Long after he left journalism, Murray Fromson never lost the curiosity, storytelling ability and intensity that made him a top CBS television correspondent during the Vietnam War and in the domestic fight for civil rights.
Fromson died Saturday of Alzheimer's disease, giving way reluctantly, fighting back as long as he could. Even when his memory was going, he'd surprisingly recall some old incident, friendship or feud from the past. We'd started in the AP, in different years, in the San Francisco bureau. We had mutual friends and, as we sat at a table in his rest home, I’d mention some, and it seemed to jog his memory.
As an AP and CBS reporter, he had covered the Korean War armistice talks, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia, the Richard Nixon-Leonid Brezhnev summit meetings and American domestic turmoil.
At the height of the Vietnam War, when Washington was talking about the "light at the end of the tunnel," Fromson and R.W. Apple of the New York Times interviewed a high-up American general who told them the war was headed for stalemate. "Unless a more positive and more stirring theme than simple anti-communism can be found, the war appears likely to go on until someone gets tired and quits, which could take generations, “ he said. The powerful story played a part in turning the public against the war.
Fromson was a graduate of Belmont High School and a copy boy and stringer for the Los Angeles Times, then moved on to the Associated Press and CBS. He was a much-respected USC professor. As director of the School of Journalism from 1994 to 1999, he helped move the department and its students into the new world of Internet journalism. He was a founder of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
We used to meet for lunch. He talked about the memoir on the Cold War he was completing, and about the columns he wrote for the HuffPost. He had a gift of description and an eye for the visual, shown by his column on a visit to Cambodia:
"I returned to Cambodia a month ago, unsure that I wanted to be reminded once again of the haunted days in 1975 when I was a CBS News correspondent in Phnom Penh that was under siege and the Khmer Rouge was close to imposing its horror on the capital’s citizens — innocent victims of the Cold War. But there I was with my wife twenty years since our last visit, walking again among the barren walls of Tuol Sleng, a former high school converted into what came to be known as the Genocide Museum.
"We were not alone. Tourist buses stopped at the intersection of Sihanouk and Mao Zedong Boulevards, bringing dozens of people: young and old, Muslims and Christians, as well as curious international visitors who had never before been to Cambodia. They walked silently from room to room where some of the prisoners were kept and tortured. I turned to a young couple from Australia and said, “Just think about this grim example of madness unleashed when Cambodians tortured and killed other Cambodians.” The couple was not moved. They had nothing to say and just walked on.
"But if that indifference caused me to shake my head internally, imagine what it was like on several occasions when I attempted to ask young people on the street about the horror of the Khmer Rouge occupation. They did not seem to understand my question. I could only guess that they were too young to have experienced those traumatic days and quite possibly their parents never explained it to them.
"The old Hotel Royale, where a half century ago I was based with other correspondents covering the war in the 1960s-70s, has come under new management and now was catering to wealthy tourists, not journalists on cheap expense accounts. The hotel was modernized to cater to very wealthy travelers. A memorial honoring foreign correspondents killed during the war was said to be based on the hotel grounds. The new managers must have thought it was kind of an unpleasant reminder to its current breed of visitors. They moved the memorial plaque to a place a good walk away from the hotel itself. Curious citizens didn’t have a clue about why we were looking at the engraved names of the journalists, many of whom were colleagues I remembered well.
"The most popular restaurant in Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents Club, we discovered, had no more foreign correspondents. Those who existed moved on to cover other wars. Now, the original pub had enlarged and become a highly successful hang-out for local expatriates and curious tourists. If they wanted to meet a real correspondent, they had to settle for a T-shirt on sale at the cashier’s desk, with the restaurant’s name splashed across it. I wasn’t about to tell anyone about my background, since I had retired from journalism into the doldrums of academia. But who cared anyway?"
Fromson often spoke of the civil rights movement and of his anger at "the old racists ..... who want to hang on to the embarrassing reminder of the Stars and Bars? Well, I’ve got news for them, having traced some grim events from the ugliness of Selma, and having made the march on behalf of the Voting Rights Act from there to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s time to erase the memories of the past and instead welcome the dramatic changes throughout the glorious South that make us proud to show the remainder of the world that the United States today has a truly democratic society."
Fromson respected that society. He loved his family and friends. They'll be gathering in the next few days to tell stories about him and the old days. He would have liked nothing better than to be among them.