, listening to you … you titled your … well, the two in a row … “We’re all Americans, and I apologize”. You were taking off at one point on the President, and then you came back the following week and you said, “Hey, this is a, an American …
ROONEY: Well, the first …
HEFFNER: … an American trait that you didn’t find attractive.
ROONEY: The first time I didn’t think I was … I did not deliberately set out to “take off” on the President. I thought it was … I wrote what I hoped was both true and amusing that piece …the first thing I did, to remind anyone who didn’t see it, which must be legend in numbers … I purported to write a speech for President Bush, apologizing for all the mistakes he’s made in relation to Iraq. And I just went through all the things he has said that turned out not to be true. Not that he meant … said … but they just didn’t come out the way he hoped they would. We did not get, we did not capture Saddam Hussein or kill him. And none of the things that he has been saying turned out to be true.
But I was not, it was not a personal … I have no agenda about President Bush as a person. I just thought he was wrong and should admit it. And I …the second week I … I am alert to public opinion in relation to what I do. Not that I give a damn. I mean I …you know, I’ve been on so long now, if I got fired next week, it wouldn’t, wouldn’t kill me.
But I think you have to pay some attention to what the American public thinks. We got a lot of objections and we got a lot of mail that was favorable. And I said what I think. I do think that it … Americans are a little too vociferous in their political opinions. I think they are not very reasoned. They take one side or the other. It’s like a football fan or a baseball fan. You can’t argue logic with a Boston baseball fan. [Laughter]
And you can’t argue any logic with a Republican who has voted Republican for all his or her life. And the same with Democrats. I mean they think they are what they are. And they either hate Bush or the love Bush. Quite aside from what the facts of the matter are/is. And they are not willing to say that sometimes he’s right and sometimes he’s wrong.
I just … it, it bothers me that Americans are, are as unpleasant as they are about their political opinions and that’s what I tried to say the second time. It was somewhat in the nature of a apology for what I had done the first week, I suppose.
HEFFNER: You’ve done that before?
ROONEY: Oh, no. I don’t … or I may have, I don’t know. I don’t remember what I did … I don’t remember nine-tenths of the pieces in that book. I looked at that when I was putting that book together, and I said “Gee, I don’t remember doing that. Not bad.” Or, I also said, “Gee, that’s terrible. How did I ever write that?”
HEFFNER: You know David Brooks was here a couple weeks ago, and we were talking about the meanness of spirit that seems to be endemic now in American politics.
ROONEY: Kristoff did it in The New York Times, the other day. Did you see that?
HEFFNER: I have it here. A beautiful statement. A beautiful statement.
ROONEY: I hoped he read, I hoped he heard my remarks the other night and was inspired to do his column from what I said.
HEFFNER: I’ll get him here and ask him.
ROONEY: [Laughter] He’s great. Gosh, he’s good.
HEFFNER: There are a lot of good …
ROONEY: There are some good columnists.
HEFFNER: … people writing. And, but when Brooks was here and other New York Times columnists now, he said, “when you sit down to write, a kind of meanness can creep in and there’s really no one there …
ROONEY: Well, it’s attractive in a column if you’re a little nasty. It’s more readable sometimes if you’re nasty.
HEFFNER: For on the air, too?
ROONEY: Or on the air, yeah.
HEFFNER: You mean you … work it that way?
ROONEY: No, I don’t do it. I don’t’ set out … when I sit down to write something, I don’t have in mind, what influence it’s going to have on anybody or I don’t consider what effect the piece is going to have on people seeing it or listening to it. I’m just a writer at that point.
HEFFNER: Just a writer. That’s were you begin.
ROONEY: I just could be … yeah, I am a writer, yes. But I could be writing just for my own amusement or my family or for anybody else. I do not have in mind the people, all the people who are going to hear it.
HEFFNER: It is Rooney commentary. Or is it CBS commentary?
ROONEY: Oh my God, CBS has got nothing to do with it.
HEFFNER: How about 60 Minutes?
ROONEY: Well, Don Hewitt is the producer of 60 Minutes and he has some effect, but he doesn’t … he doesn’t censor me. He may say something’s wrong with my piece. But he has never … he has never … well, I did one piece last year that was critical of somebody and he thought it was a little rough.
But he doesn’t … I can have whatever opinion I want. He does not ask me what I’m doing before I do it. And he sees it after I’ve finished it … somebody in a responsible position has to, has to look at a piece before it goes on the air. And I can be irresponsible, and he pulls me up short once in a while, or suggests a re-write. But not very often. And it’s …he’s usually right when he does it. But he never, he never stops me from saying something because he thinks I’m wrong.
HEFFNER: Tell me about this “I can be irresponsible”. I’m intrigued by your saying that.
ROONEY: Well, I’m … I’m not an intellectual …
HEFFNER: What do you mean, you’re not an intellectual.
ROONEY: Well, I am not an intellectual. I’m not. And I have a quick turn of mind, but I’m not a great reader of, of heavy tomes. And I make up my mind in a hurry based on too little information sometimes. And I can be wrong too often. But it’s, it’s part of what’s made me popular. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: What … what’s the role you play then at 60 Minutes?
ROONEY: Well, I have a … I would have to say that I have a knack for doing things …we call them in my office …we call them “Hey, yeah” pieces.
HEFFNER: “Hey, yeah”?
ROONEY: Yeah, you know, people look at them and they say, “Hey, yeah!!” … say take the coffee cans and they’re now down to 11 ounces …”Hey, yeah, Mabel, I notice that, too”. It is fun and people like it. If I can point out things to people that they already knew but didn’t realize they knew before I said it. But then they say, “Hey, yeah”.
HEFFNER: But then why recently the political orientation? Maybe that’s not …
ROONEY: No, I understand what you’re saying. It’s okay. I suppose at my age … maybe I’m growing up. I think I have gotten less interested in how difficult it is to get the tops off pill bottles than I used to be. And I think I am more interested in what’s happening in the world and I think people are more interested in that. So that probably is why I’ve gone in that direction.
HEFFNER: What can we expect then?
ROONEY: Oh, gosh, I have no idea. I look at the paper every day and it, it comes out of whatever it is I read. I’m doing a piece this week, whenever this broadcast will be on … I’m doing a piece on computers. And I was … Bill Gates came in my office one day and I said at the time, after he left … if I’d known how rich he was, I would have been nicer to him. But he was, he was a charming guy. And, and he’s done great things. That thing he did for the New York City school system with $50 million dollars. I mean how are you going to hate Bill Gates, even though he’s that rich.
But still somebody screwed up computers when they started and I am angry with him because I used a program called Word Perfect for years. And now because Bill Gates and Microsoft I have to use Word, and it isn’t nearly as good a system. And there are just things about computers that he must have done that are infuriating. And, I’ve done a piece on that for this week.
HEFFNER: Okay, but let’s, let’s stick with this question of … you said something about your age … now what do you want to say about your age?
ROONEY: I don’t want to say anything about my age. I’d like to forget my age.
ROONEY: Oh I hate it. God I hate being old. What good is it? Now you’re going to die sooner than anybody else now.
HEFFNER: Yes, you can die sooner than anybody else. But you’re wiser, presumably.
ROONEY: Oh, well. Maybe. I spoke to a … I spoke to a group in Cincinnati last year … a geriatric group, there were a couple of thousand people … older people … in this theater.
HEFFNER: Older than us?
ROONEY: Yeah … well, our age. And so I got to Columbus the night before and I went out to dinner, alone. I prefer to do that when I’m in town. And I got thinking about what I was going to say the next day, speaking to them. So somebody asked me a question about age … and I said, “Well, there’s no doubt you lose something, you lose some memory. But I think you make up for it in experience.” And so I said, for instance, I ate in a restaurant in Columbus last night and I wish I could remember the name of it because if I ever come to Columbus again I want to remember not to go there. [Laughter] But you do, you lose, you lose some things. It’s surprising. Like earlier, when you were talking to me, I got off on something else and I forget what your question was. I don’t’ think that would have happened to me 30 years ago.
HEFFNER: Well, look, you say something about age. You say something about age in terms of becoming … oh, hell, I don’t know whether you mean more serious, but more concerned. So you’re going to address yourself to different kinds of …
ROONEY: Oh, I don’t know how it happened. I really don’t know how it happened. It … I just realized that I could do more serious things and that people will take … but people still think of me … it’s sort of annoying sometimes … people think of me as amusing, even when I do a piece that they don’t like, they tend to think of me as more amusing than they take me seriously. Even if I do a piece about President Bush.
HEFFNER: I guess the question that occurs to me is, are there going to be more pieces like that?
ROONEY: Well, one big problem is we have all summer off and we like to repeat them and you can’t repeat a piece about President Bush and Iraq in August that you did in November.
HEFFNER: So for safety’s sake you stick to bottle tops …
ROONEY: I’m going to do some of them, yes. But I’ll continue to do current events things. It’s … I, I’m more interested in it really now. These other things keep coming to mind. And I have some others in mind that I will do … for instance the computer thing is, is a generic piece, that could re-run any time. And those things will always come to my mind. I mean I, as a writer, when I’m thinking about working, I’m watching carefully. I may not look at everything, and inevitably things come up that repeat themselves. Things that happen. And I say, “well, that’s a piece”. Other people notice the same thing I’m noticing. So, I will be doing those as I always did. But still I, I do enjoy doing the, doing the things that are current events.
HEFFNER: Do you take off … we just have a minute to this program … do you take off after news, after the reporting of news that you’ve watched over the years.
ROONEY: Well, I should do more of that. It’s very difficult for me to be critical, for instance, of CBS News. I work there. And I have done it a few times, and they don’t appreciate it. And you can call me “chicken”, as Bernard Goldberg did, but I … I don’t think you can do that in your own house. I can’t be critical of, of the people in our News Division. I can make some remarks about it, but I, I would confess to being careful about that.
HEFFNER: Okay, you mentioned Bernard Goldberg and we …what we need to do … our time is up … but I hope you’ll stay where you are and let us do another program. We need to get to this business of politics, or political orientation, on the air.
ROONEY: Meanwhile, Andy Rooney, thanks for joining me tonight.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.