Cal Thomas: Becoming a journalist


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, September 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up, Cal Thomas remembers the people who helped shape his career.

CAL THOMAS, COMMENTATOR: My list of journalistic mentors is long—but they are all gone now. The last two died within weeks of each other. They were Jack Perkins and Sander Vanocur, both veterans of NBC News where I started as a copyboy in the early ‘60s.

They were famous then, but most likely unknown to younger people today. Their signed pictures hang on my office wall, reminders of what real journalism looked like. 

They include David Brinkley, White House reporter Ray Scherer, anchor Frank McGee, and State Department correspondent Elie Abel. They also include Herb Kaplow, Martin Agronsky, and Pentagon correspondent Peter Hackes. Plus Nancy Dickerson, a female pioneer in TV journalism—as was Cokie Roberts, who died last week.

I was in charge of filing many of their NBC scripts. I studied those scripts and learned how they constructed sentences, created a broadcast narrative style from wire copy meant for newspapers, and avoided clichés and dependent clauses. Those journalists took this brash kid under their wings.

It was “Sandy” Vanocur—who died last week at 91—who took me to the White House for the first time. I watched President John F. Kennedy preside over a swearing-in ceremony for UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. The experience contributed to my desire to be a journalist.

Back then, the newsroom manager said if I wanted to be a broadcast journalist I would need to get a college degree and at least five years working for a newspaper or wire service. That has changed, but those requirements were good a foundation for reporting the news, not shaping it with opinion as so often happens today.

I remember Brinkley saying, “It is impossible to be objective, so we must try to be fair.” Contemporary journalism would greatly benefit from re-visiting that high purpose and restoring some degree of public trust in what used to be called a profession.

I never knew my mentors’ politics. Probably most leaned in favor of Democrats, but Democrats then seemed different. Republicans didn’t regard them as evil and one could have civil conversations without being suspected of collaborating with “the enemy.”

Washington social life was also much different in the ’60s. People built relationships across party lines. When politicians of either party were interviewed most had something to say that was worth hearing. Debates seemed more substantive, as were questions asked by moderators like Vanocur—who was on the panel for the Nixon-Kennedy debate.

These men and women are role models for younger people who want to become good journalists. I will never forget them. They look down from their high position on my office wall and are always in my heart and mind. 

Years after leaving NBC and starting this column, I saw Brinkley at a Washington party. He said, “I read your column. You write well.” I can think of no higher accolade from a mentor.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Cal Thomas.


(Photo/Biography) Sander Vanocur

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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