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Chancellor, John William

Chancellor, John William

(b. 14 July 1927 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 12 July 1996 in Princeton, New Jersey), respected television journalist best known for his work as anchorman and commentator for NBC Nightly News.

The only child of the Chicago hotel executives E. M. J. Chancellor and Mary Barrett, Chancellor spent much of his youth working at odd jobs, including turns as carpenter’s helper, hospital attendant, and riverboat deckhand. Although distinctively studious in manner and tone, Chancellor had little formal education, only briefly attending the University of Illinois following his discharge from the U.S. Army, in which he served as a public relations specialist from 1945 to 1947. That same year he married Constance Herbert; they had one daughter before their divorce in 1956. (A second marriage, to Barbara Upshaw, took place in 1958; they had a daughter and a son.)

In 1948 Chancellor was hired as a copyboy by the Chicago Sun-Times; he remained in the news business for the rest of his career. Learning his trade on the job, he quickly moved through the ranks to proofreader, reporter, and feature writer. In 1952, at age twenty-five, Chancellor was recruited by NBC’s Chicago television station, then known as WNBQ. Television news operations were in their infancy during the early 1950s, as stations recruited a mixture of print and radio reporters to develop the emerging form of television journalism. Chancellor was a member of this pioneer cohort; his career closely paralleled the evolution of TV reporting. “When I started at NBC, I was one of its first television reporters. We had only three or four,” he recalled in an interview.

As a local TV correspondent he was charged with covering Chicago police-blotter stories, which meant chasing his share of ambulances around the city. Initially unhappy with the clutter of cumbersome 1950s television equipment as well as with the brevity of TV news pieces, he expressed a desire to return to “real” journalism (that is, newspaper work). However, Chancellor showed imagination and talent on the screen, winning an award from Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalism fraternity, for his coverage of the capture of a murderer—a story he had reported in the midst of a crossfire of bullets on the street. NBC soon promoted him to national assignments as its chief midwestern correspondent.

Chancellor first gained significant national attention with his coverage of the Central High School desegregation case in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. The national media were generally despised by segregationists for their perceived “Yankee biases.” Chancellor found himself the object of hostility and threats of physical violence as an on-site representative of what some citizens, including some police, called to his face, “the Nigger Broadcasting Company.” His persistence and professionalism, however, led to several NBC scoops in the complex and inflammatory story, and this was not lost on network management. It was in Little Rock that Chancellor realized the enormous power that could be wielded by television news—as well as the personal risks involved in having access to that power.

Another landmark moment in his career occurred in San Francisco in 1964. While covering the Republican National Convention, he once again found himself in trouble for alleged “liberal bias” in reporting. Partisans of Senator Barry Goldwater had him forcibly removed from the convention hall for blocking an aisle during a floor demonstration. Still on the air as he was led away by armed police, he told viewers, “I’ve been promised bail, ladies and gentlemen.... This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.” His cool-headed, poker-faced wit endeared him to viewers who disdained the robotlike protocols that were becoming standard in most network reporting during this period.

Chancellor served briefly as a European correspondent, but the network was anxious to develop him as a household name and face and reassigned him to become host of its daily wake-up program, Today, broadcast live from Rockefeller Center in New York City. Under previous hosts, Today had been a hodgepodge of entertainment and news, with an emphasis on the former. A chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs, for example, had been the show’s regular “cohost.” To reverse the balance, NBC called on Chancellor and shifted responsibility for Today from its Entertainment to its News Division.

The newsman-emcee took decisive steps to quickly accomplish this task. Refusing to participate in comic stunts or to announce on-air commercials, he moderated the entertainment element by presenting fewer performances and more celebrity interviews. He soon managed to establish a dignified identity for both host and show. Despite his success at recasting Today into a respected news magazine that would later be copied by the other networks, Chancellor was unhappy with the job, preferring to return to “pure news,” which NBC reluctantly allowed him to do after little more than a year. But the purposes of the Today assignment had been fulfilled. The show was saved and, whether he wanted the distinction or not, Chancellor had indeed proved to be a nationally marketable TV personality.

An on-air correspondent once again, Chancellor hopscotched around NBC news operations during the second half of the 1960s, heading bureaus in Brussels and West Berlin before moving to Washington, D.C., as White House correspondent during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. This brought about an unexpected turn of events. Johnson greatly admired Chancellor, both professionally and personally, and offered him the directorship of Voice of America, the international radio service of the U.S. Information Agency. The VOA had developed a reputation as a mouthpiece for bluntly biased cold war rhetoric. Chancellor was asked to reestablish it as a dependable source of news for a worldwide listenership. He accepted the job at a 50 percent reduction from his NBC salary.

As he had with the Today show, Chancellor showed quick results in restoring credibility to the troubled radio service. The harsh propagandistic tone of its programming was softened, as network-style “evenhandedness” was instituted. Chancellor mandated more use of contemporary music and introduced such features as cuts from comedy albums by such rising performers as Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart. He added his NBC colleague David Brinkley as an analyst and commentator. When he quit the position in 1967, he told the New York Times he was satisfied that the public could now have confidence that “the government is engaged in honest journalism.”

Returning to NBC, Chancellor once again took up his maverick role in the News Division. His documentary Israel: Victory or Else, concerning the Six-Day War of 1967, was described by the critic George Gent as “finely detailed and frequently elegant.” He was able to interview both the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for another of his documentaries, Rabin and Sadat: War or Peace? Over the course of his career he conducted interviews with every sitting president of the United States, from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.

In 1970, upon the retirement of NBC news anchor Chet Huntley, the network again turned to John Chancellor for a solution. Chancellor had often expressed his preference for reporting over anchor-desk newsreading, but he was persuaded to participate in an NBC news experiment. Huntley had coanchored a very successful daily evening news program with David Brinkley. Brinkley would be kept, but Huntley would be replaced by two new co-anchors, Frank McGee and Chancellor. The three-anchor format proved to be a flop, however, and Chancellor was appointed as sole anchor within a year. For the next two decades he was the public face of NBC News.

For a dozen of those years Chancellor’s NBC Nightly News was in daily competition with Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. Cronkite is often remembered as the leading network anchor and “America’s most trusted man.” It is worth noting, however, that during this period predating the proliferation of cable channels, all three network news programs had enormous audiences by later standards, and Cronkite’s ratings were often only a tiny fraction higher than Chancellor’s. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that Chancellor was restless in the anchor chair throughout, wishing he could return to the field. Reuven Frank, the two-time president of NBC News, described him this way:

He was born to be a reporter. That’s what he wanted to do. He was always wanting to go somewhere and cover something. He would say dumb things like, “I would do it even if I weren’t paid.” I said, “No, you wouldn’t.” I’ve worked with a lot of reporters. Several were truly born reporters. He was one. That’s all he ever wanted to do. When he became an anchorman, he’d try and explain things, with the pointer and the glasses. It’s all he ever wanted to do. It was his whole being.

Along with Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith, Robert Trout, and others, Chancellor was part of the founding generation of television newspeople who were originally trained on the job at newspapers, wire services, and radio stations. These pioneers brought personal identities as journalists with them when they chose to make the switch to television. By contrast, most on-air figures of later generations were little more than actors, trained and cast specifically to read prepared copy to a camera.

Chancellor was extremely protective of his private life. He enjoyed reading, listening to classical music, and walking. In 1995 he narrated the nine-hour PBS documentary series Baseball produced by Ken Burns. The following year he died of stomach cancer at his Princeton home.

Chancellor’s papers and effects are in the custody of his family. For further reading on Chancellor’s views on American politics and the news business, see his Peril and Promise: A Commentary on America (1990) and, with Walter Mears, The News Business (1983). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 13 July 1996).

David Marc

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