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.
7. The Chairman Transforms Broadcasting and Joins the Beautiful People

Photos of the young Bill Paley have an almost electric quality; he seems to project an avidity for life, an excitement about what he is and what he will be. What luck that his own coming of age, his own manhood, should dovetail perfectly with the birth and coming of age of such a great new force as a radio network.

Sam Paley had made a fortune at the Congress Cigar Company: Sam Paley, who had started by rolling his own after his immigrant father had wasted away his fortune. At the depths of the Depression, Sam Paley sold the Congress Cigar Company for some $30 million. But before he did, he made his son apprentice at every level of the business. When, in 1928, the chance came for Bill to acquire the CBS network, Sam immediately put up an estimated $400,000 for his son, shrewdly believing that the broadcast bubble would either burst quickly or develop into something very big, in which case it would be marvelous and very liberating for his son.

Bill Paley's background was business. He had gone to the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania. As a young man, he had become interested in radio while doing advertising for the Congress Cigar Company. His father and uncle Jake were away one summer, and for $50 a week he put Miss LaPalina and a ten-piece orchestra on a local station. When Jake Paley returned from vacation he was furious with the expenditure and canceled the show. A few weeks later Sam Paley was musing that, though the company had spent half a million on print advertising, but never got any playback, now everyone wanted to know what had happened to the LaPalina Hour. So the Paleys returned to radio, sales went up dramatically, and Bill Paley learned that for certain products, radio offered a greater potential than print advertising.

From the outset Paley transformed network broadcasting. One of his first and shrewdest moves was to make the network as attractive as possible to affiliate stations, knowing that the bigger the audience, the more leverage he would eventually have with advertising. So where NBC, the more secure and established of the networks, was selling weaker shows to affiliates, Paley devised an ingenious formula to make his unsponsored shows free to affiliates—as many as ten or twelve hours a day. All he asked in return was the right to option a certain amount of time for sponsored network shows; this allowed him to sign a contract with a sponsor knowing the affiliates would clear the time.

There was something in this for everyone—it was the height of the Depression, and frail local stations were suddenly getting free entertainment; similarly, it was increasing Paley's audience and centralizing broadcasting power in New York. Within a year the number of CBS affiliates had more than doubled. No wonder, then, that CBS blossomed under his leadership: gross earnings went from $1.4 million in 1928 to $4.7. million in 1929 and $28.7 million by 1937, and the number of affiliate stations went from 16 to 114 in the first decade of his leadership.

A revolution was taking place in communication and advertising, and young Bill Paley was at the center of it. He seemed perfectly designed for his new role—tall, handsome, always seen with good-looking women on his arm. He was something of a ladies' man, and a man to savor, to enjoy life. A man of the world. All things would soon be possible for Bill Paley despite his Russian-Jewish origins. (This was and is a point of some sensitivity. When a recent book about CBS by reporter Robert Metz described Paley as a Russian Jew, Paley's PR man, Kidder Meade, sent out a letter to book reviewers purporting to correct factual inaccuracies in the book and noting, among other things that Paley was not a Russian Jew—which, in the pecking order of the American Jewish community, was not as good as being a German Jew—he was an American Jew.)

He was not, then, of New York's Jewish aristocracy. The smell of cigars was still on his money, a problem of which he was acutely aware. He was at once proud of his background and yet intensely sensitive about it. It could even warp his sense of entertainment. His aides had gotten an early option on Fiddler on the Roof, which they were sure would be a smash success. They were surprised when Paley, after reading the script and listening to the music, turned it down. To one assistant he said that it seemed good, but wasn't it too Jewish? He told another friend, "I couldn't do it—it's the story of my own family."

If, as a young man, he was blocked from the staid and somewhat stuffy world of "Our Crowd," he quickly moved into what was then known as Cafe Society. What Paley became a part of evolved into the Beautiful People—the powerful, the successful, the rich, the glamorous, the celebrated, and their attendants. Eventually they outstripped and engulfed traditional Society. In 1932 Paley married Dorothy Hart Hearst, who had recently been divorced from John Randolph Hearst. She had been one of the most beautiful girls in Los Angeles, bright, vivacious, quick, a favorite of old W. R. himself. The home she created for Bill Paley was an exciting place, a center for people like the David Selznicks, Bernard Baruch's confidant Herbert Bayard Swope, and some of FDR's braintrusters: people who were involved in the issues of the day and were successful. Those who knew Bill and Dorothy liked the idea of their being together, not just because they looked so attractive, but because their friends sensed that Dorothy was a good influence on Bill, somewhat more political than he, and something of a conscience for him. She was, friends thought, a woman with a strong ethical sense, and they often heard the word "principle" coming from her. But there was also, they thought, a certain tendency to show that she was smarter than Bill, and on occasion a tendency to correct him. Bill Paley, friends noted, did not seem to be a man who wanted to be corrected by his wife. Even so, in the thirties they were a handsome couple, and he was beginning to be known as a major business figure though his company was still more successful than prestigious. A new dimension of status, however, was soon to arrive; the world was about to go to war, and World War II enlarged both the role of modern communications and the importance of Bill Paley.

8. Enter Ed Murrow, an Innately Elegant Man in an Innately Inelegant Profession

In 1937 a job opened up for a head of CBS European division. It was, in effect, a business job, involving scheduling prominent Europeans for CBS broadcasts. It was not a journalistic job at the start. For a time it appeared likely to go to a young man named Fred Willis, who was charming, sociable, and graceful. A colleague asked Willis about the rumor, since the job was considered something of a plum. No, answered Willis, he had thought it over, but he wanted a real future at the company, and the one thing he was sure of was that you should never be that far from headquarters. So the job went instead to Edward R. Murrow.

Murrow. The right man in the right place in the right era. An innately elegant man in an innately inelegant profession. A rare figure, as good as his legend. His presence was so strong that it still 1ives. In many ways, because he was what he was, CBS News is today what it is. He was shy and often withdrawn in personal conversation, but totally controlled and brilliant as a communicator. His voice was steeped in civility, intelligence, and compassion. He was a man who, much as Lindberg did, spanned the oceans and shortened distance and heightened time. He helped make radio respectable as a serious journalistic profession, and more than a decade later, simply by going over to television, had a good deal to do with making that journalistically legitimate too. He was, in a way, more an educator than a journalist. His own career and the technological revolution he was part of helped mark America's transformation from a post-Depression isolationist nation to a major international superpower. His very voice bridged the ocean, brought Europe (and thus potentially threatening alien powers) closer, and made its presence more immediate and more complicated. He helped educate the nation in the process of entering the larger world. He also helped inaugurate an era in which the very speed of communication became a form of power.

His was a unique coming. No other broadcast journalist has ever accumulated the prestige that Murrow enjoyed both inside and outside the company. There were many reasons for this. For one thing, radio broadcasting was so embryonic that while Murrow was proving to be so good and the story proving to be so important, his employers had not yet developed the sort of complicated internal checks that might keep him down or limit him. Quite the reverse. As his comet ascended, so did that of CBS. The network was the direct beneficiary of his excellence, so there was little desire to restrain him, or to set narrow limits of objectivity. He was reporting on the survival of the English-speaking peoples, on the democracies versus the Nazis. Britain's finest hour also became his and American radio's finest hour.

In less heroic and more dubious wars (Korea and Vietnam come to mind), where American survival was not at stake, no American commentator made a similar reputation. And, in Vietnam, those correspondents who did make considerable reputations also became controversial, respected by some of the elite and by their peers, but loathed by the government, and often something of an embarrassment to their own companies. Murrow was an ornament to management. His role and the nature of the war allowed him to accumulate enormous capital both within the company and within the profession. His subsequent and hardly hasty decision to expend some of that capital and to be a comparably tough-minded correspondent on the domestic scene created tension and quickly marked the parameters of freedom within broadcasting in the 1950s. He was the same Murrow with the same high standards, but year after year he became less and less of a corporate asset.

Murrow was not a trained journalist, and this was an advantage, because there is a great difference between the words and rhythms of print journalism and the words and rhythms of spoken English. That being the case, he had nothing to unlearn. The spoken word is colloquial; print journalism, when read aloud, is stilted and forced, deprived of its natural balance. Murrow was descended from southerners who had moved to Far West, and his family retained a sense of fashioned High English, an almost poetic language which is fast disappearing from the land. Words were important by themselves. As a young man he had worked as a logger among tough lumbermen of the Northwest, and this rough company not only expedited the changing of his name from Egbert to Edward, but gave him an appreciation the intelligence and shrewdness of ordinary people and how to talk to them. Later he studied drama and voice with some excellent teachers at Washington State University, and this honed his sense of timing and rhythm. One speech teacher in particular, Ida Lou Anderson, had sensed his potential, later, when Murrow was in London, she suggested the pause in his "This. . .is London" trademark. Unlike most correspondents, he knew that pauses and the absence of words could be as important as the words themselves. He had just the right touch, enough drama in his voice to make what he was saying unusually effective, but not so much as to sound like a phony or a ham. His was a natural sense of the drama of his medium. Once, during the Blitz, Murrow held a microphone on the sidewalk during severe German bombing in order to convey the sound of what he was describing—the order and calm with which the British walked to their bomb shelters.

He was not an intellectual; many of the men hired—Sevareid, Kendrick, Smith, Schoenbrun—were far more cerebral than he. But he was an excellent communicator; he had the ability to take something that was happening in one part of the world and make it comprehensible and significant to people living thousands of miles away. His talents were special but were not necessarily those of a brilliant man, for brilliant men often end up talking only to themselves. Rooted as he was the middle class, Murrow could understand the complicated pressures of a shrinking world. Again and again he taught younger reporters at CBS to try to envision their friends back home, try to picture themselves standing at the bar or some other local hangout and, over one or two drinks, explaining what they had seen that day. His passion was not for the scoop but for intelligence, for the audience to understand what was going on in the world. That was the educator in him. A changing map of Europe and Asia had to he explained to the average citizen.

His first job at the network was running its educational service, a job in which, among other things, he helped bring European intellectuals to America. To Murrow, education was a paramount purpose of news reporting. In 1945, after the war was over, he had been impressed with the knowledgeability of a bright young interpreter at Eisenhower's headquarters named David Schoenbrun. Murrow asked Schoenbrun What he planned to do when the war was over. Schoenbrun said he hoped to go back to teaching high school French. Murrow paused for a moment. "Kid," he asked, 'how would you like the biggest classroom in the world?"

Murrow went to Europe as CBS European director in 1937. Early in 1938 came Hitler's Anschluss, the take-over of Austria. CBS sent Murrow as a businessman, not as a broadcaster, but he was quickly caught up in events. The best American journalists were then in Europe—John Gunther, Bill Shirer. H. R. Knickerbocker, Jimmy Shecan, Dorothy Thompson. Murrow was inevitably drawn into their company. When Hitler moved into Austria, Murrow became a journalist overnight. Life itself was speeding up. The speed and totality with which Hitler came to power had been accelerated by science and technology and radio. Even the word for the kind of war Hitler employed, Blitzkrieg, implied an awesome swiftness against which the French Maginot Line could not stand. A man with radio at his disposal could report back with special immediacy to his own country, thousands of miles away: and he could reach a mass audience.

In 1938 America watched and waited on events in Europe, and millions of Americans watched and waited with Ed Murrow. In the first major magazine piece written about Murrow, a perceptive article in Scribners magazine in December, 1938, a young writer named Robert Landsy sensed the coming of a new journalistic order.

He [Murrow] has more influence upon America's reaction to foreign news than a shipful of newspapermen. This influence has not been generally recognized for the reason that newspaper correspondents have tradition on their side, and partly because the networks have played up their commentators rather than their correspondents [like Murrow]. But the influence is there, great and growing—and obvious to anyone who knows both radio and the press. Murrow has three advantages over correspondents for the greatest America newspapers: 1. He beats the newspapers by hours. 2. He reaches millions who otherwise have to depend on provincial newspapers for their foreign news. 3. He writes his own headlines. That is to say he emphasizes what he wishes—whereas the newspaper correspondent writes in cablese—then has his copy edited, maybe rewritten and then pub1ished under a bank of headlines in which he has no say.
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