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Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Broadcast news pioneer dies

Howard K. Smith, who helped shape political coverage, dead at 87

February 19, 2002

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— Howard K. Smith, the newscaster who gained prominence during World War II as one of "Murrow's Boys" on CBS radio and ended his career as an ABC co-anchor and analyst four decades later, is dead at age 87.

Smith died of pneumonia aggravated by congestive heart failure on Friday evening at his home in Bethesda, Md., his son, Jack, said Monday.

ABC commentator Howard K. Smith, left, and President Richard Nixon
are shown in the White House Library in this March 22, 1971, file
photo. In 1969, Smith conducted the first television interview of a
sitting president Nixon.

ABC commentator Howard K. Smith, left, and President Richard Nixon are shown in the White House Library in this March 22, 1971, file photo. In 1969, Smith conducted the first television interview of a sitting president Nixon.

Although largely out of the public eye for a quarter-century, Smith was a broadcasting pioneer and, from television's infancy, a familiar sight in viewers' homes.

"Howard K. Smith was a man of intelligence and integrity in World War II and beyond," said CBS anchor Dan Rather. "Broadcast journalism has lost one of its early greats."

Smith made at least two appearances of lasting impact even beyond the journalistic. In 1960, he served as the moderator of the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, a seminal TV event generally thought to have played a decisive role in Kennedy's election.

Smith also is memorialized in Robert Altman's 1975 political satire "Nashville," in which Smith portrayed himself as a broadcast commentator covering the presidential campaign of the never-glimpsed candidate Hal Phillip Walker.

Smith conducted the first one-on-one television interview with a sitting president Richard Nixon, in 1969 and three years earlier, interviewed his own son, a future newscaster who at the time had been seriously wounded while fighting in Vietnam.

Don Hewitt, who produced the Kennedy-Nixon debate and later created the CBS News magazine "60 Minutes," said holding to a high standard at his network is easy "CBS News comes from good stock, and Howard is part of it."

Foreign correspondent

Howard Kingsbury Smith was born May 12, 1914, in Ferriday, La., and, after attending Tulane University, began his years as a foreign correspondent working for United Press in Copenhagen and Berlin.

In 1941 he joined CBS News as a member of the team assembled by the legendary Edward R. Murrow during World War II, and in 1946 succeeded Murrow as CBS' London correspondent.

In an interview with AP Radio a few years ago, Smith summed up being a war correspondent as "sports reporting. You report what happened. You talk about the cleverness of this tactic and the failure of that." But then he added, "Occasionally you do get involved with a moral question, and that becomes difficult."

Smith covered Europe and the Middle East until 1957, when he came to Washington, D.C., as a correspondent and commentator on CBS' nightly TV newscast.

Pulling up anchors

With the civil rights struggle heating up, Smith narrated a 1961 documentary, "Who Speaks for Birmingham?," in which he quoted Edmund Burke's observation that "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." After the quote was deemed "editorializing" by his bosses and cut from the program, Smith resigned from the network.

Joining ABC News soon after, Smith served as a correspondent and anchored several long-form newscasts, including the respected mid-1960s documentary program "Scope," which focused on the Vietnam War.

In 1969 he became co-anchor with Frank Reynolds of "The ABC Evening News," then two years later was joined at the ABC anchor desk by his former CBS colleague Harry Reasoner.

In l975 Smith relinquished his co-anchor role but continued as a political commentator. But four years later, after denouncing as "a Punch and Judy show" an evening-news format that jammed Smith together with four co-anchors, he retired from daily journalism.

Smith's several books include the 1942 best seller "Last Train from Berlin," which describes Hitler's rise to power and his own experiences as the last American correspondent to leave Berlin after war was declared, and his 1966 memoir, "Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter."

Other film appearances included "The Candidate," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Network."

His numerous awards include a Peabody and an Emmy.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Benedicte Traberg Smith, a daughter, a son and three grandchildren.

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