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.