The Power and the Profits: Part II

The advent of the half hour news program made television the major source of news for many Americans and the only source for a dismayingly large number of them. This vested in broadcasters awesome responsibilities and a sense that they had ventured into a political minefield. In the first installment of his two part examination of the growth of broadcasting, television journalism, and the CBS network in particular, David Halberstam showed how the medium became both a shaper and a creature of politics, both a maker and a prisoner of public tastes. In this installment he tells how three Presidents influenced and were influenced by TV, how TV made Vietnam into an electronic war, and how, reluctantly, it dealt with the Watergate tragedy.
1. The 30-Minute National Séance: A New Kind of News
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"The Power and the Profits: Part I" (January 1976)
William Paley, CBS, and the story of how TV became both a shaper and creator of politics. By David Halberstam

By 1961 the people at CBS News knew they were at a threshold, about to make a breakthrough in technology that would at most surely mean a comparable jump in power and influence Men like Sig Mickelson, president of CBS News until 1959, and Dick Salant, who succeeded him, had been pushing for years for a half-hour news show. Now developments in technology promised to make it possible. They had been lobbying with CBS chairman William S. Paley and CBS president Frank Stanton for the longer show, drawing up plans to prove that they could fill the time if it was granted. They argued that film was getting faster, color was on its way, cameras were getting smaller, and the arrival of satellite stations meant that there could be live feeds from the far reaches of the country and the world, instant images from the other side of the earth. Doubling the amount of news-show time, from fifteen to thirty minutes was not without its problems in terms of pressures that CBS thereby brought upon itself. The rise in television’s influence was creating executive sensitivity to the implications of news.

In l952, the year television first covered the political conventions, Sig Mickelson, in charge of CBS television news coverage, went to Chicago and had a wonderful time and a free hand. Four years later everyone had come to understand how powerful television was and hands were not so free. Three corporate superiors sat with Mickelson  at the 1956 conventions: Stanton, the corporation’s top Washington lobbyist, and its chief lawyer. (Once Sander Vanocur, discussing the growth of timidity within NBC, said that there was always an invisible vice president in charge of fear.)

The old fifteen-minute "talking heads" news show was not so different from radio’s method of broadcasting. There was very little live film or real action. The half-hour show meant that there were bureaus to be opened, correspondents to be hired, and more time to be filled; and for politicians there was now a national platform in the form of the three network news shows. In some 20 million American homes, voters could tune in every night to the evening news, in what Daniel Schorr aptly called a national evening séance.

The selection of the anchorman for the new thirty-minute news show was crucial, for the an­chorman would determine the style, tone, and limits of the show. Therefore the anchorman had to be someone who had an intuitive feel for the political dangers ahead, and a sense of the minefield that te1evision journalism was becoming.

Mickelson had been looking for a replacement for Douglas Edwards as the anchorman of the fifteen-minute evening new as far back as the mid-fifties. Edwards was the anchorman in the very early days of television, when it was something of a stepchild and looked down on by the great radio giants, and he had done well in standing off John Cameron Swayze and the Camel News Caravan at NBC. But the rise of the Huntley-Brinkley news team on NBC in place of Swayze changed the balance. CBS executives feared that Edwards didn’t project the kind of weight that a modern television news program required. In the mid -fifties Mickel­son tried to replace Edwards with Charles Collingwood, for two reasons. Collingwood, talented, attractive, a graceful writer, an heir apparent to Ed Murrow (indeed, Murrow’s own choice as his successor), was the member of Murrow’s radio team who had made the smoothest transition from radio to television; second, Collingwood had been in London during World War II and had forged a personal friendship with Bill Paley, and was thus well thought of in executive reaches. But in those days sponsors were extremely powerful. One advertiser sponsored the entire show, and for their own reasons the Pall Mall people were not interested in switching from Doug Edwards to Charles Collingwood. The pressure at CBS to find a new anchorman grew as the importance of the news show grew, and as Huntley-Brinkley’s ratings at NBC mounted.

At the same time the range of the anchorman’s role was narrowing, much as Murrow’s role had narrowed. Murrow symbolized an era and form of radio commentary that was deemed unacceptable on television. The time for the new thirty-minute evening news show was going to come in part from time formerly allotted to documentaries of the sort Murrow had done.

Of the potential new CBS evening news anchormen, both Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid had by the late fifties run into problems in making the move from radio to television, and from being foreign correspondents to reporting on the nation. Both of them were broadcasting superstars, and their commentary was okay with CBS for a time, particularly when it was done from foreign countries. But Sevareid came home, and he was angering the brass with regular criticism of the rigidity of John Foster Dulles’ foreign policy. And Howard Smith, based now in Washington, was in constant trouble. There was a lot of blue-penciling of his copy; he was seen as even more of a problem than Sevareid. Part of the trouble, their friends thought, was the difference in style. Sevareid was a subtle, deft writer, and he had learned to make a point almost by implication, whereas Smith was more forceful, given to straight, declarative sentences, and there was no mistake about what he was saying or how he was saying it. Both Sevareid and Smith had wanted to meet with Bill Paley and talk about their problems. But Paley was not anxious for a meeting: to discuss the tightening laws was to admit they existed; to discuss the difference between the present and the past was to admit that there was a difference. Finally a meeting between Paley and Sevareid was arranged. It was not a success. Sevareid talked about how much more difficult it was to say anything, and about how much more editing there was. But Paley was adamant—he kept talking about the fairness doctrine. Sevareid talked about the need to lead: CBS had always been a leader. Paley talked about the dangers of being licensed. Sig Mickelson, sitting in on the meeting, had a feeling that Paley had decided not to hear a word Sevareid was saying, that all the decisions had been made.

The tensions between Smith and Paley were more explosive although the grievances were not very different. The atmosphere was tense. Blair Clark, who was the general manager of CBS News, pleaded with Smith not to force a confrontation; Clark knew that Paley was spoiling for a fight, and that there was a backlog of grievances against Smith. But Smith wanted the collision. He wrote out a brief statement on what commentary should be, and repeated that he was not doing anything now that he and Murrow and others had not done for years from overseas.

The meeting between Paley and Smith, with Salant, Stanton, and Clark present, was bitter. Paley told Smith that he obviously did not understand the rules of CBS, and Smith answered that Paley didn’t either, that they had no idea what CBS was and was not. Paley repeated that television was a licensed medium. As for the definition of commentary that Smith had drawn up, a definition which allowed the networks the same freedom of the press as newspapers—despite the licensing—Paley said he was tired of all this, he had heard it before, and he wanted no more of it. Smith would have to conform to CBS standards. Smith said he had no intention of doing banal commentary. Perhaps, said Paley, Smith ought to look elsewhere. That ended the meeting.

Smith thought he had been told to get another job; Salant told him that was not right, he was not supposed to leave the network. But a few minutes later Fred friendly called to say that Smith rather than Salant had understood the Chairman.

Smith immediately began serious negotiations with the archrival, NBC, and a major job seemed assured. It was virtually wrapped up, signed, and delivered, and his old friend Chet Huntley called to urge Smith to accept the NBC offer. But at the last minute the offer went cold. Bill McAndrew, the head of NBC News, called to apologize and say that the decision against him had been made at the highest level of NBC. Smith was convinced that the highest level of CBS had called the highest level of NBC to warn NBC against a troublesome, dissident correspondent. Shortly after, he left for ABC.

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