Paul Harvey: A Remembrance

by Rick Rockwell

Regular readers are probably a bit shocked to see a picture of broadcaster Paul Harvey on these pages.

But Harvey died on Saturday, Feb. 28, and he’s more than due a fine remembrance.

Why would a blog that leans hard to the left have anything good to say about a conservative commentator who seemed to be the ubiquitous voice of the rightwing even before the glory days of the Republicans during the Reagan years? Why would we have anything good to say about someone who was honored by the now generally reviled administration of President George W. Bush?

Why would we honor someone whose programs often played to hokum and sentimentality? Why celebrate a commentator who seemed to want America preserved in a sort of stultifying 1950s era cultural aspic?

Well, the truth is Harvey was more complex than that image, and as he often said in his signature program, there was more to this story.

The truth is Harvey was a consummate broadcasting professional who understood the line between news and commentary and usually clearly labeled both in his daily programs on ABC Radio, which at one time, before the heyday of Rush Limbaugh, were the top rated radio programs in the U.S. Harvey was an excellent broadcast writer with a unique style, which complimented his staccato delivery. He was also a dedicated and hard working anchorman, definitely one of the very best I’ve ever worked along side.

Yes, that’s right, during my last tour through Chicago (where Harvey based his program for most of the year) as part of my duties at the ABC News bureau, during more than a two year period, I sometimes served as Harvey’s producer. The first time I got a call to take this assignment, I thought a lot about saying “no.” (Harvey’s long-time producer had accumulated so much vacation time over the years that the network needed to fill his spot for many stretches throughout the year.) You see my impression was that one dimensional reaction formed by hearing Harvey’s work now and again and rejecting it completely. But Harvey was a legend. How could you say “no” to a chance to work with a legend? I have never regretted taking the assignment.

Every morning, Harvey produced several morning newscasts for the ABC network and commentaries. He delivered his noon broadcast and then he would go to lunch with his wife (she died nine months ago), who had served as the producer responsible for creating many of Harvey’s signature touches until her retirement.

Before heading to the Harvey assignment, the suits at ABC told me my main job would be to monitor Harvey’s work to make sure the editorial commentaries didn’t seep into the news. Harvey never crossed the line in the years I worked with him.

Before arriving at Harvey’s private studio operation, I steeled myself for the usual prima donna anchors I was accustomed to in the business. Arriving at 4 a.m. to undertake the production, I was surprised to find Harvey already there, dressed nattily in a tie and on top of his clothes he was wearing an old fashioned blue ABC production smock (so not to get ink on his clothes). At that time in his late 70s, he still had more energy at that early morning hour than I did. I soon discovered, unlike other anchors, Harvey did not leave the production solely to his producer. He was loyal to the demanding hours and hard working for his radio enterprise, serving as the primary writer. Harvey ran a tight ship, just a three-person team to produce multiple newscasts (the third person being the audio engineer).

Harvey told me my main jobs would be to check his grammar, check his facts, and to make sure his math was accurate. And the first time I came to make a change? No argument. Harvey never quibbled about any of my changes to his writing, which again surprised me because I had been through so many fights in my time with lesser anchors and reporters. I learned he was modest to a fault and genuinely respected all on his team.

I came to enjoy my early mornings with Paul (who insisted I use his first name) who usually wore a smile and had a positive word for the day. What you got on the radio was his true personality. It was no act.

And so in time I came to understand his philosophy and his world view. I might not agree with it, but we respected each other’s differences and they never got in the way of the work. Harvey was truly a professional’s professional.

And that’s the rest of the story.

Paul Harvey
1918 — 2009

(The photo of Paul Harvey receiving the presidential medal of freedom in 2005 is by Shealah Craighead; the photo is an official White House photo and is in the public domain.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

The difference between Harvey and the crowed that followed him was that he understood the world was a complex place, and not defined just by his ideology. Can you imagine Limbaugh or any of that gang telling George Bush to get out of Iraq or Afghanistan, the way Harvey told Nixon that Cambodia was wrong?

And yes, I listened to Harvey, too -- he could even make a cranky progressive smile.

Molly Kenney said...

I grew up listening to Harvey on Boston's WBZ Radio during our evening commute. This is a lovely tribute to him and his work.

Rick Rockwell said...

Molly, great to see you in these pages again. Sorry it is under these circumstances.

Your comment reminds us of the great responsibility we have as members of the media, both anchors and producers. We are part of the messages that shape folks as they grow up. Harvey truly understood that and took it to heart.

Emmy said...

Rick, Love the story.

Jeff, Love the comment about the world being a complex place. It's something journalists and commentators, even ones who are considered "legitimate," often don't seem to get.

All things are gray, not black or white.

As you guide young journalists, commentators and writers, or when you write yourself, take the command to "get both sides of the story" out of your vocabulary (if you haven't already). And encourage those youngsters to do the same thing.

For there are rarely ever just "two sides."

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