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RICK DU BROW

. . . In Charles We Trust : When Kuralt goes on the road permanently this spring, CBS and its viewers willlose a special bit of Americana.

March 19, 1994|RICK DU BROW

He certainly never fit the image of a TV news celebrity. He was balding and plump and his delivery had a pensive flavor that bordered on the somber. Oh, he could--and did--cover the big stories, but his specialty was quirky, warm little human features that touched America's heart and somehow reassured viewers that not everything was wars and shootouts and rotten politicians.

So when Charles Kuralt, in the prime of his career at 59, surprisingly announced his retirement from CBS this week, there was an immediate sense of loss because, when you think of it, he may very well be, along with Ted Koppel, the most trusted person in network television news, a mantle once held by Walter Cronkite.

The trust was built by two series that were totally out of the mainstream of blockbuster TV news programming--"On the Road," a collection of Americana vignettes that ran on the "CBS Evening News" for more than 20 years beginning in 1967, and "Sunday Morning," a weekly, unhurried look at the world around us, including the arts, nature and music, which marked its 15th anniversary last month.

Kuralt's final appearance as host of "Sunday Morning" has been scheduled for the Easter broadcast April 3. He officially leaves the company May 1: "I need some time to put 37 years worth of stuff into boxes."

In a phone interview from New York, Kuralt easily remembered the very first "On the Road" piece. It was simply about the beauty of autumn in New England: "I had the conceit that we could just go up north, go anywhere and find a story. I said, 'Just look at the beauty we've been remarking on the last few days. That's a story right there.' "

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Kuralt and his crew roamed the country in a van that came to be known by television viewers far and wide. This week, he said, "Somebody who read about my retiring called up offering to buy the bus." That, of course, would be a mistake. It belongs in the Smithsonian.

The bitter irony is that, in the current climate of in-your-face TV news, pushed more and more by nasty reality shows into the arena of hard-bitten cynicism, a soft feature like "On the Road" would probably never get on the air, let alone on a network evening news broadcast. Kuralt, you see, was serving another valuable function--bringing trust to TV at a time when the public is casting an ever-skeptical eye on the media. He gave the lie to the belief that good news is no news.

He is leaving, he says, because he wants to write a book about America, because he has done just about everything he wants in the news business and because he wants to embark on new ventures while he is in good health and spirits:

"I like the notion of being footloose in America again for my book. The idea of sticking a notebook in my pocket and talking to people without the encumbrances of television lights and cameras is something I'd like to try for a while."

He is not, he says, leaving because of the hard-edged changes in TV news, although in the past he criticized the growing importance of marketing of network journalism: "I can't say I'm happy with every single direction TV news has taken over the years, but none of them ever affected me. No one ever asked me to lower my standards."

In fact, he and CBS executives say that the network wanted him to stay. "They meant it," says Kuralt. "I had a couple of long, friendly talks with my bosses and they were really trying to find a way to avoid a complete break. They wanted me to stay here in some capacity. And they really did say, 'You can come back any time you want to.' "

If Kuralt was not in the flashy, glamour category of other network names, it was because, in part, of his choice of direction. He was a top-flight correspondent who reported straight events throughout the world, "but I learned that I did not enjoy covering major events. I didn't enjoy the competitive and deadline pressure. But I found I did enjoy going to political conventions and political summits and the Olympics and doing sidebars."

Most recently, he did those sidebars from the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, but he says he would have hated being "one of the horde of reporters covering Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan" and preferred "poking around" instead.

He discovered his bent in the reporting business, he says, while covering Latin America more than three decades ago: "I seemed to have a knot in my stomach because I knew NBC was going to beat me on the story." But it was not just that single experience. He felt that "knot" because "I discovered that by temperament and physique and ability, I would never be a Mike Wallace; I would never be a tiger of a reporter.

"I just got a note from Mike (who is 75) saying that he's happy for me but that he couldn't imagine himself doing what I'm doing (retiring). He needs that daily shot of adrenaline."

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