Some eight years after World War II, radio gave way to television. Walter Cronkite became the most noted broadcast correspondent on television succeeding Edward R. Murrow, the most famous radio correspondent.
It was not easy for Murrow or any of the radio correspondents on his team. Words now had to work with pictures, and radio broadcasters had to adapt to the camera. Even in the simplest format—a camera filming their face as they spoke— faces always say unspoken words to the viewers. Murrow was handsome, rugged. His air was foreboding and portentous as befit wartime. Cronkite’s features were ordinary, less handsome, safe, and secure. America wanted no more risks.
Publicly the two correspondents were cordial. Privately they disliked each other. At a dinner given by a reporter of lesser rank, Murrow and Cronkite exchanged drunken barbs. They squabbled to the point of taking unloaded pistols off the wall and threatening each other. “It wasn’t comedy,” the hostess told me.
Those who admired Murrow for the journalistic standards he had set in wartime were disconcerted to see him perform journalistic sin. He hunted celebrities. His series Person-to-Person was an interview show. Remote cameras moved through in the homes of the rich and famous while he chatted with stars. He tried to be both dignified and sycophantic. Each show was carefully rehearsed before the celebrities were interviewed. Nothing was investigated or challenged.
“There is high Murrow, and then there is low Murrow,” said Fred Friendly, high Murrow’s producer.
I asked Eric Sevareid why Edward R. had slid.
“He told me he needed the money.”
The CBS Evening News was renamed the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
Eric accepted the role of news analyst, some 400 words a day. Just his face to the camera, no film clips inserted. Eric, who never adjusted fully to either radio or television, would visibly gulp on the air. Cronkite was furious.
“Three gulps today,” Walter said. “We could have gotten another item on tonight, but Eric had three swallows. Goddamn, I counted them,” he was quoted as saying. Cronkite was in New York, Eric in Washington.
“We are still too close”, said Eric. “Walter has tenacity, but no vision,” he told me.
I call that period B.C., before cable. Or B.C.E, before computer editing. At that time, though eighty percent of the country had television sets, at most they could receive seven channels. Only three networks provided independent news coverage. Video journalism was not yet a threat to print reporting, but both faced the basic dilemma of their craft.
Do you report news that journalists think the public needs? Or do you report news the public wants to hear? Of this, much more later.
Journalism sometimes imitates dentistry. Something rotten is discovered, and the decay is drilled on painfully. Then the hole is filled and something equally decomposing is searched for. The difference between a dentist and a journalist is that the tooth surgeon has gone to school for years and is licensed by the government. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically says any journalist can operate without a license. In the days of this writing, some fourteen million people publish blogs on the Internet, and they can post their insights without fear.
But for me, journalism means editorial supervision, meaning layers of editors to question and check the filed reports. Someone in news management read my copy, saw my cuts and suggested changes, most often for the better. Blogging is not reporting.
One of the safeguards in medicine is peer review. At the better hospitals a group of medical professionals review the practices of individual doctors and medical techniques. The same sort of peer review for journalists was suggested by Frank Stanton, and given a name, “The National News Council.” It had some fifteen members who worked for magazines, newspapers, and television journalism, and whose views varied from specialty to specialty, from right to left. The New York Times was invited to join, but refused. “Nobody judges The Times, but The Times, said their executive editor Rosenthal.
Back in the fifties, the highest rated show was NBC’s “The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question (1955 – 1958),” a quiz show of great suspense that used empathetic amateur answerers. It spawned imitators and attracted high ratings and great income. But the producers of the show (with some executive connivance) fixed the results. The amateurs were taught how to look puzzled and sweat and blurt answers given to them before the broadcast began. Congress was shocked and held hearings. The threat was that some stations might lose their licenses to others who could promise higher broadcasting virtues.
A few years later, when CBS was caught fixing the winners on high rated, big money quiz shows, CBS cancelled five daytime quiz shows and announced a series of twenty prime-time non-fictional documentary broadcasts to be called CBS Reports. The star was to be Edward R.Murrow, and his producer was to be Fred W. Friendly. Fred had started in radio with Ed Murrow. When he moved to television, he and Murrow attacked Senator Joseph McCarthy in a documentary daring for its time, See It Now. It was before tape recording and only a kinescope remains. (Whatever the journalistic virtues of the broadcast might be, years later the editor told me that she had made McCarthy look foolish by bringing up the audio on his nervous laugh: “I made his snicker into something grotesque. But the bastard deserved it.”)
The series restored some of the lost virtue of the network. In the beginning, Ed was the star but along the way the way he was dropped. To his friends he blamed Friendly. Murrow had trouble with management and resigned to become head of the USIA.
I received word that Mr. Friendly wanted to see me at length. He had been appointed president of CBS News, and he wanted someone to take over the investigative documentaries. I felt awkward when I entered his office. He was direct.
“These days the Vietnam story has made us all issue oriented. For that and budget reasons, cultural shows like The Roots of Freedom are over. I want you to take over my old job. You are the new executive producer of CBS Reports. Congratulations.”
I had heard this might happen. I was somewhat prepared.
“I don’t want to be just an executive editor. I’m a writer. I want to do some shows of my own.”
“You are now in charge of CBS Reports. I always kept two shows for myself. You can do the same. But for the rest the overseer and the last word is—.” Friendly poked at me with the index finger on his right hand. Specifically he pointed with the knuckle. The rest of the crooked once broken finger pointed right back at him.
Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow at the CBS news desk, 1960: The University of Texas at Austin, Briscoe Center for American History, Digital Collections