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.
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16. The Murrow Era is Being Canceled In Order to Bring You...

For Murrow, this latest in a series of concessions to politicians, was a dark omen, and he became obsessed by the trend. The more CBS gave in to politicians, he told both his superiors and his friends, the more the politicians would demand and the more the pressures against the network would build, at the price of the internal integrity of the news department. Eventually, he predicted, two things would happen: the network would treat fewer and fewer controversial subjects, anticipating in advance the complaints against them; and second, it would gradually deal with public affairs in a way that would not disturb existing authority. In both instincts he was prophetic. What particularly disturbed him was how little say the news department now had in making decisions. Instead of traditional definitions of journalistic fairness being the test, the norms were being set by people sensitive to both the government and the marketplace. The company wanted to keep peace even if in journalistic terms this meant backing down; it was now more sensitive to outside pressures than to its own people. The only hope for survival of television news at its best, he insisted, was a rigid adherence to policies of journalistic fairness and excellence which would, in the long run, build genuine public support, and thus scare off marauding politicians.

The days when Paley might have listened to him, however, were past. Now Murrow watched himself slowly being shunted aside at CBS. He was too proud to complain outright, but gradually he began to change, to become more depressed. Once, around 1958, Charles Collingwood, who was closer to him than anyone else at CBS, told Murrow that he was caught in a dilemma, a choice between doing a show or going on a much needed vacation.

"I'd go on the vacation," Murrow said.

Collingwood mentioned that he rather wanted to do this particular program.

"It doesn't make any difference," Murrow answered. "You're only important around here as long as you're useful to them, and you will be for a time. When they're finished they'll throw you out without another thought." It was a side of him Collingwood had never seen before.

At the 1960 Democratic convention, CBS programmers had reduced Murrow's role to a pitiful degree. At one point during the convention he had a story which they kept scheduling and then canceling; he became more and more morose. Finally he came back to a room which the correspondents used as a base and grabbed two of his colleagues. "Let's go get a drink," he said. "Things have come to a pretty damn point when you can't even get on the air at a convention."

In October, 1958, Murrow went before a meeting of radio and television news directors in Chicago and said: ". . . and if there are any historians a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will find recorded, in black and white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from realities of the world in which we live . . . . If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge and retribution will [catch] up with us." Paley was furious: Murrow had betrayed him, had fouled his own nest. Ed Murrow had betrayed the man who, in Bill Paley's view at least, had made him rich and famous.

The corporation would pay him back. Stanton addressing the same convention a year later, promised, in the wake of the quiz show scandals, tight restrictions on all shows. No more rigging. No newspaper picked up the story. So CBS gave a friendly hint. A PR man called Jack Gould at the Times and deliberately tipped him, all shows. That means Murrow and Person to Person too. So, if Murrow could attack the corporation, then the corporation could slap down Murrow, deliberately diminishing his reputation. Murrow, of course, was furious; he issued a statement to the Times saying that Stanton had finally revealed his ignorance of all news matters. It was quite a day for CBS and its image—two of the foremost figures of the company arguing their disputes out on the front page of the Times. Ralph Cohn went to Murrow with orders from Paley to make Murrow apologize or resign. He would do neither.

The quiz scandals provoked one of those periodic bursts of network good intentions to do more in the public interest. In March 1959, Stanton promised that CBS would sponsor regular one-hour documentaries in prime time once a month. Then biweekly. Then perhaps once a week. He was describing a documentary series suspiciously like See It Now. But without Murrow.

Then the corporate genius showed. In the Murrow-Friendly team it was Murrow’s name that was special, Murrow whom they feared. CBS knew that Friendly was ambitious, delighted to be associated with Murrow but eager for a reputation of his own. Paley and Stanton knew that with everyone in CBS News desperate for air time, it would be impossible for either Murrow or Friendly to say no to any major offer of time. So Paley and Stanton made Friendly an offer he could not refuse. He was called into Sig Mickelson’s  office and asked to do a monthly documentary. Friendly was surprised. He wondered whether it had been cleared with the twentieth floor. Mickelson made clear that it had been, that this was what the twentieth floor wanted. Was the offer made to the Murrow-Friendly team? Friendly wondered. No, answered Mickelson, but Murrow was going on sabbatical anyway. Murrow certainly would be the reporter on some shows, but other correspondents would be used. So the predictable happened. Murrow encouraged Friendly to take the job—the offer was simply too good, the time too precious. Friendly had been the best documentary producer at CBS. If someone else took the assignment and failed, it might be bad for television journalism.

See It Now became CBS Reports. (Once Stanton and Paley were searching for a name for the show and asked Murrow what to call it. "How about See It Now With Ed Murrow," he answered sardonically.) With remarkable ease Murrow was split from Friendly, the air time went to Friendly, who seemed in no way a corporate threat, and Murrow was separated from any regular or direct access to television air time. Murrow was now an honored name, but a name without a voice. That was exactly what the corporation wanted.

Murrow returned from his sabbatical with his future at CBS very much in doubt. If he was an ornament to his profession, his superiors deemed him increasingly too risky a one. Sig Mickelson negotiated renewal of his contract, and came up with a figure acceptable to both himself and Murrow, but after months and months of querying, he could never get a response from management. The situation was ominous. Murrow himself had little taste for this fight. He was tired now, eroded physically and spiritually, and depressed about his own profession. He saw it becoming more and more a vehicle for manipulation rather than a vehicle for strengthening the parameters of vision. All those years of smoking, all that nervous energy and tension had taken their toll. Those cigarettes and those late-night drinks were depressants, not stimulants, and now he was worn out.

Fortunately for Murrow, whose contract was still unsettled in 1960, John Kennedy was elected President and Ed Murrow was offered the job of running the USIA. The job offer by Kennedy, said Murrow's wife, Janet, years later, “was a brilliant and timely gift." When the Kennedy offer finally came through, Murrow was ready. A man who just twelve years earlier had been supreme in his profession, who had received an under-the-table offer from NBC asking him to write out whatever figure he wanted, just name the price, was now almost unemployable in broadcasting. The day the news came from Washington, he was taping a radio show called Background. Now Murrow wanted out, totally out, and as quickly as possible. He turned to his colleague Blair Clark and asked if Clark would fill in and anchor the program. Clark said he would, and asked Murrow what he should tell their listeners to explain Murrow's absence. Murrow answered, with cold suppressed fury, "Tell them I've gone to serve my country."

On April 27, 1965, Ed Murrow died of lung cancer. He had suffered a long and painful and exhausting illness. That night CBS, under the direction of the man who was now head of news, Fred Friendly, broadcast a memorial program "to the most distinguished commentator in our history." It was made up of tapes from his television broadcasts, and voice-over from his radio days, accompanied by still photos. It was powerful and moving, not least because those friends of his who happened to narrate it—Sevareid and Collingwood—had the best voices in broadcasting. The afternoon before it was aired, Friendly received a phone call from one of Paley's PR people.

Is anyone going to speak for the company? the PR man inquired.

Friendly answered that he didn't know what that meant. This was a show, he said, about Ed Murrow, who had worked for CBS.

Are you going to be on? the PR man asked.

No, said Friendly, it was going to be very simple. Murrow and some of his boys.

What do you think, said the PR man, of the idea of the Chairman going on for two minutes?

Oh, said Friendly, slightly taken aback, do you think he really wants to?

Yes, said the PR man, I'm very sure he'd like to.

So on the occasion of the death of Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, who had done so much to make him and almost as much to break him, and who wanted to be sure that the company got credit for Murrow, went on the air to say that Ed Murrow had symbolized the golden age of broadcasting, and that there would soon be another golden age.

In 1973, as the Watergate scandals unfolded, Janet Murrow watched television news regularly. She often felt frustrated by the lack of commentary. Of the varying commentators, she thought that Bill Moyers most resembled Ed. But he was not on the networks; he was on public television. Her son, Casey Murrow, lived in Vermont and taught school. He did not own a television set.

See the second installment of this article from the February 1976 issue.


*A BBD&O study for a typical year. 1970-1971. NBC in the same study was listed at 2 percent for information and news, and ABC at nothing at all.

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