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.
14. Murrow vs. McCarthy: Fear and Trembling on the 20th Floor

Reporting the war from London was a magnificent time for Murrow. But the war was a story of such drama and urgency that it virtually told itself. Now, in 1951, doing his weekly See It Now documentaries, making people see what they did not necessarily want to see, bringing complicated questions into millions of homes, work was even more challenging. He was at his best, and in some ways the audience sensed that he was special, that he had more than good looks and a rich voice, that this was a man who could not let go, who experienced the pain he projected into their living rooms. He was at the peak of his powers, and if he was not exactly politically touchable, he was certainly less touchable than other mortals. But even Murrow was aware that he had to hold to the center, that he had to limit the number of controversial shows he could do, that he had to ration his powder in order to protect his influence, and that he had to work to make himself palatable to his public.

See It Now exemplified the best of television, restless and adventurous, probing into complicated social and political problems. But soon there appeared another face of Murrow, called Person to Person. His new show was more a part of the world of show business than of news and pubic affairs. It was less a question of technique than of substance, or rather lack of substance. "Higher Murrow" and "Lower Murrow," the critic John Lardner called the two shows. Person to Person was a celebrity hunt into the homes of the famous (and often fatuous; some interviewees were Rose Lee, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jayne Mansfield, Liberace, Lawrence Welk, Eddie Fisher and. Debbie Reynolds). Murrow, who was not necessarily a good interviewer, was matched with people who often had remarkably little to say. Celebrityhood, that status of being well known for being well known, did not always imply intelligence. The See It Now people began referring to the Person to Person people as "the buttonhole makers."

Joe Wershba, one of the most talented men on the See It Now team, remembered how incongruous it all seemed, the same Marrow who did these marvelous documentaries and who was broadcasting's best voice doing silly patter with instant stars. The first time Wershba heard of the new show seemed symbolic: Murrow was doing a show on Berlin and he was standing at the remains of the Reichstag with Howard K. Smith, and Smith was interviewing Ernst Reuter, the mayor of West Berlin. Murrow mentioned casually to Wershba that he was starting a new show with celebrities and that one of the first guests would be Lucille Ball…Wershba, who revered Murrow, looked and thought, the Reichstag, Ernst Keuter, Ed Murrow, Lucille Ball… Murrow was clearly embarrassed at it. His ambivalence never went away. At one point he wanted to put Andrew Heiskell, then the publisher of Life, on Person to Person. Some delicate negotiation ensued, because Heiskell was less than anxious to appear. Finally the public relations people were sure that they had Heiskell aboard, only to find at the last minute that Heiskell was adamant in his refusal. Why had Heiskell changed his mind? Well, it seems he had run into Murrow that night on the street and he had asked how Person to Person was going and Murrow had said, "I hate that damn show—it's so damn demeaning, but it really makes a lot of money."

He would mutter periodic excuses, such as that he had originally intended to bring a wide variety of uncelebrated Americans—blacks, Indians, laborers—to the show, but it had not quite worked out way. From time to time he said that he did it as a way of picking up a little change for Johnny and Jesse (Johnny Aron and Jesse Zousrner, his two writers). The truth was that he picked up a little change of his own. Paley bought the show from him for an estimated $1 million, a gesture that was generous but not entirely altruistic, since it gave Paley an extra hold on Murrow. "I gave Ed the only money he ever made," Paley said later. But Murrow's reason for doing Person to Person was more tactical than financial: it was a deliberate and conscious decision to broaden his base.

Before Person to Person he was a political commentator, increasingly controversial, frequently hitting raw nerves. This made him vulnerable to criticism, for his real constituency was increasingly among the elite at a time when his instrument was a mass instrument. Murrow was now on the defensive. Person to Person gave Murrow a "good guy" incarnation: it was noncontroversial, it built him up as a star and a celebrity, a celebrity who had a lot of friends, none of whom was controversial. Later he told friends that he had been able to withstand the storm that followed his Joe McCarthy broadcast in part because he had enjoyed so much popularity as a result of Person to Person. Naturally the two programs' staffs, bitter in their rivalries, were acutely aware of the contradictory nature of Murrow's broadcasting roles. The See It Now people hated the idea of their great man indulging in something as frivolous as Person to Person, and the Person staff worried about the risks their star took with the controversial See It Now shows. One morning, after the McCarthy show, when the Senator began to pressure Murrow, Johnny Aron charged into Joe Wershba's office and yelled, "See—you get in with shit, and you get shit on your hands."

The Murrow-McCarthy show was significant first because it took so long in coming, second because it loomed so large over what was clearly so low a landscape, and third because it caused such a storm. It would have been unforgivable for television and for a team with the reputation of the Murrow-Friendly group to fail to do a major documentary on McCarthy. It would have rendered television in general, and CBS and Murrow in particular, a joke. From the start, the real question raised by Joe McCarthy was not what he was—that was self-evident—but rather which journalists and networks would have the courage to say what he was. From the start he was reckless and shallow; the only thing real about him was the fear he generated. For he came on the scene at a volatile time, America blown overnight to great power status, the Soviets with atomic weapons. His was an essential challenge to freedom of speech, and an astonishing number of people were cowed, to a greater or lesser extent, into retreating before the demagogic challenge. This was true of print journalism and it was even more true of electronic journalism. If the center did not fold, it did not exactly hold, either. Murrow was a man of the center; he was the best of broadcasting. So it was natural that in 1952 and 1953 friends began to ask Murrow and Friendly when they were going to take on McCarthy. When? It was a very good question.

For a year before the McCarthy broadcast, the See It Now team had been told to start collecting film. No date for broadcasting the show had been set. Murrow's own failure to act was becoming an issue among journalistic colleagues. Yes, he had done some shows which touched on civil liberties, on people being pressured by forms of McCarthyism. But he had not gone after McCarthy himself. When the subject came up he answered yes, the show would be done, but he was searching for the right vehicle. When colleagues and friends were, as they often were, somewhat more insistent, and demanded that he go on and take the extraordinary forum of television and make an attack upon McCarthy, Murrow pulled back. No, he couldn't do that. It wouldn't do any good. He was aware of the problem, he said, and aware of the force of television, but it wouldn't do any good for him to simply go on television and make a speech against McCarthy. His friends were often not satisfied with his answer, and for that matter, neither was he. For he knew, better than most, that what a journalist chooses not to see is often as important as what he chooses to see.

In late February of 1954, Murrow and Friendly began to move ahead on the show. Those who knew him well believe that Murrow knew the Army was also going to attack McCarthy: he realized that he could delay no longer. Reports were circulating that McCarthy might go after Murrow; the Senator was already telling people that he had documents proving that Murrow was a communist. Murrow warned everyone on the staff what might lie ahead and asked if they had anything to hide, anything which might come out later and embarrass them. At the same time CBS's lawyers began to go through every aspect of Murrow's own past, in preparation for McCarthy's expected counterchallenge.

Murrow was uneasy about using television in what would inevitably be so personal a fashion. McCarthy had broken the rules of civilized political behavior; this meant that any journalist portraying him accurately would similarly have to break his own rules and built-in restrictions. When he finally decided on the vehicle for taking on McCarthy, it was a simple one. He would let McCarthy destroy McCarthy; "the terror," Murrow said, after screening some footage of the Senator "is in this room."

Murrow and Friendly kept the idea of their show a secret inside CBS as long as possible, on the assumption that the less the twentieth floor knew, the better. That was fine with the twentieth floor. Paley was not about to order Murrow not to do a McCarthy show, nor was he likely to order him to do one. But he was not eager to be associated with it, and he kept as much institutional distance as possible between the show and CBS. No, CBS would not advertise the program or allow the CBS logo "eye" to be used. So Murrow and Friendly bought their own ad and paid for it of their own pockets and signed it with their own names. No, Paley, when asked, did not want screen the show before it ran. Both Murrow and Paley knew what his reaction would be: Ed do we really have to do this? Paley did suggest that Murrow offer McCarthy equal time. Murrow had been thinking of that too, that it had the advantage when McCarthy demanded equal time, of not looking as if they were backing down. They also asked Sig Mickelson, nominal head of CBS News (in fact Murrow and Friendly were practically running a separate shop, which was known as Tobruck), if he wanted to look at it, but Mickelson declined. He had screened nothing else of theirs. So the most potent and sensitive television show of the decade went on the air without any screening by CBS superiors. A decade later it would be very different.

Just before the McCarthy show was to be broadcast, at 10:30 p.m., March 9, 1954, a call came through to Murrow from Paley: "Ed, I'm with you today, and I'll be with you tomorrow." A nice call. The show was very good. Long overdue and very good. Murrow examined McCarthy in the piercing light of the American tradition of civil liberties: "We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep, deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate with, and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. . . " It was a good show.

On its most important test it passed without a blemish—it caught McCarthy for what he was, not for what he said he was. Twenty years later, in an era when civil liberties were far stronger and there was far greater willingness to defend them, the McCarthy show could be aired without any apology or explanation.

15. The Profit Center vs Murrow: Bad News for the Department

After the show there was a nice phone call from Paley—Babe Paley, that is. She was Bill's proxy. Deniability had to be maintained in case the show or Murrow had to be sacrificed. Viewer reaction was intense, but McCarthy was already overstepping himself, not just against Murrow but against the Army, and finally against fellow Republicans. The tide was turning, and the Murrow show was part of the turning. Not everyone at CBS thought so. Some members of the board were furious, and put pressure on Paley to bring Murrow under control—was he an independent entity, some sovereign state, who could do what he wanted? The next day Friendly ran into Jack Van Volkenburg, president of the television network, and rode up in the elevator with him. He was the first member of management that Friendly had seen since the show, and as they rode up, they talked about the weather and their families, but they did not talk about Joseph R. McCarthy. A few days later Stanton called Friendly into his office, a rare occurrence in the best of circumstances. Stanton said nothing about the quality of the show, just about the problems and pressures it had created.

“A lot of people think you may have cost us the network,” Stanton began. He meant lawyers and people in Washington.

Friendly countered by mentioning the avalanche—about 100, 000—of supportive telegrams. Stanton took a sheaf of papers and showed them to Friendly: a special Roper Poll, which he had commissioned on the subject of Murrow and McCarthy. Not surprisingly, it showed that more people believed in McCarthy than in Murrow, and 33 percent of the population felt that Murrow a communist or a communist sympathizer. The parts of the poll which reflected anti-Murrow sentiments were all circled in orange crayon. Stanton asked Friendly what he thought of these statistics.

All the more reason to have done the show, Friendly said. Which ended the conversation. Friend1y went away as many others had, wondering whose voice he had just listened to. Was it Stanton speaking for Stanton? Or was it Stanton speaking for Paley, somehow passing the word, as it is often passed in broadcasting, to let Friendly know that there were limits to his power?

Both before and after the McCarthy show, Bill Paley stayed as far away from Murrow as possible. Those working on the programs had a sense of his distance. But years later Bill Paley liked to recall those days, and as they were recreated in his mind.  He saw one big trench, and standing alone in it were Bill Paley and Ed Murrow, shoulder to shoulder. Biting the same bullet. As he reminisced like this, he often wondered why people did not give him more credit for his part in the show.

“I’m with you today, and I'll be with you tomorrow." A nice line. A lovely ring of abiding loyalty and sustenance and faith. But the McCarthy show, and several other incidents, proved to Paley that See It Now and Murrow were a potential liability (if not already a liability) to the network. CBS could not grant so much autonomy to so reckless a journalist. (Years later Paley spoke to this reporter about Murrow and journalists. Oh yes, Murrow was a great fellow, a great journalist. No, it was not true that it had ended badly between them. He had letters to prove what good friends they were. Though of course Murrow had a brooding sense of life. Very difficult, dark fellow. Always taking too many risks in the war. Then confronted with evidence of growing separation between the two of them, Paley offered a small lecture on journalists: they were all alike. They claimed to be objective, but none of them really were. They all wanted to make personal comments. He had to fight with even the best of them, like Murrow.)

For the amount of prestige Murrow brought CBS was less important now. CBS was established, there was too much to risk, and there were too many complaints about Murrow and his colleagues from Paley's peers.

Paley was an out-and-out Republican now, an avowed Eisenhower man. (Sig Mickelson had heard from friends how close Paley was to the Eisenhower entourage, but the first tangible evidence came in 1952, when Ike returned home to Abilene to make his presidential announcement. Paley had suggested rather casually to Mickelson that this was something CBS News might want to cover live on television. In those days television facilities were primitive, and a live feed from Abilene would have required running a cable out of Chicago at a cost of thousands of dollars. Mickelson explained to the Chairman that it was much too expensive, but Paley waved aside his doubts—Michelson was to take care of the arrangements, Paley would have AT&T take care of the cable. Cost was never again mentioned, and for the first time Michelson realized how close Paley was to Eisenhower.) His best friends were people like Walter Thayer and Jock Whitney; he badly wanted to become Ambassador to the Court of St. James's; and when his reporters made the Administration angry they were making his closest friends angry.

The problem was not that Murrow's autonomy was growing; indeed, if anything, it was the same or less than it had been. The problem was that television was richer and more powerful, influencing more and more minds. In January, 1950, only 3.2 million Americans owned television sets. A decade later the figure was 50 million. In. January, 1952, for the first time, according to Nielsen, more television sets than radios were being turned on between 9 P.M. and midnight; and in 1954, the same year that Murrow took on McCarthy, television's gross billings, jumped 50 percent over the previous year's, making CBS-TV the biggest single advertising medium in the world. Net income, which for two decades had averaged about $4 or $5 million a year, suddenly was increasingly by 25 and 30 percent to a total of $11.4 million in 1954. The candy store was becoming bigger and bigger.

In exercising his prerogatives, Murrow guaranteed that neither he nor anyone else would ever again have that much freedom or autonomy, that never again would there be a broadcasting personality with a following so great that he could, by walking out, damage the network. The network would henceforth control its reporters, writers, and producers, their shows, programming hours, and, to a considerable degree, their subjects.

Systematically, CBS began to bring Ed Murrow under control. First they limited the number of his shows; then they switched the hour when the shows were aired; then they changed the name of the program; and finally, they took it away from Murrow and separated him from his producer, Fred Friendly. This was all done deftly, perhaps not even consciously. The intrusions were small, never enough to force Murrow to stomp out with a resignation. Within four years of its moment of triumph, See It Now was dead, and in six years Murrow himself was gone from CBS.

In the wake of the McCarthy program Murrow had sponsor problems, and this made him more vulnerable to the corporation. He had long been sponsored by Alcoa, a company at some distance from conventional marketplace pressure. Alcoa had remained loyal, despite grumbling by some of its board members. It had given Murrow complete editorial freedom, which meant that he was not dependent upon the network for license to do as be wished. But the McCarthy show and a program sympathetic to nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had caused the rumbling to mount become more direct. At the end of the 1955 spring schedule, Alcoa decided not to renew.

At almost the same time, TV quiz shows were rising to popularity. Not the "$64 question" of the old radio days; no, in superrich America in its supercentury, it was time for The $64,000 Question. Murrow, watching the first run of The $64,000 Question, was disturbed. The hucksterism of the network had always frightened him. At the end of the first run, he turned to Friendly and asked "Any bets on how much longer we'll keep this time period?"

Not very long. Soon after the final See It Now show of 1954-1955, Murrow and Friendly were summoned to Paley's office. The Chairman admired their work and was generous in praise of it. He wondered, however, if it wasn't too confining: coming up every week (in a regular segment prime time, something he neglected to mention). Wouldn't eight one-hour shows a year be better? Wouldn't this be more satisfying? Murrow, wise to these games, asked at what hour they would be shown. Paley said at eight. Murrow asked if he couldn't continue the half-hour show. Paley, who has a particular talent for saying no without using the actual word, made it clear that no more regular half hours were available. The schedule was tightening at the expense of public affairs. More important and more profitable programs had to be shown.

The loss of the time slot was not the only setback for Murrow. To go to a full hour would change the balance of the show and would cost Murrow and Friendly heavily in terms spontaneity, and, in subtle ways, of autonomy. For, with an hour-long slot and perhaps without a regular sponsor, Murrow's shows would have to be scheduled far in advance, and decided upon in consultation with others in the company. No more could they just do whatever they wanted and broadcast it at their hour. Management was taking over the show.

The problems mounted. General Motors offered to sponser six of the eight, then reneged when they were told that one of the shows was to be on the vice presidency. GM suspected that this would end up as an attack on then Vice President Richard Nixon. One of the documentaries focused on the farm problem, and it starred the Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson. The Republicans decided that damage had been done to him, and asked for equal time (hardly expecting to be granted it). Murrow protested, but CBS gave the Republicans the time anyway. Murrow came very close to resigning. The 1956-1957 schedule accommodated another eight See It Now shows, but they had been moved to Sunday at 5 o'clock, no longer in good, if fluctuating, evening hours. Shows which Murrow considered important, programs on Tito and Chou En-lai, were followed by panel discussions, an attempt to dilute the effect of what had just been presented. Murrow felt humiliations mounting, his influence waning.

The final indignity for Murrow involved a program which he considered one of the least important of 1958, a minor, presumably noncontroversial show on statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. It was what is known in the business as a "soft show." It balanced spokesman, some for and some against statehood. One of the proponents of statehood, the leader Harry Bridges, was asked about a statement by a congressman from upstate New York, named John Pillion, that Bridges would control the Hawaiian delegation. Bridges answered that Pillion was crazy. Pillion, not that crazy, demanded equal time. CBS caved, in. (One weakness in the whole format of television programming was a lack of flexibility. Television had no equivalent newspaper's Letters to the Editor column, where minor disputes could be aired and then forgotten. The networks were in the position of having to grant a full hour or nothing.)

The decision was straight Paley; Sig Mickelson had argued against it and had mentioned the implication: that it might drive Murrow from the network. Paley was unmoved. The only possible explanation for Paley's adamancy was that he was to see Murrow go. Murrow was shocked. The equal time decision had been made without any consultation with him, and it was clearly a surrender to the most petty kind of political pressure, and would only bring on more political pressure.

Murrow wrote a strong letter to Paley, saying that the decision to put Pillion on without consulting him had undermined his relationship with the company and put the future of See It Now in doubt. It was precisely the letter Paley wanted and expected. A few days later Paley met with Murrow and Friendly. Murrow said that the situation had become untenable and that he or Friendly had to share in the decisions on who was to get equal time to respond to See It Now. "But," said Paley, "I thought you and Fred didn't want to do See It Now anymore."

Murrow argued that he wanted to talk about the equal time regulations — of course he wanted the program to continue.

"I thought we had already decided about See It Now," said Paley. With that both Friendly and Murrow knew: See It Now had closed for the duration.

For Murrow it was his most painful moment at CBS: the end of the TV program about which he cared most deeply.

“Are you really going to destroy all this?" he asked Paley. It was, he pointed out, the most remarkable achievement in electronic journalism.

Paley said yes, he was, he could not stand the constant stomach ache it was giving him; the pain was killing him.

"It goes with the job," Murrow answered. And that was it.

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