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.
17. Epilogue: A Few Character Studies

A few days after the 1972 election, when the Nixon Administration was riding its highest, when the President was talking to his aides about how they were really going to get their enemies this time, Chuck Colson called Frank Stanton. This Administration was not going to play gentle games anymore. No more Mister Nice Guy. The Nixon Administration knew who its friends were and who its enemies were, and it was going to bring CBS to its knees on Madison Avenue and Wall. Street. The CBS stock was going to collapse. When Richard Nixon got through with CBS, there was going to be damn well nothing left. They were going to take away CBS’s five owned and operated stations (a major source of CBS’s wealth). “We’ll break your network,” Stanton heard him say. On he went, with a litany of what the Administration was going to do to CBS. Stanton not surprised, but he was upset. There was a dimension of fury and arrogance to Colson’s harangue that, even from this Administration, was chilling. If a CBS reporter had found a top Nixon aide making similar threats to the head of U.S. Steel or General Motors, it would have become the story that night.. But Frank Stanton, who had come to love the news department but also loved to lobby, said nothing: he was not about to challenge the Administration. Later, long after the Administration was on the defensive and coming apart, he put his account of these confrontations in an affidavit.

There were several other footnotes to CBS’s two Watergate shows. A few days after they ran, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post happened to see Bill Paley at a party. Until then she had felt that the Post was covering Watergate pretty much alone, and that no one else was joining the fight. But now, in her view, CBS was with the Post, and to her mind that meant that Bill Paley and she were together. CBS had en­larged the story, given it a national constituency, and more muscle. So she ran over and kissed him. “You saved us,” she said. He seemed to freeze just a little bit. It was precisely what he did not want hear.

The day that Frank Stanton retired, in the spring of 1973, a small party was given for him. It not an occasion he looked forward to. He was privately very bitter about how his career at CBS had wound up, and about the trouble between him and Paley. He did not, in fact, want to retire. So the party was kept small, just a few old friends who had fought some of the same battles at CBS. It happened by chance to be the day that all the Nixon people fell out of the tree: Mitchell; Haldeman, Ehrlichrman, Dean. And Stanton, usually so correct, proper, and reserved, turned to a friend. The ferocity of his words, and the language, shocked his old friends: “I hope they get that little son of a bitch Colson, too.”

At the time that Watergate broke open, William S. Paley was in China, far from the flood of news that the top ranks of the Nixon Administration were either resigning or being indicted. Paley, traveling with Gordon Manning, got back to Hong Kong, where a huge stack of the New York Times was waiting for them. On the way back to America Paley read them, one after another. He said very little as he read, just occasionally sucking in his breath. A light gasp or two. After several hours he turned to Manning and asked how it could happen. These were all educated men. They had all been to law school. How could it have happened? Manning said it was simple.

“Why?” asked Paley.

“Because they lacked character,” said Manning.

There was a long pause. “I guess you’re right,” Paley said.

But he evinced no regrets for having taken the Administration’s side against the news division’s on Watergate. Indeed, those who knew Paley well were sure that by the time he got back to America he was already congratulating himself for having had the courage to stand up to all that pressure from those terrible people. The Murrow-Paley tradition, he must have thought, still lived. He was the one who had made sure that they ran those two fine reports right before the election. Sure enough, when this reporter went to interview him about other matters, Paley got the subject over to Watergate and he seemed to expand with pride: CBS had done what no one else had done on Watergate; it had stood alone, had taken the Washington Post’s local story and made it a national story, and he, Bill Paley, was very proud of it.

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