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.
15. CBS Covers Watergate…Reluctantly

At one point during the 1972 campaign, Gordon Manning at CBS News suggested to Walter Cronkite that he call the President personally to see if he could set up some kind of exchange or interview: Cronkite meets the President, Nixon Faces Walter. “And,” said Manning, “don’t take Ziegler on the phone. Go directly to The Man.” So Cronkite refused to take the calls. Finally, Nixon himself came on the phone, and Cronkite said, “You know, there are all these issues, and you yourself have said that the choice has never been so clear, and I wonder if you could come on the show so we could talk about the differences.” The implicit understanding was that McGovern would get an equal shot. Nixon’s immediate reaction (both Manning and Cronkite were impressed by how acutely he was attuned to the media, and knew how to deflect something he didn’t want to do) was, “I’d love to, but what will I tell Howard Smith and Jack Chancellor?”

But there was that fall, always in the background, hovering like a dark shadow, Watergate: the issue that would not go away. A third-rate burglary, the Administration said. It was dismissed, out aside, ignored, overlooked, but it would not go away. That was partly because reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post kept finding connections between the Watergate burglary and successively higher levels of the Administration. It was also because among aficionados of American politics there was a sense that Richard Nixon was a man who trusted no one in politics and who accordingly ran his own campaigns, handled all details himself. But it was a story extremely difficult to get a handle on. Watergate exposed a great deal about politics and the presidency; it also exposed the weaknesses of the news media: the news media, and television particularly, were reactive, they did not initiate things. They liked things to happen right smack out there in front—a debate in the Congress, a courtroom trial—so that they could describe them. Less risk. Less initiative. They did not like to investigate and in particular they did not like the idea of pursuing a journalistic investigation of someone as powerful as the President of the United States.

CBS was not alone in this. NBC, which also had a strong news staff, was ambivalent about Watergate, unsure of how hard to ride it, and wary that it might blow up in everyone’s face. NBC’s Washington reporters complained about troubles they had with their superiors in New York, and a lack of enthusiasm for Watergate stories. In the spring of 1973, Carl Stern of NBC, a lawyer as well as a first-rank reporter, learned that E. Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate plotters, was blackmailing the White House and threatening to tell all. It was an important story; Stern immediately went on NBC radio with it. (Radio now is virtually unedited; a reporter calls the radio desk, tells what he has, and gives a rough estimate of time to be saved: none of the corporate filters that reach into television these days inhibit radio.) The story went out quickly over NBC radio, and it turned out to be the most important news story that day. Stern thereupon called the television news desk and explained what he had for the Nightly News broadcast, and that he had already used it on radio. But the executives of the Nightly News wanted no part of Hunt’s blackmail; NBC television was afraid to broadcast what NBC radio was doing.

Watergate was a bottled-up story, covert instead of overt. It was a very easy story not to see, not to cover, and not to film. During the campaign, when Woodward and Bernstein were writing some of their most important stories—the middle of September to Election Day—NBC devoted a total of only 41 minutes and 21 seconds to covering Watergate, and ABC gave it 42 minutes and 26 seconds. Even that coverage was more often than not perfunctory. The Democrats and Larry O’Brien Charged; the Republicans Answered. Of the three networks, only one covered Watergate with any enterprise or effort, and that was CBS.

The decision at CBS to do two major Watergate reports in the fall of 1972 began with a decision to do a long study on the wheat deal. From the start, the Soviet wheat deal had offended Walter Cronkite’s old-fashioned values. He cold his associates late in the summer that there was something wrong with the wheat deal, and that this was going to be the Teapot Dome of the Nixon Administra­tion. Cronkite’s strength on the Evening News is that he wears two hats, that of anchorman that of managing editor, and he can, within the limits and as long as he doesn’t push too hard too often, get what he wants on the show. In this case he wanted the wheat deal. It was not a story which television could do easily. There were few opportunities for film, and CBS, like the other networks, lacked the inclination to do serious investigative reporting. Television liked what was on the surface, and was made uneasy by what was beneath the surface.

Cronkite assigned Stanhope Gould, a talented young CBS producer. His graphics and his illustration of the story were exceptional. The wheat story in fact was infinitely complicated. Even in the best newspapers it was the kind of story that sent puzzled readers back to reread the preceding paragraphs before it all came together. For television it posed comparable problems, but the CBS team was able to put it all together. The strength of the report was that it broke out of the language of networkese—that short, hard, semi-wire-service exposition—and tried to do something intricate in a short time by nuance and implication. The normal television way would have been to show lots of film of wheat fields, the wind rippling through them, as background for a few bland narrative sentences. But this time CBS concentrated on explaining about exports and commodities and apparent filets of interest, returning to Cronkite to explain the story once, twice, and then three times. At one point Cronkite came out of his chair to point some graphics, and the audience had to know it was important. Walter would not have come out of his chair for just anything. It was a triumph for CBS News, a reversal of the normal order whereby print leads and television follows.

The CBS executive’s and Cronkite were encouraged to take a try at some Watergate special reports. In the summer of 1972, the word to members of the Washington bureau who had wanted to go all out on Watergate had been no, it was not a television story, they wou1d wait on events. Now suddenly, with the election approaching, CBS tried to parachute into Watergate. Gordon Manning of CBS had worked in years past at Newsweek with Ben Bradlee, now the Washington Post’s editor. Manning (as Agnew might have suspected) called Bradlee to ask for the Post’s help on the story: to turn over sources, or, even better, its documents. Bradlee had answered in a way that would have surprised Agnew: Manning could bleep off, there would be no help, there would he no documents indeed, there were no documents. And when Stan Gould of CBS went by to see Bradlee, he came away with the very strong impression that Ben Bradlee, very much like Agnew, did not like network newsmen. In fact, Bradlee knew that he and his two Wunderkind reporters were skating on thin ice, and he was supersensitive to the charge of collusion and conspiracy. So the CBS team came down from New York, and, though reporters like Schorr and Rather were energetic, the story was derivative, putting together what had been in the Post and crediting other sources, mostly the Post’s. It was a very difficult journalistic decision to make: it was all there, and yet very little was there: Gould was telling his superiors that it was an important story, and that though they did not have sources of their own to confirm it, it all smelled very bad. The Washington Post and Time and the Los Angeles Times were pushing it hard, and the White House denials were very odd, very carefully phrased. But if CBS went with it, like it or not they were going to be in bed with the Post. That is not unusual­—it is accepted journalistic practice for the networks to run stories that have appeared only in the Times or some other publication, giving the proper credit—but this would be dicier. In effect, the decision was to do the Washington Post story or do nothing.

They decided to go. Part one was espionage itself, the break-ins plus Segretti and the spying operation. It ran slightly more than fourteen minutes. Fourteen minutes was the real breakthrough, more, even, than the content. An entire news show, less commercials and pauses, consumes only twenty-two minutes.  The effect is that all news items are equal, and equality is enforced by brevity—everything runs two minutes or less. Three minutes for the apocalypse. Four minutes if it’s an American apocalypse. Now here were fourteen of twenty-two precious minutes going to Watergate. It was as if the Times had played only one story in an entire daily edition. It was very strong reporting.

When he screened the show in New York, Cronkite was immediately enthusiastic, although not everyone else was pleased. Sandy Socolow, the producer of the show, was furious as Gould: first because of the length (Gould had pulled off a Walter-Mitty-like triumph against the New York producer system; he had usurped virtually the entire news show); second, for being so late. It came in on Friday, ten days before the election. Gould, Socolow realized, had presented him with a virtual fait accompli

There was another unhappy CBS executive: Dick Salant, president of CBS News, who had attained his job not because he was a creative, original newsman, but because he was a lawyer and a corporate figure. He was expert in the implications of news—what it might mean legally and politically. He stood between the forces coming down from the executive levels of Black Rock (the new 36-story CBS building) and the forces pushing up from the newsroom. Salant, during the Nixon years, had come through to the newsroom as a man of considerable integrity. He had understood what was important about CBS News, and shepherded it through a difficult time; he loved the news business, for which he was not trained, and despised the law, for which he was. As he had gotten closer to retirement he had seemed to those around him an increasingly liberated man. When John Ehrlichman demanded the head of Dan Rather—that Rather be transferred away from his White House assignment—Salant not only laughed Ehrlichman off, but deliberately leaked the information to print reporters as a means of securing Rather’s job and zinging the Nixon White House. But now, reading Gould’s script, Salant was clearly upset: “—do we really have to go with this?...isn’t this quite long?...” He could sense the problems ahead, and that they would not be pleasant ones. But Gordon Manning was ready to go, and Socolow, still privately irritated with Gould, was backing his man (it was now news against corporate pressure), Besides, they had the most important of all CBS News forces going for them, Walter Cronkite. Fourteen minutes it was, and fourteen minutes it would be. There would be a part two, to be scheduled­.

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