When the longtime television journalist Roger Mudd passed away this week at age 93, his death closed a chapter in American history.
There are many chapters from our past we’d rather not reopen; that one, though, is one we should.
Mudd was an old-school journalist from an era that many television viewers today would not even recognize. He asked questions and then told viewers what he heard or saw. And that was it.
Today’s viewers often get their daily news from Tucker Carlson on the right or Rachel Maddow on the left and have come to think of them as journalists. They are not.
They are propagandists who pass on a dollop of news that’s wrapped in ideology and delivered with an incessant, drum-pounding outrage that drives the ratings. That is not news; that is infotainment masquerading as news and it’s one of the reasons why the nation is so polarized today.
Mudd came from a quieter era. There was surely much to outrage viewers then, perhaps even more — some of Mudd’s biggest assignments in the ‘50s and ‘60s came from covering the resistance of white Southerners to the civil rights movement. Mudd, though, wasn’t identified with any particular philosophy. If he ever raised his voice, viewers never heard it.
His best-known moment — and the one that did the most damage to a politician — was in 1979 when he asked Ted Kennedy a simple question: “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy — then in the process of challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination — couldn’t give a coherent answer. To this day, that kind of gaffe is known as “a Roger Mudd moment,” but it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t the result of some clever setup, it was just a case of a journalist asking an obvious question and the candidate being woefully unprepared to answer it.
You can make a good case that television news took a fateful wrong turn not when Fox News went on the air but when CBS passed over Mudd and named the more polarizing Dan Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite in 1980.
Mudd said later he was at peace with the decision.
“Being an anchorman is probably one of the dullest jobs there is if what you are really interested in is reporting … it’s a performing job,” the told the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. “For me, it was a misalliance with what I wanted to do.”
Mudd would be even further misaligned with the broadcast news ecosystem today. He apparently never had a Twitter account.
What Mudd did have was a long association with Virginia — and Washington and Lee University, in particular. He was born in Washington, D.C., and studied history at W&L, earning his degree there in 1950. He went on to a master’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina — we Virginians will have to overlook that transgression — and then returned to Virginia to begin a career in journalism.
Like a lot of the early television broadcasters, Mudd began in print, doubling for both the Richmond News Leader and its sister radio station WRNL in 1953.
His first bylined story was about two Richmond teenagers biking to Florida. The story included the detail that if they ran out of money they envisioned “a peach-picking spell in Georgia.” A persistent questioner even then, Mudd kept asking if this was a two-way trip and the boys finally said they’d probably take the train back home. Decades later, a presidential candidate would regret that kind of inquiry. (We’re indebted to Lewis Brissman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch for unearthing a copy).
In his autobiography, Mudd said his non-existent typing skills stood in the way of a career in newspapers. He eventually moved on to radio and television jobs for local stations in Washington, where he caught the eye of CBS News.
We remember how Dan Rather gained fame for being on the ground in Dallas when John Kennedy was assassinated but forget how Mudd interviewed Robert Kennedy shortly before he was gunned down — and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the large-framed journalist “cleared the way for Ethel Kennedy to kneel beside her wounded husband.”
For all of his worldly travels, W&L was the place to which Mudd returned in later years, as both an occasional teacher and a benefactor. In 2006, he donated his collection of 20th century Southern fiction to the school.
In 2010, Mudd donated his papers to W&L, although the term “papers” is a loose description for the 14 boxes that included “everything from his student essays to his interviews with the nation’s movers and shakers,” as The Roanoke Times described them at the time. Mudd said then: “Washington and Lee’s grip on me made my choice of giving my papers to the Leyburn Library easy and inevitable.”
Later that year, Mudd gave something else to W&L — $4 million to endow the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics. Why ethics? “Just look at the newspapers,” he told The Roanoke Times then. “Every morning there is something new.” Over the years, the center has sponsored a regular series of programs that explore ethics in multiple fields — “The Ethics of Citizenship,” “Markets and Morals,” “The Ethics of Technology” and so forth. Mudd told The Roanoke Times in 2010 that while he always admired W&L’s strict honor code, student life was not always good preparation for what comes after graduation. As students, “you’re not faced with a lot of ethical dilemmas and life beyond school is not like that,” he said.
Ethics was a topic that Mudd — always more thought-provoking than provocative — championed in other ways.
Mudd served on the board of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and in 1997 co-chaired its Ethics Task Force along with Philip Stone, then president of Bridgewater College (and later the president of Sweet Briar College after its near-death experience).
They came up with the Ethics Bowl, an annual competition among Virginia’s private colleges. It’s now known as the Wells Fargo Ethics Bowl and takes the form of a debate tournament. Last year’s topics included the hypothetical (but quite plausible) situation of a campus theater named for an alumna who had once filmed a racist movie before moving on to other more acceptable projects. Should the name be changed or not?
In a return trip to Lexington in 1999, Mudd lamented the state of the world. “I think the whole concept of honor and civility has gotten a little frayed everywhere,” he told The Roanoke Times. He was right then and, alas, even more right now.