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.
5. No Mogul Is an Is1and. Or Is He?

Moguls are not all alike. Hollywood moguls make a lot of money and have a kind of limited power, power over writers and producers and actresses. Moguls like Henry Ford dominate a certain vital industry and thus, by their skills or lack thereof, affect the entire national economy. But the power they generate and the influence they wield, has definable limits. A media mogul is different. Media businesses are often family owned, which often means that no limit is set on the mogul's term of office. The money is big, but more important, a media barony brings great respectability and legitimacy as well as political and cultural influence. They may or may not be able to make or break careers, fads, or trends, but if people think they can, that is the next best thing. If they do not make particularly good friends, they are nonetheless formidable enemies.

So it was for Bill Paley. He controlled just about every aspect of his own life; he saw no one he did not want to see; he tended to almost no business that he did not enjoy. He lived life on his terms, and it should not be surprising that he exuded a sense of confidence and vitality. "He looks marvelous,” a young woman once said to Truman Capote at a dinner party, "look at all that energy and vitality." "Yes," said Capote, "he looks like man who has just swallowed an entire human being." Very little that was unflattering was written about him, because the great figures of the media treat each other with great respect.

The one thing he could not beat was old age and that fascinated him. He sought reassurances about it (he had an exploratory operation for cancer which the doctors were reluctant to undertake but which he was convinced he needed; the results were negative). He surrounded himself with younger people, and he worked hard at keeping slim. He monitored all doctors carefully. He once called the CBS programming department to complain about a doctor being portrayed on a series that season, claiming that the doctor was too young, that people wouldn't trust a doctor that youthful, and that he, Bill Paley, would not let a young man like that touch him.

He did not in general like young men who crowded older men. It was one of the rare areas where his neuroses interfered with his instinct for programming. In 1959 CBS was showing a program called Rawhide which featured a prototype cowboy hero, played by Eric Fleming, and his sidekick, played by a then unknown younger actor named Clint Eastwood. Eastwood projected great force, and he gradually began to take the show away from Fleming. It was not a deliberate thing; he was simply too powerful for Fleming, and gradually the writers sensed it and began to play to and to write a little more for him. Under normal conditions this would have delighted Paley. With his killer instinct he would have sensed the presence of a great new star and he would have encouraged the emphasis on Eastwood. Not this time. The producers of the show began to notice something unusual in the chairman, a wish to go against the natural (and successful.) flow of the show. He began to call up and complain about Eastwood, the young cowboy threatening the older cowboy. It's not fair, Paley would complain, it's not his show. It belongs to the other fellow. You've got to stop that kid from stealing the show. So the producers went to great efforts to rebalance the program and place Eastwood under greater restraint. It was not Eric Fleming that Clint Eastwood threatened, but William S. Paley.

Sometimes it is a young man's world and sometimes it is not. The mood can vary: in 1969 Paley decided to move aside a man Tom Dawson, who was then president of the television network, trim and athletic at fifty-five. Paley called him in to let him have the news; he was in a pleasant mood, he liked Dawson, and knew Dawson would understand. "Tom, we hate to lose you, but this is a young man's world and we've got to let the young people have their day. It's a young man's world." He said it so charmingly that for a moment it seemed that Dawson was seventy years old and Paley fifty-five. Then Dawson answered, "You're absolutely right, Mr. Chairman, and besides, it's your candy store." But there was something about the combination of age, isolation, and financial success that made Paley increasingly out of touch with some changing realities. He had been a liberal as a young man, and his first wife, an ardent New Dealer, had affected his politics. He still liked to think of himself as a liberal, though the truth was he had become a conservative man. With an enormous corporation to protect, and with personal wealth estimated somewhere between $100 and $150 million, he had great vested interest in the status quo. Consciously and unconsciously he had erected barriers which isolated him; he was vulnerable only to who were very powerful, such as Presidents and key senators. If the Nixon people had complaints about CBS, he once told Chuck Colson, they were just to call him personally. For years he had been kept from making mistakes by those around him at CBS, most notably by Frank Stanton. If Stanton had still been there, some believe, CBS would not have flip-flopped on the issue of analysis of presidential speeches and news conferences.

It is not unusual for a man who has gotten older and richer to become more conservative and begin lose his touch. But in Paley's mind he was not old, he was still very much in charge, still the youthful, liberal Bill Paley fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness. In the summer of 197l, while he was still president of the Museum Modern Art, a number of people there thought it was exceptionally lucky that Paley was out of the country when a strike by museum employees took place. The employees, people who work in a showcase for the rich, were badly underpaid, and the strike was tense and passionate. By the time Paley returned, the strike had been settled, but the first thing he did was look at the agreement and demand that the clause giving health benefits to the workers be stricken. These were benefits, by the MOMA's lawyers' own admission, that should have been granted five or ten years earlier, But Paley was adamant. "I don't care how you do it, but get those health benefits out of the contract."

John Hightower, the museum's director, was appalled; it was basic to the agreement, basic to the kind of protection that, for example, CBS employees had long enjoyed, and basic to common decency. Hightower, with the help of a lawyer, maneuvered around Paley and the agreement stood as did some of the tension and unpleasantness surrounding the affair. A few weeks later Paley was at a museum opening when he spied Hightower's attractive young wife, Caroline. He sidled over to her, and though normally she was very fond of him—the energy and charm still worked—this time she almost involuntarily withdrew from him. "You know," he said, sensing the reason for her pulling back, "sometimes I get the feeling John doesn't think I’m a liberal."

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