The show was aired on Friday night, October 27, 1972. it had television’s impact and authority. Though CBS was extremely careful to credit the Washington Post as a source, and equally careful to carry White House denials, there was no doubt about the special force of the report: this much time on a national news show, Walter Cronkite’s stamp of approval was on it—if that’s what Walter said, that’s the way it was:
Cronkite: At first it was called the Watergate caper—five men apparently caught in the act of burglarizing and bugging Democratic headquarters in Washington. But the episode grew steadily more sinister—no longer a caper, but the Watergate affair escalating finally into charges of a high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history. Most of what is known of the Watergate affair has emerged in puzzling bits and pieces, through digging by the nation’s press and television newsmen. Some of the material made public so far is factual, without dispute—those men caught in the act at Watergate, for instance. Some is still allegation, uncovered by the press but as yet legally unsubstantiated. We shall label our sources carefully as we go along. But with the facts and the allegations, we shall try to pull together the threads of this amazing story, quite unlike any in our modern American history…
Among those who watched the show that Friday night was Charles Colson, the White House’s chief television monitor, generally felt to be the cobra of the operation. He was deputized by Nixon to deal with the networks, the bad cop to Herb Klein’s good cop. Colson was a man, in those days before he found Jesus, full of swagger and a touch of bully; he was often described in newspapers as being a tough ex-Marine. Colson’s reports back to the White House starred Chuck Colson: Colson telling off people, network executives cringing as Colson laid down the law. Nixon delighted in all this. It was nice work if you could get it, for Nixon was obsessed by what the networks were doing, and there was no way Colson could lose. If he described network officials showing great timidity as he handed down the line, Nixon loved it. And if he reported flashes of network courage, vague life signs, then there was all the more need for a Colson at the White House. Heads he wins, tails you lose.
Chuck Colson watched that Friday night, and he was quick to the phone. The Nixon White House was not going to stand for reporting like this. He had visited the network officials earlier that year. Frank Stanton, who had grown accustomed to dealing with the big boys himself, encouraged calls from Colson; if there was something wrong with CBS News, just call Dr. Stanton, and they would talk. Stanton’s position, oft expressed to the newsroom, was that he was simply protecting its interest, taking the heat. But some CBS newsmen were not so sure that this was his sole intention. They wondered whether this was a wise way to deal with people in power, particularly the Nixon people; they would have preferred that protests about their reporting come directly to them. Stanton’s way of operating meant that the news division never knew what the White House was saying and doing, or whether the CBS corporate structure was bending and trading off. In the last few years of his tenure at CBS, Frank Stanton was regarded as being, willy-nilly, the inheritor of the Murrow-era credo; CBS news people regarded him, variously, as being shrewd, intelligent, protective, and devious, and they were uneasy about the dualities of his role.
As it happened, Colson, seeing the long CBS Watergate report, made his first call to Stanton, who was out. Mrs. Stanton was on a long-distance call to a friend. The White House operator cut in to announce that the White House was calling, and would Mrs. Stanton get off the phone. She did, with a feeling that there were crude people in power these days. She tried to reach her husband and missed him a couple of times; by the time she got him, it was too late. Colson had already gone to Bill Paley, who had also encouraged White House calls. When Stanton realized that Colson had called Paley, he became a little nervous. He had a sense of what was in store, and that Paley was not ready for it; that he, Stanton, had shielded Paley too long, and that Paley might be particularly vulnerable to such calls. It was just before the 1972 election; Nixon seemed a sure winner, and a landslide winner to boot. Charles Colson found in William S. Paley a very willing listener.
Colson told Paley, in language they taught the Marine Corps, that this was the most irresponsible journalism he had ever seen, that it was pure McGovern work. The CBS people, he said, were pretending to be journalists but were in effect working for George McGovern. He said it was much too long, that it was too close to the election, that it was all old stuff, and old stuff which had been lies to start with; CBS was just using Washington Post stuff, and CBS would live to regret it.
Shortly thereafter, William S. Paley summoned Richard S. Salant. By Saturday Paley had made exactly the same charges to Salant, with one exception. He did not say where they came from, and he did not mention the White House or Colson. In the gossipy world of television news, the word got around that the White House had complained, that Paley was furious, that he had ripped Salant apart, and that part two of the Watergate show was in jeopardy. The next Monday morning Paley and Salant went back and forth again and again. They had had sessions like that before, but never so long. The position of each had a certain fragility. Paley liked to have it both ways with the news department. He liked to keep it reasonably contained and minimize how obstreperous it was, yet he liked to be able to say to outsiders that he never told the news department what to do, and that he left it to its own devices. Salant, in turn, was not Paley’s man. Salant had come first from the law firm which handled the CBS account. In the complicated corporate structure of CBS, he was Frank Stanton’s man, and he admired and esteemed Stanton, which meant that he did not necessarily like or esteem Paley, since he picked up some of Stanton’s prejudices and attitudes, and Stanton and Paley had fallen out over the question of Stanton’s succeeding Paley as CBS’s chief operating officer.
Stanton was not at these sessions which was odd, although at the meetings Paley again and again associated Stanton with his position. Stanton never talked with Salant in those days, didn’t tip off his own feelings about the first show, nor let Salant know the crucial missing ingredient: that all these meetings with Paley had been precipitated by one call from the White House. This of course placed Salant in an ambivalent position—he was dealing with his own organization, which was reacting to pressure, but he did not know that there was pressure, or what its nature was. He could not tell whether these remarkable long sessions with Paley reflected Paley’s genuine feelings, or whether Paley was responding to someone else. He was at the center of it, but he was in the dark.
Salant, good lawyer that he was, ordered a list of the other long news segments CBS had run on the Evening News, to prove that this report was not unique. He was buttressed there. But at base he was puzzled by Paley’s insistence and firmness: this was unlike the Chairman; the attention span and the effort that he was putting into these two shows were different from any other confrontation they had ever had. Gradually, as Paley began to ask more and more about the second segment, Salant found the key. Paley had almost certainly made a promise to somebody that there would be no part two, and he was trying in as genteel a way as he could manage to order the news department not to run it, without actually giving the order. That was what all this confusing bullying and repetition in their long sessions was about.
Those who were working with Salant at the time thought that he had left Paley’s office on Monday morning visibly shaken. This was just before the screening of part two. It was one of those moments when everyone in the room was aware that he was no longer just a newsman, that outside considerations were playing a role, and that the corporate presence was breathing heavily. The decisions were no longer entirely those of the news division. The second report was scheduled for the same length as the first one, about fourteen minutes. It wound up at eight minutes. This one had a sequence on laundering money in Mexico—again, a subject that was difficult enough to explain in print, let alone on television. But Gould had come up with illustrative graphics, and Rather was there explaining the importance of Haldeman and Chapin and Mitchell, somehow bringing it all very close to Richard Nixon. The report ended with Cronkite saying that the story was important, and that the White House denials were not very convincing.
The meeting on the second segment included Salant, Socolow, Manning, Paul Greenberg (Cronkite’s executive producer), and Gould, who had produced the two segments. Cronkite did not attend. The smell of trouble was in the air, and Gordon Manning had decided to hold Cronkite out of battle, as a one-man reserve battalion. Salant was strong for cutting back. It was too long, he said; besides, a great deal of it was repetitious. Then Salant said a very odd thing; “I hope I feel this way because I’m a fair and honest newsman.” It was an oblique remark, but he was suggesting that he did not even know his own feelings, and that there was now so much pressure on him that he hoped the reasons he was stating were his own, not Paley’s, and not, dear God, those of Richard Nixon or Chuck Colson. Then he brought up a report that Dan Schorr had done during Labor Day weekend. The Schorr report had been on laundering money, and Salant wanted to know how this new story was different from Schorr’s. (One difference was that a weekend news report, particularly on a Labor Day weekend, when no one is presumed to be paying attention to the news, is different from the Cronkite news. A weekend report is hit or miss, and the audience accepts it or rejects it; but the Evening News is CBS, it has the imprimatur of Walter Cronkite, it means that what comes over the air is true and real and semiguaran teed. Take it seriously.)
Salant had the text of the old Schorr story, and they began to compare them. Other executives in the room had forgotten about the earlier report, or, like most CBS listeners, had never heard it; they shook their heads, thinking that Salant was one smart lawyer son of a bitch, how did he ever remember that one, what a great argument to take to the news department. Gould argued strenuously on behalf of the second report, pleading that, it not be cut, that it was new, that Watergate needed above all to be summed up, not nickel-and-dimed, that the time, and indeed, the repetition were crucial. Everyone at CBS, Gould argued, was hearing the same thing from Middle America, that Watergate was too complicated to understand. This was a journalistic failure, he said, and in particular it was a failure of network news departments who were charged with reaching the great mass audience and helping it understand such things. Manning and Socolow also argued for the story. Manning emphasized that this report had been promised to the CBS audience on the air, said that it would ruin morale in the newsroom if it was dropped or severely cut. But there was also a sense in the room that limits were once again being set, and the corporation was re-entering the game.
Socolow was charged with taking the old Schorr script and removing overlap and repetition, and then cutting the second report down to size. Socolow told his wife that night that he and his colleagues might be out of jobs the next day. But he managed to cut the story from fourteen minutes; he showed it to Cronkite, who bought it.
Gould was furious. As far as he was concerned, the script had been gutted. As far as he was concerned, they had backed down to pressure. Even if the words were similar, the graphics were weaker.
Cronkite took the script to Salant, who approved it. Well , let’s go, but this may be it.
Paley was furious, in a special rage after it was broadcast. He and Salant went around one more time, and he made clear what he felt: this must never happen again. But it was done, or almost done.