Obituary: Eric Sevareid

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The Independent Online
Arnold Eric Sevareid, writer and broadcaster, born Velva North Dakota 26 November 1912, War Correspondent CBS 1939-45, Washington Correspondent 1946-59, Chief European Correspondent 1959-61, married Lois Finger (two sons, marriage dissolved), Belen Marshall (one daughter; marriage dissolved), Suzanne St Pierre, died Washington DC 9 July 1992.

ERIC SEVAREID was one of the talented team of CBS news correspondents recruited by Edward R. Murrow whose vivid broadcasts from the London blitz helped to persuade the neutral United States that Britain was not defeated, and would not be.

Sevareid was then a tall, handsome, massive-shouldered man of 28. He had been working as a newspaperman in Paris before Murrow urged him to switch to CBS on hearing that Hitler had made his pact with Stalin. He came from North Dakota, of Scandinavian stock, and was sometimes called 'the gloomy Norwegian'. He had scored an immense scoop as the first newsman to report that France was about to surrender to the Germans and seek an armistice.

Later in the war he was sent to the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. He was flying into China when an engine failed and all passengers and crew had hurriedly to bail out by parachute into a Japanese-occupied jungle. Sevareid helped to bind the broken leg of the radio operator who had gamely been repeating their position until the plane crashed. Fortunately his message had been heard. Shortly afterwards a plane dropped a large package with an axe, jungle knives, blankets, army rations and a typewritten note: 'Remain at wreckage until rescue party reaches you. You are safe from enemy action there. Give some sign of life to searching aircraft by building a fire or displaying unusual signs by parachute panels . . .'

Sevareid later described the details of his experiences in China in a fascinating autobiography Not so Wild a Dream (1946). He subsequently covered the Italian campaign and was with the first wave of American troops into southern France.

Sevareid returned to America after the war and became head of the CBS Washington news bureau. He was a good reporter, but he was perhaps best at writing elegant short broadcast essays, first for radio and later for television. He was a writer of great distinction and his commentaries were most influential. Once when I was in New Orleans I asked a local ward politician what was likely to be the result of a pending election. 'A few years ago I could have told you exactly how they were going to vote here,' he said. 'They did what we advised, but not now. They listen to people like Eric Sevareid.'

Much of the credit for toppling the freewheeling career of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin is given to Murrow for his famous 1954 See It Now television programmes, in which McCarthy was seen to condemn himself out of his own mouth. But Sevareid was prepared to stick his head over the parapet before his friend Murrow did so. Throughout 1953, in his thoughtful, late evening radio commentaries, he regularly took McCarthy to task for his unsubstantiated accusations of disloyalty and treachery. That was at a time when too many Washingtonians were running for cover.

In 1959 Sevareid returned to London as a base for a roving assignment to report on all the main European developments. During the following two years he broadcast many radio dispatches that showed the affection he had for Britain. But it was in the 1960s that he reached the peak of his career.

Walter Cronkite, every American's favourite uncle, was the anchorman of CBS Evening News, and gave the hard news of the day. Sevareid followed with his beautifully written critical analysis of the significance of the main items. Cronkite said: 'Eric was one of that small number of news analysts, commentators and essayists who truly deserve to be called distinguished.' A similar comment came from Dan Rather, who succeeded Cronkite as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News. He described Sevareid as 'a philosopher, writer, reporter and teacher, with no equal in the history of broadcast journalism'.

(Photograph omitted)