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A 'Sunday Morning' Network News Pause That Refreshes

December 19, 1985|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer .

--Henry David Thoreau

What I try to do is a show that I think works. --Shad Northshield

Ah, network TV news. An urgent pace, pinball graphics and a feeling that if Armageddon has begun, the correspondent assigned the story had best bring it in at 1 minute, 45 seconds, or start life anew at PBS.

Consider, then, nearly two minutes of nothing but the sights of trees, of flowers, of snow-covered fields, the sounds of geese honking, a bubbling stream or maybe just the wind. Unusual for a news program, but it's the usual ending on "CBS News Sunday Morning."

True, the 90-minute effort, anchored by Charles Kuralt, does recap the week's top stories. It even has been known to emit breaking news.

But it is better known for stopping to smell the roses, so to speak, for doing such odd things as celebrating Bach, talking with old soldiers, visiting the jazz world, ruminating about Renoir. In short, it contemplates life instead of racing through it.

As Christmas approaches, other programs again will concentrate on Santa Claus and crowded stores. Not "Sunday Morning." It has a Yuletide tradition of its own. Sunday's cover story will be "Our Gifts to Us," its annual report on new acquisitions of public parks and land for present and future generations of Americans to enjoy.

A few words, now, from Robert (Shad) Northshield, a salty, bearded ex-newspaperman who, save five months out in 1983 for work on CBS' ill-fated "American Parade," has run "Sunday Morning" since its premiere on Jan. 28, 1979:

"My wife says I've got the best job that anybody's ever had. I don't know about that. But it's certainly the best job I've ever had. She says, 'It's because they let you do all those things you're interested in.'

"Well, the fact is, when you get to be 64 years old, you find you're interested in an awful lot of things. As you get older, you acquire more things that you're interested in."

Such things often show up on his show. Such things have shown up in the 25 documentaries he's done for both CBS and NBC in the 32 years he's spent in network television.

The topics on those programs have ranged from grizzly bears to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, from the half-breed kids that GIs left behind in Vietnam to two programs--20 years apart--on Navajo life.

Music also is high on his list. Back in 1974 when he worked at NBC, his "The Navajo Way"--a follow-up to "The Way of the Navajo" he did for CBS in 1954--employed bits of Bach. It also underscored a sad sundown scene outside an off-reservation bar with Stan Getz's brooding version of "Here's That Rainy Day."

When Northshield began "CBS News Sunday Morning," he wanted a distinctive opening theme. He recalled that years ago he'd heard a 29-second trumpet fanfare called "Abblasen" by an 18th-Century composer named Reicha. It now opens the program.

Last month, he had jazz pianist Billy Taylor--a regular "Sunday" contributor--do a segment on veteran jazz bassist Milt Hinton. Another jazz veteran--trumpeter Doc Cheatham--is scheduled to be featured on Dec. 29.

Classical music and performers also are regularly featured. In November, the program profiled soprano Jessye Norman and composer Aaron Copland. Northshield wrote the narration for the program's 15-minute celebration of Copland at age 85.

"The piece probably had three minutes of narration, but it was hard work," he said. "It takes great effort to keep your mouth shut. In television, writing involves keeping your mouth shut more than anything else."

That is no mean task for the producer, who by nature is an expansive, gregarious man, full of opinions, often corrosive, on matters major, minor and in between.

His first important job in life was as a lieutenant of infantry in World War II. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he became a Chicago newspaperman.

That was at the tail end of the halcyon days of Chicago newspapering--a shot of rye for breakfast, scandal for lunch and maybe a good ax murder before dinner. Alas, while it may be nice to be part of a legendary period, Northshield said he never was of the Windy City's hard-boiled, blow-the-lid-off-the-town school of journalism.

"I wasn't very good at that," he said with a sigh. "I was a lousy reporter and a good writer. The writing very often covered up for inadequate reporting--which was caused not by laziness or stupidity, but by shyness, of all things."

In 1948, he found himself intrigued by something new called television. He went into it five years later at CBS, producing "Adventure," a children's educational series hosted by a chap named Mike Wallace. After that he produced the acclaimed "Seven Lively Arts," then put in two years at ABC, producing public-affairs broadcasts.

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