CBS: The Power and the Profits

However the Toynbee or the Gibbon of the future adjudges what happened to American society, he will need to reckon large with the impact of radio and television. By the 1950s, TV had become the greatest new instrument of political and social influence in the nation. How that happened, how TV became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes, is most simply told as the story of one broadcasting network, of its founder and indomitable chairman, William S. Paley, and the men who helped make CBS into Paley's golden candy store. David Halberstam has written that story as part of a larger work in progress about centers of power in America and the ways they have been affected by science, technology, and modern communications. This is the first of two installments.
13. The Dynamic Duo: Murrow and Friendly

If Murrow was to go to television, he needed a producer. He found him while still doing radio. His name was Fred Friendly, and they were brought together by a talent agent named Jap Gude. Their partnership began with a series of albums of radio documentaries, I Can Hear It Now, a collection of memorable broadcasting moments from the past. Murrow's narration and Friendly's technical ability made them successful beyond anyone's expectations. (Collectors of Friendlyisms noticed that as the series of albums progressed, the size of Friendly's byline on the album cover gradually grew larger and finally equaled that of Murrow's). Then they tried some radio documentaries, Hear It Now. In 1951 they turned to sight and sound. Hear it Now became TV's See It Now.

Their alliance was an odd one. It brought together Murrow's broadcasting skills, considerable shyness, and enviable reputation and Friendly’s enormous aspirations and superb technical expertise. Friendly was ambitious, creative, and restless, at once a builder of his own legend and a destroyer of it. (He managed to destroy it for one talented reporter for the Times named Charles Mohr by offering him a job and then, when Mohr turned it down, suggesting that Mohr keep in touch because there would be a time when his wife would want a fur coat.) In the words of one friend, he always came equipped with his own precipice from which to jump. He had a weakness for beginning a sentence by saying that he was just a simple country boy and ending it by implying that he had as a matter of fact invented Edward R. Murrow. Talented, insecure (the name Friendly is an Americanization of the name Freundlich, which was mother's name; his real name was Ferdinand Wachenheimer, a name not likely to help his career take off. Murrow, by contrast, was a name which would help it a great deal), he took strength from Murrow's reputation. He was not in the basic sense a journalist, but rather a talented dramatist ("Watch out for Friendly," Murrow would tell journalistic initiates, “he doesn't know a fact.")

He wanted to do a Life magazine of the air, and this fitted nicely with Murrow's conception of television. Knowing he was going into television, and knowing nothing about film, Friendly set out to master the art, to retool himself. He went to the Museum of Modern Art and studied just about every technically ambitious film in its extensive archives. Then he went to Pathé News, demanding to know who was good in documentary film, and asking the professionals to explain what worked and what did not work. Then he set out to find the best technicians available for his CBS film team, using Murrow's name as the come-on. He was aware of the unique asset of Murrow's prestige that the name could open doors, and he became expert at using it. Ed wants, Ed says, Ed feels—and whether indeed Ed wanted or Ed said or Ed felt was another thing, but it brought marvelous results of which Murrow was as much the beneficiary as Fred Friendly.

Friendly was physically huge, with a powerful and formidable presence. Restless, domineering, excessive, he was not a man to be harnessed in a lesser figure. Part of Friendly's strength was his exuberance. If Fred was interested in the problems of water, then the whole world had to be interested in water. He was excited, not frightened, by big challenges. The bigger the show, the more difficult the assignment, the more he responded, and this quality set him off from most people in broadcasting. Later in his career, when he was at a higher level in the corporation, the smell of corporate success occasionally got him into trouble. But his restlessness was also a positive force.

In 1954 he was at least as determined as Murrow to do a show on Joe McCarthy. When they were preparing the film for that program, an incident occurred which others who were present forgot. The team was watching a BBC broadcast, an announcer reading the Canterbury Tales in Middle English: All very simple. And suddenly Friendly exploded: "That's it, that's it, that's what this fight is all about!" Someone else asked, “What the hell do you mean, Fred? What do Middle English and Chaucer have to do with it?" “Damn it, for the right to do what you want, poetry, art, and freedom of speech, the freedom to put on whatever you want without fear."

Yet he had a show-biz side that preferred effect to substance. Once, years later, when he was running CBS News and he was told he should hire a reporter who had done very well in a difficult assignment, he answered, "Yes, yes, he's good, I know he's good, but is he a star? I only want stars.”

Murrow could control Friendly's excesses, and Friendly could dramatize what Murrow wanted to say and do it with professionalism. He took staid Ed Murrow into the hustling world of television and made the combination, work. Television for better or worse did require a show-biz component, and Friendly provided that, tailoring it to Murrow. The result was that See It Now became a great show—too great, finally, for its own good.

By the late 1940s, what was to become known as McCarthyism had already come to broadcasting (and to Hollywood) in the form of "blacklisting." Actors, announcers, and correspondents were singled out by right-wing critics for having been associated with organizations now considered far left, communist, or communist-oriented, and became the targets of a variety of political and economic pressures. CBS, which had been the most liberal of the networks, became the most sensitive to pressure from the Right. As early as 1948, Murrow was becoming depressed by political reaction at home and the inhibitions on free debate that Cold War tension was producing. He was hardly a figure of the Left. If anything, he was a freedom-of-speech and First Amendment man, a classic political centrist with a certain sympathy for the underdog. But he was becoming uneasy with the increasing timidity of his own profession and his own company. Loyalty was now a political issue and he did not think that broadcasting was doing the job it should in defining freedoms for those accused of disloyalty.

In 1948 he encouraged his old friend David Lilienthal, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, to make a speech attacking the broadcasting industry for not using its influence to create understanding of the new and complicated Nuclear Age. When Lilienthal showed Murrow his projected speech, he was surprised that Murrow urged him to make it even tougher. Murrow, with all his influence in his profession, felt so concerned about the climate and trends within broadcasting, and felt such limits on his own ability to do anything about them, that he had to turn to an outrider to get his own views aired. Later that same year, when Lilienthal was under attack for his political views and under heavy congressional pressure to resign, he met with Murrow again, and Murrow seemed in an unusually dark mood, talking about subtle, growing pressures against him in broadcasting. He told Liljenthaj that he did not think he could continue to broadcast much longer unless he injected more and more anticommunism in his commentaries. Though his contract at CBS was binding for several years to come, he was already talking to Lilienthal about what he was going to do next.

That television arrived simultaneously with the height of McCarthyism probably helped to narrow the parameters of journalistic freedom, but it was bound to happen anyway. Politically, television was simply too powerful a force, too fast, too immediate, with too large an audience, for the kind of easy journalistic freedom that radio and print reporters had enjoyed. Newspapers competed with each other for power and influence, but television was a virtual rival of the government. It was as if an unwritten law of American journalism had evolved, stating that the greater the institutional platform, and the more power it has to influence public opinion, the more carefully it must be used and the less it must wander from the accepted norms of American society. It is better to be a little wrong and a little late on a major sensitive story than it is to be too right too far ahead of the rest of the country. There were two reasons for this sensitivity. The first was timidity, a desire not to offend the audience's sensibilities, not to get too far ahead of the parade, plus an awareness of political pressures that grew in direct proportion to the success and influence of television. The second was more honorable, the perception that the medium was so powerful that personal journalism of any sort bordered on being dangerous, that no one journalist should be too powerful. So television journalism, far more than print or radio journalism, contemplated the political implications of every story it broadcast, considered what the reaction might be. A political figure could be damaged by a piece in a major newspaper, but a television report might destroy him. Television's important figures became prisoners of their power.

"If Walter Cronkite would say on television what he says on the radio," Lyndon Johnson, an inveterate radio listener, once said, "he would be the most powerful man in America." But for precisely that reason, by the time that Cronkite was Cronkite he could not say those things. Television was simply too powerful a force to permit him to do so. It moved people as radio never could, and reached a whole new mass of citizens who had never been readers. Even among those who had been readers it often had an unprecedented emotional impact. The people who controlled the networks knew this and were uneasy, and in some cases, terrified.

Television came into its own when government was just beginning to pressure broadcasting, and when the networks were beginning to sense the problems their news divisions could cause, For reporters, lowly men in a corporate structure, could nonetheless bring the entire network into unwanted confrontation with Washington. So the networks decided, consciously or unconsciously, to limit the autonomy of the network news show. The kind of freedom radio news had enjoyed would now have to be curtailed. A corporation with so much at stake would have to exert greater controls over its parts. At first Murrow escaped that problem because of his unique position within the company; but eventually even he, with his reserves of special status, found out one day that he had expended it and had become a liability to the corporation. How that happened, how the single greatest broadcaster of an age exhausted his welcome while still doing first-rate work, is a parable of the profession.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In