Jun 062016
CBS Building Exterior (photo: Landov)

CBS Building Exterior (photo: Landov)

I had sent all my awards home, along with some two hundred tapes of shows I had written, coached, or produced. I waited until early evening so I would not meet sentimentality in the corridors or elevators.

Three months earlier when I had lost favor, my colleagues fell away, as if I were infectious. Collegiality is not friendship.  I had no sympathetic friends. Two mail boys had passed my office a month or two before and had not seen me. 

One read the nameplate on the door and said, “Perry Wolff.  I thought he was dead.”

My office windows opened to a splendid view of the Hudson River. Fading sunlight flashed orange flecks on miles of steel grey water. I could see far beyond two bridges to a valley. A quarter moon sent a hesitant light.  The same moon that had ended my career.

I had written a program about the moon, entitled The Moon Above, The Earth Below, that aired in 1989:


Our days and our years are measured by the sun and its warmth.  For most of us, the moon’s a wanderer…slipping in and out of our nights, as elusive as memory.  We live with it– but not by it.  That’s why we put these old scenes together, to drift back to a great day when the moon was at the center of our thoughts, and to remember three fine men who once went there and came back.

Just a few city blocks away, a ruined pier where years ago ocean liners left Manhattan.  Now rusted girders were twisted in a design no artist would dare to fashion.  A wreck, torn apart by disaster, age, and a powerful river.

I permitted myself a sentimental parallel.  That rusted, ruined pier, and dated a generation ago was me.  The Hudson was a river of ratings — or money–whose power could not be denied—or archived.  I gave myself that moment of self-pity.  Then I walked to the elevators that served both CBS Reports and 60 Minutes.  My carpet was drab, and theirs was green, the bright color of new money.

In the production of my last broadcast a small editing error had been made. What should have been a black and white image  was replaced by an image in color.  As producer, I was responsible.  The new president of CBS News David Burke, fined me $10,000 and refused to renew my contract.  He said I had brought disgrace on a noted and loved correspondent.

The broadcast included a scene of Senator Ted Kennedy’s actions on the night he drunkenly drove his car off a bridge in Massachusetts drowning a girl companion. The press had been shut out for nine hours afterwards until the Kennedy camp got their story straight. The press representative who had who had blacked out the press was the same David Burke who questioned my integrity.

 I thought it was one of the best films I ever made, and was so acknowledged by two Emmy’s, a Writer’s Guild of America award, good ratings and reviews.  But the corporate word had been said, and I was no longer a hero. My crime was that my salary didn’t justify my ratings.

On my last day at CBS—I had spent over forty two years of days—I was pleased to get out. I was delighted to meet no one on the elevator.  I found a taxi and left.

CBS News was just another office building in Manhattan.

Jun 062016

From 1948 to 1950, I worked at the Chicago radio affiliate of CBS. I won two Peabody awards. One was on race relations, the other on the sale of narcotics. The latter embarrassed the Chicago Police force. It also embarrassed the owner of the station who made his peace with the force by firing me. In New York a network Vice President, Hubbell Robinson, went to two lunches and accepted the awards. He airmailed me the medals. I went to New York in 1951.

Hubbell Robinson ABC Stage 67 1967 Original Press Photo

Hubbell Robinson
ABC Stage 67 1967 Original Press Photo

By chance I ran into Robinson on the corner of Madison and 51st. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was out of work.

Robinson: “I always wanted to hire you, but we had to wait. That guy in Chicago is powerful at CBS, but do you want to come to work?”

Me: “I do.”

Robinson: “Do you have an agent?”

Me: “No.”

Robinson: “How much would you want?”

Me: “What’s fair, Hubbell?”

Robinson: “About four hundred a week.”

Me: “Fine.”

Robinson:  “You’re hired. Let’s go upstairs and see Sig Mickelson.”

Mickelson was in charge of the CBS News operation. He knew my work and was delighted to see me. Things moved very fast that afternoon.

I was asked, “What would you like to do?”

“That man who says ‘take one, take two, go to slide.’ I think he’s key in this business. The director, I mean.”

Sig said, “You can start tomorrow. Our studio in Grand Central Station is where the Morning News originates. The assistant director will show you the ropes.  Collingwood is the correspondent. Show up about five thirty in the morning.”

That’s how I entered television.

I never liked directing live television cameras, by the way. It was too much like plumbing. The pipes have to go straight. There was nothing creative about the assignment. It was like playing finger exercises on the piano.

I asked for a new assignment.

Mickelson thought we should do some cultural video and he suggested I go to the Museum of Modern Art and see if a series might start there.  At the time William Paley was on the board of MoMA.

The director of the museum granted me an audience. He didn’t mean to be insulting, or Dadaist but he looked at his television set and said, “I always think people working in TV are truly about that tiny size.” He had a 12-inch monitor. He pinched thumb and index finger close together, squinted through the gap and smiled.

I left quickly and angrily. I had met that same cultural snobbishness in radio.

The folklore of many American intellectuals is a presumed hierarchy of the arts. At the top, a generation back, was the search for the Great American Novel, the noblest of forms.

Today fictional films are the primary objects of awe. Auteurs, or Film Directors are at the apex. In descending echelon: the theater, the abstract painter, the print journalist, the small magazine critic. Scientists, lawyers and doctors are respected as technicians but not applauded. They are needed as plumbers are needed—in times of emergency.  At the very bottom is television and radio. Not only at the bottom, but unable to be redeemed. They have crossed the Styx. There can be no distinguished writers in electronic journalism.

The cultural elite thinks about television as they think about their toilet. They use it often but never talk about it in polite company.