Obituary: John Chancellor

Andrew Rosenheim
Monday 15 July 1996 00:02 BST

American television has never been notable for its intelligence, but the news "anchorman" John Chancellor was a remarkable exception. In an age of weather girls unable to distinguish cumulus from cirrus, and reporters remarkable chiefly for their dentistry, Chancellor exemplified an earlier generation of television presenters who were, first, reporters of news, only secondarily (and embarrassingly to them) celebrities.

Unlike many current broadcasters, Chancellor joined television from a position in print. He wrote his own words and asked his own questions and, in addition to his traditional virtues as a reporter, his work was characterised by a thoughtfulness and sceptical intelligence which, in the reductionist environment of American television, seemed strongly intellectual.

Curiously for one whose television reputation was essentially highbrow, Chancellor never graduated from college. He grew up in Chicago, raised by an Irish mother who, as he liked to recall, landed as a girl on Ellis Island. Leaving high school, he briefly attended the University of Illinois campus on Chicago's Navy Pier, then went to work as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Chicago journalism was still in its Front Page heyday: as a training ground for aggressive, competitive journalists it was nonpareil; and for all his eventual urbanity Chancellor never lost the appetite for a good story.

In 1959 print was more prestigious than electronic media, so Chancellor was taking a risk by joining the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as a Chicago-based reporter in that year. He concentrated first on radio, serving with the local affiliate WMAQ, but then gradually began work in television as the fledgling national news operation of NBC took hold. As a reporter, he was imaginative, pioneering "remotes" such as a live radio broadcast from the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, and brave, covering a massive oil and gas fire close up at the Hammond Indiana oil refineries and once sneaking microphone in hand into a cinema to broadcast the capture of a holed-up gunman, only to discover that the police had not yet arrived.

Much of this ingenuity, and a humorous but attractively unpretentious manner remained even as Chancellor climbed the NBC ladder and received grander postings - Moscow, London, and Brussels were among his beats in the years that followed. At the Republican National Convention in 1964, he was arrested as an on-floor reporter by security men for straying outside designated space; he signed off his on-air report with the famous line, "This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody."

As the host for two years of the morning news and chat show Today, Chancellor enhanced the programme's growing reputation as a cultural institution, and showed that a mix of news and entertainment could be presented at a high level without sacrificing all- important ratings. Tellingly, he was the one presenter of Today able to defy the network's stipulation that he do commercials as well as the programme itself. However "light" Today could be, Chancellor insisted on preserving a distinction between the role of journalist and salesman.

This integrity and his growing stature as a correspondent drew Chancellor to the attention of President Johnson, then looking for someone to head the Voice of America (America's Cold War equivalent of the BBC's World Service). With the country's position in the world increasingly undermined by the escalation of its involvement in Vietnam, the post was unattractive, not to mention badly paid. But, as with so many other appointees of LBJ, Chancellor found himself unable to resist the importuning mix of flattery and cajolery from his President. In the event, he served only two years, finding the job as difficult as expected, and finding too that he preferred the excitement of news reporting to the labours of administration.

Returning to NBC in 1967 as a national correspondent, Chancellor ascended to the main anchorman's chair for the Nightly News in 1970, at first paired with David Brinkley (surviving member of the preceding Huntley-Brinkley team), then on his own. Initially competing against the fabled Walter Cronkite on CBS, Chancellor seemed doomed to enjoy only second place in the critical supper-time ratings. But gradually, aided by Cronkite's retirement and a growing aptitude for the job, Chancellor and NBC drew even with their rivals and at times outstripped them.

As anchor, Chancellor's imaginativeness and humour were necessarily restrained, which he sometimes found frustrating. He lasted in the position a dozen years, however, in part because of NBC's failure to find an equally accomplished replacement. Finally stepping down in 1982, he remained a fixture on the Nightly News as commentator into the next decade, and was greatly popular for his wry, pointed reflections about events of the day. After retiring completely from NBC, he published two books on American broadcasting and America's future, as well as narrating a critically esteemed PBS series on baseball.

Although never an icon of the mass media like his rival Walter Cronkite (for several generations of Americans the face of the evening news) nor capable of the showbiz appeal of his tandem predecessors Huntley and Brinkley, Chancellor none the less represented a superior intelligence in American broadcasting which, with his death, has no surviving practitioner.

Andrew Rosenheim

John William Chancellor, journalist and broadcaster: born Chicago, Illinois 14 July 1927; staff, NBC News 1950-65, 1967-93; Director, Voice of America 1966-67; married Constance Herbert (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 1958 Barbara Upshaw (one son, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 12 July 1996.

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