Television can make you famous, but it can’t keep you famous. It’s more like an opiate–as soon as you stop taking your daily fix, you get all pale and clammy, and before long you vanish in a puff of near-transparent smoke. So far as I know, there’s never been a TV star, no matter how big, who stayed famous for very long once he or she went off the air. (Remember Daniel J. Travanti? I sure hope he had a good financial adviser.) If you’re in it for the long haul, you’ve got to make films or records. Otherwise, you’ll end your days as the answer to a trivia question, remembered only by a soft core of fast-graying fans who knew you when.
I had occasion yesterday afternoon to recall the name of Harry Reasoner, who at one time was quite famous indeed and now is almost entirely forgotten. Not only was he one of the smartest people ever to sit in an anchorman’s chair, but he was also a damned good writer, albeit in a genre that no longer exists: he used to wrap up his TV newscasts with a brief, pithy commentary on some aspect of the day’s news. A few of them made it into Before the Colors Fade: A Look Back, his graceful 1983 memoir, which is out of print but still worth reading. He died in 1991, and now he’s remembered, if at all, for having been one of the original co-anchors of 60 Minutes, together with a much better-known fellow by the name of Mike Wallace.
That’s the trivia question, and if you know that much about Harry Reasoner, you know a lot more than most people. For all his considerable gifts, his fame was almost entirely a function of the fact that he appeared on TV, and once the appearances came to an end, so did the fame. Such is the fate of everyone who chooses to spend his adult life talking into a TV camera. Time was when I admired Reasoner greatly, as I did his colleague Charles Kuralt–but how often do I think of them now that they’re gone?
At any rate, I thought of Harry Reasoner yesterday, and automatically did what all of us Web-dependent creatures do whenever a half-forgotten name floats into our stream of consciousness: I Googled him. The pickings, not surprisingly, were pitifully slim, but I did run across two things he said that made me smile:
Journalism is a kind of profession, or craft, or racket, for people who never wanted to grow up and go out into the real world.
If you’re a good journalist, what you do is live a lot of things vicariously, and report them for other people who want to live vicariously.
Nicely said–and anyone capable of speaking with such wry detachment about my line of work probably had a similarly realistic view of his own modest place in the grand scheme of things. So I’ll try not to let it bother me too much that Harry Reasoner has taken his place in the memory hole alongside so many of the celebrities of my youth. After all, I remember him, and the next time someone has occasion to Google his name, they’ll see these words. I wonder when that will be?