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3Qs: The legacy of Andy Rooney

Photo by CBS via Getty Images.

Earlier this month, legendary journalist and “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney passed away at the age of 92, just weeks after announcing he would retire from making weekly appearances on the program. Viewers across the country will miss Rooney’s witty rapport and unique reporting style. We asked Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism in the College of Arts, Media and Design, to comment on Andy Rooney’s legacy and his impact on television journalism. 

What personal attributes made Andy Rooney so successful in his journalism career?

Andy Rooney was very much a part of the golden era at CBS News. The success he enjoyed late in his career was rooted in his background in reporting rather than in the business of television, as was also the case with peers such as Walter Cronkite, a friend of Rooney’s, and Harry Reasoner, with whom Rooney enjoyed a close working relationship.

In reading the obituaries and tributes to Rooney, I was particularly struck by his experience working as a reporter for Stars and Stripes during World War II, where, among other things, he flew on some incredibly dangerous bombing missions so he could bring back the story. His later commentaries for “60 Minutes” may have seemed like harmless entertainment, but there was a real edge to them, and he was absolutely fearless about giving offense. I have to believe his wartime experiences helped him learn how to offend advertisers, viewers and his bosses without losing any sleep over it.

Rooney is credited with creating a new genre of “contentious television essays.” What influence has his approach had on journalism today?

Rooney’s work on “60 Minutes” was in a class by itself and that’s a shame. Yes, he was contentious, but his pieces were also funny, well researched and informative, and he delivered them calmly, but with a performer’s flair. I see very little of those qualities in television journalism today, and especially in the talk-show world of cable news. Shouting, over-the-top opinion mongering is the antithesis of Rooney’s approach, which was to identify small but annoying aspects of life that we might never have thought about, had he not called them to our attention. We were entertained, but we also learned something — a rare combination that has become more rare over time.

What’s your most distinctive memory of Andy Rooney’s career? What would you consider to be his most memorable contributions to the field of journalism?

I have one very distinctive memory of Rooney, and it has nothing to do with his career. About eight or 10 years ago, when I was working at the Boston Phoenix, my phone rang. “This is Andy Rooney,” the caller said in what seemed like an exaggerated attempt at imitating him. “Yeah, right,” I responded, wondering who was really on the other end of the line. It was Rooney. While we were taping “Beat the Press” one Friday afternoon, his daughter Emily, the host, mentioned the name of someone who had been bugging her father over some perceived offense. It turned out that I had heard from the same person a few times as well. She told her father, and he decided to give me a call. I can’t remember what I told him — it was all I could do to recover from my inauspicious opening. Now that Rooney has died, I wish I could recall exactly what he said that day.

Rooney revolutionized neither journalism nor television. His legacy is that he was consistently excellent. He considered himself a writer first, yet he would not have succeeded on “60 Minutes” if he hadn’t turned out to be so good in front of the camera. He was in his late 50s before he became a TV star, and he remained in that role into his 90s. So perhaps another legacy of his was to provide hope and inspiration to all of us who aspire to keep growing and to be productive in our later years.