I became the CBS News specialist in black documentaries.
I knew no blacks when I grew up. None at kindergarten, none at grade school. When we became middle-middle class, Bess hired a schwarze for heavy cleaning half a day on Thursday. I paid no attention to her; she paid no attention to me.
There were no Negroes in my Chicago high school. In my sophomore year I found black, big band jazz at the College Inn in the Sherman hotel.
Each of my friends and I would carry a glass and a slice of lemon peel from home to the hotel’s men’s room. To avoid paying an entrance fee we’d sling our coats on a stall door, fill the glasses with water, add the lemons and go upstairs with false gins and tonics. We stood before the Count Basie band and marveled. Eight brass, four saxophones, percussion and piano from ten feet away. How loud, how brilliant the beat! After the full band roared, Count Basie played a few quiet notes on his piano—a trill, an open tenth, silence, silence—and once more the blast of the full orchestra.
It was at the same College Inn where “Fats” Waller broadcast a comment that ended his radio career. He looked at the all-white dancers and said into his microphone, “Where are all the poor people tonight?” The remark was annoying to dancers who just wanted romantic relations, not race relations.
In a saloon on Wabash Street, I was introduced by nodding heads to a professional jazz pianist named John no-last-name. Joe Shack, a white friend and talented pianist, made the introduction. John was so talented that when Lionel Hampton, the world’s best vibraphone player, played on the upper octaves of a piano, black John accompanied him on the lower octaves. Later, Joe and I mourned John no-last-name. The black genius was a gambler, and when he didn’t pay his bets, the Chicago mob broke his fingers.
College days. There were a few blacks at the University of Wisconsin, but there was no mingling. I won the drama prize for a one-act play, Georgia on my Mind, derived from a story I read about Benny Goodman’s trio: Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson. Wilson, who was black. was denied a hotel room in Atlanta while the two whites were accommodated.
I imagined and dramatized the indignant conversation, particularly words by Benny Goodman, a white jazz God. (I met him many years later. He would not have been indignant about racism.) Georgia on my Mind was chosen as the best one act of the year. Unfortunately, I was in the Army when the piece was performed to a mixed audience, and nobody wrote to tell me how the Negroes felt.
My racial ignorance continued in the military service. I never saw a black in combat, even during the Battle of the Bulge. Blacks were service troops. We knew their outfit as the Red Ball Express. They delivered supplies and went back to the rear echelon. The war was white-on-white.
It was only when I returned to Chicago and produced radio documentaries on race relations that I spent time among the Negroes. I took my tape recorder into the South Side ghettos and did interviews with community leaders. Being the one white among a group of blacks always meant wariness on both sides.
A decade later, things warmed up in New York when Of Black America won so many prizes. Until then, programs on race relations won high praise and low ratings. The series was an exception. Bill Cosby was pleased with the results. His staff joked with me, but there was no social intercourse.
For that matter I never shared a meal with Bill Moyers, the correspondent on The Vanishing Family – Crisis in Black America a documentary that won more awards than any program in the history of television. It also changed America’s welfare pattern.
Moyers had been imposed on me by CBS News’ management, which didn’t know what to do with one of the most brilliant reporters of the time. He came with a small staff of excellent producers and fine ideas for documentaries.
We were asked to examine the welfare program, always a controversial subject. I always insisted that the first paperwork describing a project should end with the sentence “CBS news will investigate.” It meant that we had formed no previous opinions other than the subject needed study. After the team had done its homework, a decision would be made as to whether or not to commence filming.
At that time, the welfare program was a subject of much print discussion. But no one had done a detailed investigation into its flaws. Our initial search took some two months. No cameras were present. The producer and her associates went into the field, into the Newark ghetto where the peril was so obvious.
There never was a budget meeting. Only the camera crews and the editors were not on staff. Six more weeks of shooting, and eighteen weeks of editing—almost a year of work for a one hour documentary. Standard practice.
I could not understand why Bill Moyers was socially distant. I was willing to be his enlisted man, but I usually had closer contact with other correspondent-stars while most documentaries were in process. Taciturn as they were, Eric Sevareid and I, and later Dan Rather and I shared matters apart from business.
After Eric retired we continued to see each other. Sevareid had done three commentaries a week on the CBS Evening News, and as I learned later, this was the job Moyers most wanted.
Every four years, as meat-and-potatoes-television, Eric and I would do a stock footage resume of previous conventions. As the years went declassified, documents became more available. Some ten years after the 1964 Conventions, Eric gained access to earlier FBI documents. His assistant sent me copies.
In 1964, young Bill Moyers had been press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson wanted the Democrats to nominate him by unanimous acclamation. He wanted solid hurrahs for his Vietnam policies and his civil rights legislation. He wanted no trouble with the assassinated President’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, and he expected complete loyalty from his vice presidential choice, Hubert Humphrey. There was to be no on-screen noises from the growing black power movement. The FBI was asked to conduct wiretaps on Humphrey and the militant blacks who might disturb a first ballot nomination by acclamation.
The FBI agreed to conduct the bugging. Cartha de Loach was assigned as officer in charge of the surveillance. He reported in writing to ‘Preacher.’ ‘Preacher’ was Bill Moyers.
“You will be pleased to know the Humphrey job has been successful,” De Loach wrote to the press secretary. Moyers passed on the reports and transcripts to Lyndon Johnson, who spent hours listening to the wiretaps.
Then Moyers asked de Loach to arrest some of the militant blacks. The FBI denied the request as a violation of free speech.
Although Sevareid had sent me the documents, we decided not to use them in the broadcast. Eric said, “That was years ago, and Moyers was the President’s loyal press agent. Anyway he was just a kid in his 20s.”
I was more troubled. Moyers’ essays on public morality did not square with his ordering of secret wiretaps. Somehow, years later, Bill Moyers was told I had the de Loach transcripts. Maybe that’s why there was coolness.
Yet, when he went into the field and reported on The Vanishing Family, his work was brilliant and impeccable. At the beginning, he and I thought the thrust of the report would be that the welfare system needed only fine-tuning. But the deeper the investigation, the more inept an inept government program called Aid to Dependent Children became apparent. The aid went to the mother and child. The father was relieved of responsibility; thus the program destroyed the black family. Moyers followed our research and discarded our preconception of fine tuning the existing government program. Impeccable journalism.
The producer, Ruth Streeter, led us. For weeks, she and her associate, Kate Krull, went into the darkest part of the Newark ghetto to choose the subjects for Moyers to interview. We chose Newark because it was closer to us, and because there were no doubt that the conditions there were similar to those in other inner cities.
It was risky work. The crime rate was so high, the streets so obviously dangerous, that the cameramen asked for physical protection for themselves and their equipment. Ruth hired a Newark cop, Shahid Jackson, to organize and help us pay for a protective guard.
Detective Jackson was raised in the slums of Newark. He told the camera that as a young man he “was lucky I didn’t get caught for some of the things I did. I grew up in the streets, and I still have some of the street in me.”
Shahid spoke the backbone of the documentary. He and Moyers were watching the women of the ghetto at the post-office on the day they called ‘Mothers’ Day’—the day the welfare checks arrived.
Jackson: “They know their food is going to be there, because with the welfare check come the food stamps. Welfare is what they are married to. They’re more married to welfare than to the guys lying in bed with them ‘cause he’s just a physical thing. The whole backbone of the family is coming out of government offices.”
Moyers: “And the men?”
Jackson: “A lot of guys I know just goes around lookin’ for welfare mothers. They may have six and make a little money from each of them. That’s their job, that’s their hustle.”
Ruth Streeter found one of the hustlers. Astonishingly, his name was Dickensian— Timothy McSeed. He had been imprisoned three times and hadn’t had a job in years.
The Father to be (McSeed): I ain’t thinking about holding up my sex, my man. If a girl she get—carrying a baby, that on her. I’m not going to stop my pleasures because of another woman.
Moyers: “What about birth control? Condoms?”
McSeed: “Girls don’t like them things. They don’t like them things. They tell me you take the things off. They figure you saying they filthy or they dirty or something.”
Moyers to another mother: “Why didn’t you want to get an abortion?”
Mother: “Because I wanted his baby. I liked his legs.”
Moyers: “His legs?”
Mother: “I got a thing for bow-legged boys. I just love them.”
Moyers to the mother: “Did you think about birth control?”
Mother: “No. I didn’t think about birth control. I was afraid of birth control because I always heard birth control give you cancer, and all that stuff. I wouldn’t want no man holding me down because I think I could make it as a single parent. Male figures aren’t important in family.”
Moyers to the father: “How many children do you have?”
McSeed: “Six. (laughs) I got six kids by four women.”
Moyers: “He’s twenty six. He had two additional children by two other women, but one died in infancy and the other was aborted.”
Moyers (to McSeed ): “How did it feel to have those kids?”
McSeed: “Well, you get to see…if it’s something you’ve done…like carpentry…like artwork. Like they might grow up to be doctors or actors, and you can say, ‘Look that’s my boy or that’s my girl. You know there’s some people can’t have children at all.”
Moyers: “Doesn’t it make you feel bad that you can’t support your kids?”
McSeed: “Well, the majority of the mothers are on welfare. And welfare gives them the stipend for the month. So what I’m not doing the—the government does.”
Moyers: “On Father’s day, mother and father had their third son.”
Mother: “Fat-faced little baby! You hungry?” (Offers breast)
McSeed: (Looking at his newborn) “I’m the king! I’m the king! I got strong sperm. Most women say, ‘McSeed , you a baby-maker!’”
Moyers: “Why don’t you get married?”
McSeed: “Well, see, I’m old fashioned: I want a big wedding, that’s that. And my uncles and my aunts, you know, they all had their little tuxedos and I’m going to have mine, too.”
No writer would dare compose such grotesque dialog. A year earlier, in emotional fiction, Alice Walker had written The Color Purple. Her theme was the same: homes without men, child-women who had to be both mother and father, men who would neither father their children nor honor their women.
The broadcast brought hundreds of reviews and one sobering statistic. Of the 67 prime time hours on the three networks that week, The Vanishing Family rated 64th.
Naturally, the broadcast was repeated. But the local stations always resented low-rated documentaries that led into their local news. The hold-over audience was small and the local ratings dropped, and cut into their advertising revenue.
The good statistic came from Washington, DC. There the show had rated tenth. Legislators on both sides of the aisle requested copies, and California paid for three thousand tapes.
Within CBS, a committee of black women went to management and pointed out their families had not vanished, and the implications of the broadcast smeared all black women. Nothing was said to me.
The Vanishing Family won several Emmy Awards, as well as three Peabody’s, the Columbia Journalism School citation for the Best Broadcast of the Year, the Polk award, and I won a Writer’s Guild plaque.
I went to the Columbia Journalism award and accurately said I was just the coach. I refused to go to the others. Ruth, Kate, and Bill had been in the field. I had stayed safely in the CBS building and helped with the verbal and picture editing. The prizes were theirs, not mine.
I learned later that Moyers was hurt because I did not attend the other honoring ceremonies.
Timothy McSeed went back to prison several times on drug and robbery charges. He called Ruth Streeter several times from jail and asked for help she could not give. One of the women died. We lost touch with all the principals.
Years later, changes were made in the welfare program, based in part on The Vanishing Family, the nickname of the revised Aid to Dependent Children bill when it was in committee hearings.
After I left CBS, I attended a lunch honoring the most important man in the history of television news, Frank Stanton. On the dais were the correspondents and executive producer of 60 Minutes. Bill entered late. There was no room for him on the dais. The only seat available was facing me. He sat down, looked at me, got up and left.
The Vanishing Family, YouTube
Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers, Eve’s Magazine