I was the executive producer of The Selling of the Pentagon. Broadcast scholars now say that program was the most important documentary in the history of electronic journalism. I spent tense hours in the editing rooms working with the producer, Peter Davis. The scope of the First Amendment was tested by the war in Vietnam and by The Selling of the Pentagon.
America lost the war in Vietnam. Sensible people knew it was over years before the ruling class in Washington would own up to defeat. The United States government had long maintained a branch of Hollywood on the Potomac paid by taxpayers. The Selling of the Pentagon was an investigation into the public relations films and shows done by the military and underwritten by tax dollars.
Based primarily on an almost unnoticed book by Senator Fulbright and directed by Peter Davis, this CBS News documentary was investigated by the government. Many books, doctoral theses and essays were published in the years following. The broadcast had flaws, but in the main it nailed the Pentagon and forced it to change its propaganda.
Davis’s work was brilliant.
- He caught the Army staging elaborate demonstrations with live ammunition of military weapons for invited VIP civilians.
- He found the Pentagon had sent five of its own film crews to Vietnam to stage a battle in which our forces were triumphant.
- He found further demonstrations in which children were encouraged to fight with each other and play with military weapons.
- Compared to the amount spent by the Pentagon before the war, the public relations budget increased by fifty times.
Television had done so many Vietnam documentaries that the original ratings of The Selling of the Pentagon were low. After the military and its hangers-on in the press attacked the show, it was rebroadcast a month later to larger numbers. The House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (today the Committee on Commerce and Energy), whose chairman represented a district flushed with military funds, led the attack. He was the same Harley Staggers who had investigated Project Nassau. His ally was another congressman from Louisiana who came from a district similarly endowed. Once more the legal argument was that the outtakes and notes could be turned over to the government. It was a replay of the Haitian story.
There was a storm within CBS. William Paley, chairman of the board, went behind the back of Frank Stanton, president of CBS. Paley tried to make a deal with the Speaker of the House. The Speaker said he did not have the power to overrule Staggers’ Committee.
Dick Salant, the president of CBS News, and I discussed the outtakes. I told him I had taken a reel of small trims home so that not all of the outs could be sent to the government. (I had done the same with trims from Project Nassau.) Salant thought that was a good idea. He took seven reels and hid them in the trunk of his car. We agreed we would give up the scraps only if Stanton asked that we do.
I was given warning by Peter’s wife, Josie Mankiewicz Davis, herself a brilliant writer. “You aren’t letting Peter do all those crazy things are you? Peter thinks that anyone who wears khaki becomes a fascist by osmosis!”
I trusted Peter Davis, but when the storm broke I was told to review everything once again. I called for the original transcripts of the interviews. I matched the original typescripts against what had appeared on the air. It was a tedious job, and I asked two researchers to help me. There were some forty hours of synced sound and a few errors became apparent.
- An official had said “no” as an answer to a question, but the editor had entered a “yes” instead.
- The same question had been asked several times, and the editor had made a composite answer from different takes.
To its credit, this time the network refused to turn over the material. Frank Stanton ignored his boss, Bill Paley. He refused to answer the subpoena. He was charged with contempt with the threat he could be imprisoned.
The contempt recommendation was sent to the full House of Representatives. The House had never before rejected a similar request. For the first time in its history the full House rejected its committee’s demand. The practical result was that from that day on broadcast journalism had the same protection as print journalism. Nothing was written, but the electronic news people were told to act as if they worked for a print medium. Stanton had accomplished his goal. The Supreme Court would never have the opportunity to rule on the subject.
For me, the most serious problem was within our own house. A few years earlier Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, had blindly read the narration for a crude Pentagon propaganda film. The film showed a red tide flowing out of Russia and spreading down over the Western world. The film was entitled The Eagle’s Talon.
Starting in WWII the aggressive Communist tide had spread in Europe and Asia to engulf its neighbors. Communist China even now has plans to dominate Asia by mass murder…Our army is face-to face with communist threats around the world. To meet immediate threats on any threat we must build-up our land forces at home and overseas.
The Red Tide oozed from the North Pole through Canada and down to Texas. Crude, even for the times, but embarrassing. So much so that I suggested the Cronkite section be cut from The Selling of the Pentagon. The cut would protect Walter and CBS News. It could not be done because we would have faced the criticism of self-aggrandizing. None of the viewing committee could ask Davis to make the cut.
The Eagle’s Talon had been sent to community and church groups for screening. Before we knew what the result would be, I went through all the transcripts to check if the edits had been made fairly. Immediately I found a number that were questionable, but I needed the help of two researchers assigned to the documentary. But they had been sent into the field to see how many times The Eagle’s Talon narrated by Mr. Cronkite had been screened.
Cronkite was furious with me.
From then on the most trusted man in journalism mistrusted me.
The correspondent who headed the CBS Evening News was more than a voice. Cronkite sat on the planning meetings, indicated what stories he preferred to have covered or not covered. There was a code in the newsroom, WW, meaning Walter Wants. WW was top priority—scurry without questions. One WW just before airtime was, for example, “How long is Greenland?” There was nothing Arctic in the whole newscast. He made journalistic decisions, including the final wording of the scripts. Although he was surrounded by vice-presidents, executive producers and producers; the anchorman was more powerful than the officer class. He never fired anybody directly, but he could have people sent to the brigs and stockades.
I don’t know why Cronkite fixated on me instead of complaining to the administrators above us, but I surmised it had to do with our troubles on Airpower fifteen years earlier. I had forgotten, but obviously he hadn’t.
The following year was an election year. On election night, the CBS set looked like a Roman amphitheater with rows of monitors and correspondents. I was in the pit. During a rehearsal checkout a vice-president approached me.
“You have to move, Wolff.”
“You are in Cronkite’s line of sight.”
Ten years later I stepped into an elevator. Cronkite was alone. He saw me, glared, exploded a growl and said something I didn’t catch. He stepped out to take another car.
Walter Cronkite, lyndacwatts.wordpress.com
The Selling of the Pentagon, museum.tv