AJR  Columns :     BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   March 2003

Looking Over Our Shoulders   

Anyone who knew Ed Bliss will be forever trying to live up to his standards.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

A giant in broadcast news died last year. His name was not Roone Arledge; it was Ed Bliss. He was 90 and, in the words of Walter Cronkite, "perhaps the greatest of broadcast editors." He was also a teacher who molded and inspired an entire generation. What's more impressive is that he's still influencing journalists today.

Edward Bliss Jr. joined CBS News as a writer in 1943. He worked his way up to writer-producer for Edward R. Murrow, and later was the first news editor of the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite." It was Ed who handed Cronkite the bulletin to read the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In 1968, Ed left the newsroom for the classroom, founding the broadcast journalism program at American University.

"He was a gentle soul, but one tough editor," says Merv Block, a broadcast writing coach, author and former writer at CBS. Ed was exacting, painstaking, uncompromising with words. His editorial philosophy was simple: "Be hard on copy, not on people."

Ed was hard on copy--all kinds of copy. Once, when two former students dropped by to show off a new car, Ed couldn't seem to take his eyes off the temporary license plate. National Public Radio's Alex Chadwick will never forget it. "He slowly took a pen out of his pocket and went over and crouched down in front of the car," Chadwick said, "and [in] that bare space on the cardboard between '30' and 'day' he drew a little hyphen."

Bob Edwards, host of "Morning Edition" on NPR, was Ed's graduate assistant at AU in the early 1970s and one of several former students who eulogized him at a campus memorial service December 12. "There were no small mistakes with Ed," said Edwards. "All mistakes were equally bad." Edwards recalled that he once spelled Connecticut with two Ts in a radio script. It was no good arguing that spelling didn't count in radio, he said. When you made a mistake, you felt you had let Ed down. ABC News' Jackie Judd remembers Ed looking over her shoulder when she was a student and just shaking his head at her copy. "It was devastating," she says.

Many of Ed's former students, myself included, can't write a line without thinking of whether he would approve. We are compulsive revisers. Even today, he makes our work better.

Not all of Ed's students met him in the classroom. "Even before Ed became an educator, I was getting an education," says Merv Block. Ed taught his CBS colleagues, his fellow teachers, TV news directors who heard him speak at conventions. In 1984, the journalism educators association named Ed the distinguished broadcast educator of the year. Now they're naming the award for him.

Everyone learned from Ed--not just how to write, but how to get it right, and why that matters. In 1993, Ed received one of the highest honors in broadcast journalism, the Radio-Television News Directors Association's Paul White Award. Accepting it, he challenged news directors to uphold the standards of journalism. "Accuracy is still accuracy, fair is still fair, and good writing still good writing and will be forever," he said.

We learned much more than how to write news for broadcast from Ed. He offered us not just a model career to emulate--two model careers, really--but also a model life, right to the end. He reminded us that life is what really matters, family and friendship above all. He collected friends--and kept them in a filing cabinet in the basement. If you ever wrote Ed a letter, you had your own file. And he relished life wherever it took him, from Fuzhou, China, where he was born, to his retirement home in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In "retirement," Ed revisited China, wrote a massive history of broadcast news and two more personal books: a tribute to his medical missionary father and the story of his wife's battle with Alzheimer's. He signed the contract for the book about Lois just weeks before he died.

Ten years ago, in his Christmas letter to family and friends, Ed wrote: "Lois and I have less energy now that we are octogenarians, but find life, if anything, even more fascinating." He never stopped finding life fascinating; heck, he never even slowed down. And he never stopped caring, passionately, about the news.

He took broadcast news seriously. He wanted so badly for it to be good, and he saw so much that was terrible. He hated when CNN tried to be clever with graphics. When the network put "The King and I" on the screen during an interview with Jordan's King Abdullah, Ed remarked, "Junior high school stuff."

If only more people listened. As Cronkite put it, "How much better broadcast journalism would be today if we just could have cloned Ed Bliss!"