(b. 17 April 1923 in Dakota City, Iowa; d. 6 August 1991 in Norwalk, Connecticut), broadcast journalist and news anchor who brought a wry wit and graceful urbanity to network news across four decades.
Reasoner was born in Dakota City, Iowa, in the heart of the agricultural prairie, the only child of two teachers. His father, Harry Ray Reasoner, became superintendent of a rural school district. His mother, Eunice Nicholl, had family in nearby Humboldt, a community established by abolitionists in 1863, where Reasoner spent most of his childhood.
From an early age Reasoner wanted to be a writer, and he developed an interest in journalism as a way of learning his craft. Like his parents, he saw his career as a civic responsibility. The Midwestern “middle,” he was convinced, had long been the strength and the direction of the country. When his family moved to Minneapolis in 1934, Reasoner’s moderate views were welcomed at West High School, where his rugged good looks and amiable self-deprecation made him well liked. Graduating in 1941, he wrote for the Minneapolis Times before deciding to continue his education, first at Stanford University and then at the University of Minnesota, where he resumed his work with the Times.
In 1943 Reasoner was drafted into the U.S. Army but remembered the experience because of a leave he won in 1944 to speak at the Republican Party convention after winning a national first-voter contest on what the party’s postwar policy should be. He enjoyed the spotlight, he said, “once I was sure the crowd wasn’t coming at me.” He began writing what would be his only novel, Tell Me About Women, a thinly disguised autobiographical account of two army buddies “of distinctly sedentary type” and their halfhearted pursuit of women who “knew all about themselves” and “had more self-assurance than anyone, except God, ought to have.” The book was published in 1946, the year of Reasoner’s discharge from the army. It hardly cemented his literary reputation but encouraged him to press ahead with his writing for the Minneapolis Times. Later that year he married a Minneapolis girl, Kathleen “Kay” Carroll. They had seven children.
Reasoner’s work as a drama critic for the Times lasted less than two years. He panned the musical Up in Central Park and was fired on the theory that “you couldn’t criticize a New York show or they’d stop coming.” He had his revenge when the Minneapolis Times later “slipped and fell and had to be destroyed.” His two years in public relations, working for Northwest Airlines, was pleasant enough, but he drifted back into news writing with WCCO radio in Minneapolis in 1950. The following year he was back in government service as chief editor at the U.S. Information Agency’s Far East production center in Manila. He traveled throughout Asia during this assignment and was getting well-rounded, but he found that the work didn’t pay. While home on leave he looked up Sig Mickelson in New York, a former professor of his at the University of Minnesota who was now president of CBS News. Mickelson told Reasoner to get experience in broadcast journalism if he wanted to work at the network.
Reasoner became news director at KEYD-TV in Minneapolis in 1954, doing the 6:00 and 10:00 news, while producing half-hour weekly documentaries that included a look at racial prejudice in Minneapolis. Reasoner began writing little end-pieces on the Saturday and Sunday evening news that showed his characteristic wit and capacity for droll cultural commentary. It led him to the opportunity to work as a summer replacement on the assignment desk at CBS in New York for $157.50 a week. His thirty-five-year career in network news had begun.
Initially Reasoner rose quickly through the ranks. In 1957 he was made the first full-time CBS television correspondent. Reasoner did news and features for Douglas Edwards with the News, the network’s nightly news show. “The challenge was to illuminate the story for television,” Reasoner recalled, “without corrupting it for journalism.” The key was to remember that “even with the pictures, the writing was still important.” He covered the first fumbling days of the U.S. space program and thought he did “my best work ever” in reporting the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High as a battle between “old custom and new conscience.” He covered the visit of Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev to the United States in 1959 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Far East tour the following year. Nevertheless, by the fall of 1960 his career was on hold. In West Virginia, he had gone to bed before finding out that Hubert H. Humphrey had ended his presidential campaign after his defeat in a crucial primary to John F. Kennedy. He “sulked and behaved badly” when Charles Kuralt, twelve years younger, was promoted over him to host the weekly Eyewitness to History. As a result of his attitude and major faux pas, Reasoner was assigned a backwater job of writing and reading two ten-minute radio broadcasts a day on CBS radio. He feared he would always be a journeyman.
Reasoner perfected his distinctive broadcast style on radio. A ten-day story on the hijacking of a Portuguese ocean liner was written in the style of a soap opera. Ernest Hemingway’s obituary was delivered in Hemingway’s style. Jack Gould of the New York Times wrote that Reasoner’s dry humor and individuality were the best things on radio. CBS executives took notice. Reasoner was made anchor of the WCBS-TV evening news in New York. The show’s popularity soared and with it Reasoner’s reputation. For two years he hosted Calendar, the forerunner of the CBS Morning News, and beginning in the fall of 1963 he became a frequent substitute for Walter Cronkite on the fledgling CBS Evening News. His documentaries for CBS Reports included “The Fat American,” “The Taxed American,” “The Teen-Age Smoker,” and “The Harlem Temper.” His prime-time work with writer Andy Rooney between 1963 and 1965 included “An Essay on Doors,” “An Essay on Bridges,” and “The Great Love Affair,” which was about the American romance with the automobile.
The Reasoners gave up their home in Weston, Connecticut, in February 1965, when Harry succeeded Dan Rather as CBS White House correspondent. However, Reasoner had a distaste for Washington’s insularity and thought covering the president represented a lot of time wasted. His critics complained he wasn’t aggressive enough, and CBS felt that the position did not play to his strengths. Don Hewitt approached Reasoner and Mike Wallace to cohost 60 Minutes, a magazine news program that went on the air in September 1968 against the most popular show on television, Marcus Welby, M.D. Reasoner specialized in soft news. Wallace gave the show its edge. Neither thought it would last. When Reasoner left the show in December 1970 to coanchor the ABC Evening News, Hewitt’s brainchild was well on its way to becoming the most popular news show in the history of television.
Leaving CBS was the most wrenching experience Reasoner had ever had, but “I wanted to be an anchorman once before I died and the only tiger in the zoo.” Reasoner’s appearance beside Howard K. Smith nearly doubled the audience for ABC News by 1973. Two years later Reasoner was anchoring alone. But ABC remained in third place among the networks and Reasoner blamed it on his laziness. He had found that daily anchoring was a grinding job that took daily meticulous devotion. By the fall of 1975 he was “tired of introducing reports from interesting places I would never have a chance to see.” The ABC evening news had lost its momentum and network officials teamed Reasoner with Barbara Walters, hired from NBC’s Today Show, to boost ratings. It attracted publicity but not viewers.
When Reasoner returned to CBS News in June of 1978 he feared he had grown “soft on a lot of money” and wondered whether “I could do what I used to do.” The 33 million weekly viewers of 60 Minutes gave him his answer. The show annually appeared as one of the top ten programs on the air throughout the 1980s. Reasoner left it at the end of the 1990–1991 season to become, at the age of sixty-seven, editor emeritus. His veteran colleague Mike Wallace called him the heart and soul of the show. The success at CBS the second time around proved bittersweet. Reasoner had long neglected his personal life and his marriage ended in divorce in 1981. He married Lois Parker Weber seven years later; they had no children. A long-time smoker, he survived surgery for lung cancer in 1987 and 1989. In 1989 he finally completed his journalism degree at the University of Minnesota. He was sixty-six. Two years later, on 6 August 1991, he died of cardiopulmonary arrest after emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. Reasoner was buried at Union Cemetery in Humboldt, Iowa.
For years Reasoner had been, next to Walter Cronkite, the most trusted newsman in America. Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, observed that “Harry Reasoner was not the only broadcaster from the Midwest, but he was the only broadcaster who brought the Midwest with him to television.” He said his long-time associate had “that Iowa sense of what’s important.” His work won five Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for outstanding achievement in news. At his death, Rooney and Hewitt affirmed Reasoner’s central role in celebrating the power of good writing in broadcast journalism. Reasoner saw journalism as the effort of men and women to bring order out of chaos, not by exhortation or evangelism, but by trusting audiences to do what they ought with information they needed to know.
Reasoner’s memoir of his days in broadcast journalism is Before the Colors Fade (1981). A collection of his early broadcast essays appeared as The Reasoner Report (1966). His novel Tell Me About Women was republished in 1964. A speech he gave at Memphis State University on “The News Media—A Service and a Force, The Changing Challenge to Journalism,” is reprinted in Phineas J. Sparer, The World Today (1975). His reflections on the news business also appear in Sally Bedell, “What Made ABC’s Harry Reasoner Switch Back to CBS?” TV Guide (27 Jan. 1979). A biographic article on Reasoner, written by Tommy V. Smith, appears in Encyclopedia of Television News (1999). A summary of his first decade at CBS is described in Current Biography 1966. For context on his work as a network news anchor, there is Barbara Matusow, The Evening Stars: The Maying of the Network News Anchor (1983). For his many roles at CBS News, there is Gary Paul Gates, Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News (1978). Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace described Reasoner’s importance in the development of 60 Minutes when they were interviewed on the Cable News Network’s Larry King Live on 21 May 1996. Reasoner’s work on 60 Minutes is also analyzed by Axel Madsen, 60 Minutes: The Power and Politics of America’s Most Popular TV News Show (1984), and Richard Campbell, 60 Minutes and the News: A Mythology for Middle America (1991). An obituary appears in the New York Times (7 Aug. 1991).
Bruce J. Evensen