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Bruce Morton

By RD Heldenfels Published: February 17, 2006

I saw this morning on Jim Romenesko's journalism site that Bruce Morton has retired. He did so with as little folderol as possible, according to this report. But Morton had a long and impressive career at CBS and later CNN.

He and I crossed paths once, in 1995, at Kent State University. Here's the text of the story I wrote at the time:

   We all fall into the trap of expectations. Spend hours, even years, with someone on our TV screen, and we expect them to act as they have on TV. We want them to have a relationship with us when what we've had all along has been thoroughly one-sided.
   When I met Bruce Morton on Sunday, I expected an instant bond. I expected more of the warmth and humor that have come across in Morton's stories and commentary for close to 30 years on CBS and, since October 1993, on CNN.   I found instead a thoughtful, precise but slightly grumpy man. It may be that, on a gray and dreary morning, while most people around us still were asleep, Morton was not in the mood for whimsy. It may have been that he was hungry, since he had not yet had breakfast. And it was likely that I was not doing my job all that well, not finding that issue or question that would have engaged Morton.
   Then there was the setting, on the cold concrete outside the student center at Kent State University.
   The Emmy-winning reporter had come to Kent, as he had a couple of weeks earlier, as he had five years before for CBS, to report from the site of  demonstrations and the killing of four people by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.
   Not only Kent but the Vietnam War was with us; Morton's reports from the campus were part of CNN's coverage tied to the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Morton covered the war in Vietnam in late 1966 and early 1967, and anti-war protests in the U.S. and the trial of Lt. William Calley, the centralfigure in the notorious My Lai massacre of civilians in Vietnam in 1968.
   Vietnam lingers in memory and debate. National figures, from Robert McNamara to President Clinton, Bob Dornan and Newt Gingrich, keep the questions about Vietnam alive and unanswered. And some people wonder if the debate will ever settle down.
   "I think maybe it has," Morton said. "This CNN special (which aired Sunday night) is called 'Vietnam: Coming to Terms,' and there's been a lot of coming to terms.
   "I don't mean you get over it. I don't mean you forget it. I don't think people who were in the war, even reporters who covered the war, ever forget  it. But I don't think the country is torn apart the way it was. ...
   "I was in Vietnam in March, doing some pieces for this special, and went to their Arlington cemetery, which is up near Dong Ha. And some of the graves, they explained, are empty in honor of Vietnam's three-hundred-thousand MIAs. If they can come to terms with that, and they seem to have, maybe we can come to terms.
   "I don't want to minimize all the pain, but I just think there's a time when you say it's over. It doesn't mean you don't hurt anymore, but it's over. You just kind of get on with your life."
   After the fall of Saigon, Morton said, "None of the bad things that were supposed to follow, did. The domino theory said that if Vietnam went, Asia would go Communist. And Vietnam went, and what Asia did was get rich. It's the Vietnamese who have discovered free markets and are playing catch-up as hard as they can.
   "Club Med is now building in Vietnam. The Liberation Day races in Hue,which I covered, have a corporate sponsor -- Pepsi-Cola. ... It's still one party; like China it's not political freedom, but it's found free markets."
   Even at Kent, he said, people seem to be dealing with the past. "Five years ago, one heard more about the post-shooting disputes. 'We don't want the gym here,' all that stuff. And people still remember that, but the gym's built. That's over with."
   And what about news coverage of Vietnam? "I think it was covered pretty accurately," he said.
   "One of the things you're reminded of reading McNamara's book is (the top government officials) listened to the generals. They didn't listen to, didn't believe, the reporters. I'm not talking about whether the war was morally wrong. Most of the reporters covering the war said, 'This isn't working.'
You'd go out, doing a sweep through a war zone, and the next month you'd do it again, and the next month you'd do it again. You don't have to be George Patton to ask: Wait a minute, what did we get out of this?
   "I met a Marine captain. Captured a ridge. Then they abandoned the ridge. And he got killed later on, and they named a camp after him, and then abandoned the camp. It seemed to the press, who were not military smarties by any means, that it just wasn't working."
   What has worked, at least for Morton, has been his move from CBS to CNN.
   "I don't knock CBS," he said. "I have a lot of friends there and for me it was a happy time. But for me the move was a swell idea. ... I have more fun with the long pieces, not necessarily the hours, but some of the pieces that can run 10 minutes, which in television is long."
   Not that he's thrilled with everything in the course of news. Asked about coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, he said, "I don't understand O.J. It's a soap opera which outdraws the soaps. I mean, I can't think of a trial in my lifetime that has so riveted the country. I keep thinking people will get
bored with it, but the ratings indicate they don't."

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