Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

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.
10. The Better Late Than Never Show is Abruptly Canceled, and Fred Friendly Takes a Walk

At CBS, the decisions about televising the hearings were a running struggle. There were the familiar cost factor and the familiar fear factor. CBS ran three minutes of Rusk’s testimony the first day, which was long for the evening news show but not exactly extensive coverage of a historic high-noon confrontation between the Secretary of State and serious senatorial critics of a war that would come to be the most important issue of the decade. NBC had run five minutes. Fred Friendly, then president of CBS News, looking at the good Rusk-Morse, Rusk-Fulbright exchanges that CBS was not showing the American people asked Bill Small, his Washington bureau chief, if the committee would let in cameras. Small said of course they would, but there was no way CBS would cover it live. Perhaps not so in this case, Friendly said; he was the legatee of Murrow, and he knew, whatever else, that as CBS had been judged in the past on how it covered great events, it was now going to be judged on how it covered Vietnam. The witness after Rusk was to be David Bell, the head of the AID program. Friendly called the television network executives and asked for permission to cover Bell live. The people there seemed agreeable; they had no real idea of what was coming. “Will you need a half-hour, or more?” asked one of them, John Reynolds, thinking it was easy come, easy go. Friendly said he didn’t know, but that it would start at 8:30 in the morning. Reynolds was relieved; that meant they were losing only Captain Kangaroo, which was not worth very much advertising money. But the hearing dragged on. Bell became a proxy for Rusk who was a proxy for Johnson. On through the morning his testimony went, preempting CBS shows more lucrative than Captain Kangaroo. NBC stayed with it live too, but NBC had a weaker daytime schedule than CBS, and therefore was losing less money. By the end of the day, the cost to CBS was an estimated $175,000. (As subsequent pressures mounted and CBS executives began to squeeze Friendly, he wondered, given the rocketing cost per minute of ad time in the mid-sixties, whether anyone in 1966 would have dared cover the Army-McCarthy hearings as they were aired in 1954. The cost of such coverage by 1966 standards would have been something like a half -million dollars a day, or roughly $15 million, a higher price for public service coverage than most network executives were willing to pay.) By the end of Bell’s day of testimony, the CBS business executives were highly displeased. So was Frank Stanton’s friend Lyndon Johnson, who announced a sudden decision to fly most of his Cabinet and personal staff to Honolulu to meet with South Vietnam’s premier of the moment, Nguyen Cao Ky, and his entourage. His Administration was losing control of the media, and the President wanted it back.

When Bell was finished, Friendly pressured to cover the next witness, Lieutenant General James Gavin, a moderate critic of the war. Stanton seemed disinclined and aloof, and only reluctantly gave his permission The next struggle was about whether to cover George Kennan, distinguished former diplomat, a principal author of the Truman Administration’s containment policy, a strong critic of the Vietnam War. This time Stanton was unbending. Jack Schneider, on the business side, told Friendly that housewives didn’t care about these hearings anyway. This time there was no give, and there was no televising of George Kerman over CBS.

Friendly now sensed that he had pushed and shoved too far. His superiors had grown tired of him and his arguments. Despite promises that as head of the news division he would have direct access to Paley and Stanton (crucial, because access to them meant access to broadcast time), Friendly faced a bureaucratic reorganization, designed to keep the news department at a distance. There was a news filter between him and Paley-Stanton in the person of Jack Schneider, an executive who ran something called the broadcast group. Friendly had lost his access, his voice, and he was boxed in. In a few days he resigned. His superiors did not seem very surprised; indeed, they seemed more concerned with the nature of the resignation—that he not go public—than with the resignation itself. Image is always crucial. Nonetheless he went public.

NBC carried George Kennan and CBS did not, although CBS carried General Maxwell Taylor for the Administration and Dean Rusk again.

Fred Friendly—talented, volcanic, ambitious, egocentric, but a reminder of some of the best days of CBS—left the network wondering if his departure had been expedited by Lyndon Johnson through Frank Stanton.

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