"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.
So then there were three. Smith’s departure left open the question of who was going to be the anchorman of the evening news show: Sevareid, Collingwood, or an outsider, Walter Cronkite. The job was now the most prestigious one for a journalist that CBS News could offer.
Sevareid and Collingwood might be the protégés of Murrow, and Cronkite the outsider who never crashed the club, but his style was compatible with what the show needed in its signature figure. Collingwood’s and Sevareid’s roots were in commentary; they had been picked by Murrow for their analytical ability and intelligence. Cronkite’s roots were in the wire service; he was the embodiment of the United Press tradition, a latter-day Hildy Johnson with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, single-mindedly pushing to get that story. He came through as straight, clear, and simple, more interested in hard news than analysis or deeper meanings. There was little of Murrow’s introspection him. Viewers could more readily picture Walter Cronkite jumping into a car to rush out and cover a ten-alarm fire than they could picture him doing analysis on a great summit meeting in Geneva; and they were right, he was most at ease with narrative story with limited social and political implications.
Sevareid, by contrast a complicated, brooding, figure, was the most consciously cerebral of three men (one of his closest friends once noted that the greatest tragedy in Eric’s life was that he had not been one of the Founding Fathers). Collingwood was less intellectual than Sevareid, but extremely serious, and closest to Murrow in style, looks, and ability; if there was a consensus Murrow-clique candidate for the job, it was Collingwood. But it was as if Collingwood had be such a natural as a young man, so talented, graceful, and stylish, that success had come too easily, so that he lacked the hunger for the job. No one, particularly anyone who had ever worked on story against him, would ever accuse Walter Cronkite of a lack of hunger; he was, from his earliest days, wildly competitive—no one was going to beat Walter Cronkite on a story.
As he grew older and more successful, the marvel of it was that he never changed, the fires still burned. When he became the CBS anchorman at the 1952 political conventions, he was determined to go to Chicago better versed, better prepared than his competitors. If, fifteen years later, he was scheduled to cover a space shot, no one was going to sit up more nights in advance mastering space technology, filling his own loose-leaf notebooks on the subject. While he would use various assistants to check facts and do additional research, no fact produced by an assistant would ever go into Walter’s book until the assistant bad proven under the harshest kind of questioning that he could vouch for the fact. The men who had known Cronkite as a young reporter were impressed by his capacity to grow and to learn, but in one sense he had remained constant; he had brought to the United Press, and then to radio, and finally to television, the fiercest kind of competitive instinct. Yet, fortunately for his television career, he did not look competitive. He looked comfortable, reassuring, and very much in control. It was an admirable and lucky combination.
In the late fifties Walter Cronkite suffered slightly within CBS because he was not one of the Murrow boys, but there had been a point when he almost became one. That was during World War II, when he was a United Press correspondent in London. He was, in the eyes of the man then running the United Press bureau, Harrison Salisbury, the best on his beat. It was the fall of 1942, and the American military presence was still small. The first B-17s were arriving in England, and Cronkite had the Eighth Air Force story, a prime journalistic assignment then. Every day Cronkite and the other reporters went out to the various air bases and interviewed the young fliers as they came back; it was a terrible time, for attrition rate was very high—twenty planes would go out, ten might come back. The essence of story was the hometown angle. The reporters never wanted to get too close to a flier because he might be gone the next day.
Cronkite was involved in intense competition with Gladwin Hill, then of the Associated Press, later of the New York Times, and Homer Bigart, then of the New York Herald Tribune. Cronkite caught Murrow’s eye (as did another young wire service man in London named James Reston). Murrow was interested in offering Cronkite a job, arranged to meet him at the Savile Club (which Cronkite, an unreconstructed Middle American, thought was the Saddle Club). They lunched amicably. Murrow offered the job and Cronkite accepted it on a handshake. He had been making $67 a week at the UP, and Murrow was offering $125 week plus fees (which Cronkite, like most print reporters, thought were nonexistent; in fact, they probably would triple his salary).
Cronkite returned to bid farewell to his colleagues at the UP, and Salisbury, a very shrewd operator, immediately said that this was too bad because that very moment a huge raise had come in which would boost Cronkite $12.50 a week, and the UP at home was so pleased that it had come up with a second raise, also for $12.50, which meant a grand total of $25 in raises, to $92 a week. Cronkite was impressed by this vast commitment of the UP’s resources and double sign of its belief in him. Because he loved the United Press with the simple fanaticism of the devoted wire-service reporter to whom the greatest thrill in the world is to beat the AP by ten minutes—a kind of nirvana, or at least a ten-minute nirvana—he turned Murrow down. The incident produced some tension between them over the years, in no small degree on Murrow’s part because he simply could not understand the values of a man who would prefer the United Press over the more raffiné world of CBS.
Cronkite stayed with the UP and covered the war as it moved across Europe. His coverage was simple, straight Ernie Pyle reporting, with traditional wire-service emphasis on names and hometowns. He was with the American units liberating Bastogne when the relief mission arrived. Just outside Bastogne, Cronkite, eager for an eyewitness account, slipped out of his jeep, edged toward a barn, finally spotted a soldier, and began interviewing him in the Pyle tradition: "Soldier, what’s your name?"
“Well, gee, you ought to know that, Mr. Cronkite,” the GI said.
“Why’s that?” Cronkite asked.
“Well, sir,” said the kid, “I’m your driver.”
After the war, Cronkite was sent to Moscow, allegedly a choice assignment. But Moscow in 1946 was not very great fun, nor, for that matter, was the United Press. The Russians were pulling back from their policy of limited friendship to brotherly Western correspondents. In addition, the financial generosity of the United Press, never excessive, was diminishing. The UP car was an antique, and when, during one of the worst winters of recent Russian history, Cronkite asked for permission to buy a new car since even the Russians were complaining about the condition of his vehicle, his superiors suggested that he get a bicycle. Soon Cronkite asked to be brought out of Moscow. He returned to America for a year with a promise that he would return to Europe shortly as the number one man on the Continent. His salary was then $125 a week and, with family obligations growing, he asked for more. The UP executives assured him that he was already the highest-paid man on the staff. But he wanted more. He loved the United Press. He relished scooping people and getting the story straight, clear, and fast, with no frills. Even years later, when he reminisces about the old UP days, there is a kind of love in his voice. He liked the feel of dirt on his hands as a wire-service reporter; he felt more at home at the UP than in the lofty world of television commentary. But love or no, there had to be some money. So Earl Johnson, his superior, said that he thought it was time that he and Walter had a little talk, since Cronkite apparently did not understand the economic basis of the United Press.
“No, I guess I don’t understand it,” Cronkite said, and so Johnson explained: “We take the best and the most eager young men we can find and we train them and we pay them very little and we give them a lot of room, and then when they get very good they go elsewhere.”
“Are you asking me to go somewhere else?” Cronkite asked.
“No. no.” said Johnson, while adding: “$125 a week is a lot of money for us, though probably not for you.”
Cronkite returned to Kansas City, whence he had come, on a kind of extended leave, and while he was there he saw an old friend named Karl Koerper who was the head of KMBC, a big CBS affiliate. Cronkite remarked to Koerper that Kansas City seemed to have died; there was no spirit and excitement anymore. What had happened? Then he answered his own question: it was the death of the Kansas City Journal. You get monopoly journalism, he said, and something goes out of a city. When newspaper competition dies, something dies with it. Kansas City is a duller town now.
“What do you mean?” Koerper asked.
“It’s your fault,” Cronkite continued. “You radio guys cut the advertising dollars so much that drove the newspapers out, but you haven’t replaced them. You have no news staff.”
“We certainly do—we have eight men,” said Koerper proudly.
“Do you know how many reporters the Kan City Star has?” Cronkite asked.
“But that’s their principal business,” Koerper answered.
“There!” said Cronkite, seizing on it. “That’s the answer!”
The upshot of the conversation was that Walter Cronkite was hired in 1948 by Karl Koerper to work as Washington correspondent for his station and a string of other Kansas and Missouri stations. He was thirty-one years old, and though his salary was $250 a week, in the pecking order of American journalism there seemed to be something slightly demeaning about Walter Cronkite, who had been a big man during the war, hustling around Washington as a radio man for a bunch of small Midwestern stations. Cronkite did not find it demeaning. He liked the excitement of Washington, and anyway, he intended to return to Kansas City soon as general manager of the station.
Then the Korean War broke out and he got a phone call from Ed Murrow asking whether he might be willing to go to Korea and cover the war for CBS. Would he? Well Murrow had better believe that he would, it was exactly where he wanted to be. There was, Murrow said, no great problem in Cronkite’s employment by KMBC, since it was a CBS affiliate. In the meantime, Cronkite should get himself ready to go overseas again. But there was some delay because his wife, Betsy, was about to have a baby.
At just about this time CBS bought WTOP, which had been a locally owned Washington television station, and wanted to build it up as a major outlet, a kind of political flagship. WTOP news director asked Cronkite to do the Korean story every night. What did Cronkite need in the way of graphics? It turned out to be nothing more than chalk and a blackboard. Events had gotten more complicated, and Cronkite, typically, was trying to make them simpler. It was deceptively simple—Cronkite in front of a blackboard—but he worked so hard in preparation for the assignment, backgrounding himself, going to the Pentagon to develop independent sources, that his mastery and control of the subject were unique. He had weight and projected a kind of authority. The WTOP people asked him to do the Korean War story twice a day, and very soon after that the entire news program, and then two news shows a day. He was an immediate hit, a good, professional reporter in a new medium. He began to do network feeds from Washington back to the network news show in New York. The idea of going over to Korea began to fade away.
Among those aware of Cronkite’s talents was Sig Mickelson, then in charge of television news at CBS. He was in effect the head of the stepchild section of CBS News, trying to build up television, but forced to work against the grain. He had no bureaucratic muscle in comparison with Murrow; the Murrow group included all the stars of the news department, all the men who had ties to Paley and who had come out of the war as heroes. Mickelson saw Cronkite as the man around whom to base his television staff.
As the 1952 political conventions approached, radio was still bigger than television although the conventions themselves would help tip the balance in favor of television. The Mickelson group wanted a full-time correspondent who would sit there all day and night and hold the coverage together without getting tired. Mickelson asked for Murrow, Sevareid, or Collingwood. But the radio people told Mickelson to get lost. Further negotiation with the radio people produced a list of men who were ostensibly second-stringers. On the list was precisely the name that Mickelson had wanted in the first place—that of Walter Cronkite. Whatever else, Mickelson knew, Cronkite was dogged.
Cronkite went to the conventions, both held in Chicago that year, knowing that this was his big chance. He was thoroughly prepared, knew the weight of each delegation, and was able to bind the coverage together at all times. He was a pro in a field still short on professionalism. By the end of the first day, in the early morning, the other people in the control booth just looked at each other; they knew they had a winner. (They knew it even more the next day, when some of the Murrow people began to drift around to let the television people know they were, well, available for assignment.) Cronkite himself was so obsessed by the action in front of him that he had little immediate sense of the good reaction to his performance. On the last day of the Republican convention, he went for an early morning walk with Sig Mickelson along Michigan Avenue. Mickelson said Cronkite’s life was going to change now, and that he was going to want to renegotiate his contract for a lot more money.
“Do you have an agent?” Mickelson asked.
“No,” said Cronkite.
“Well, you’d better get one.” Mickelson said. “You’re going to need one.”
“No, I won’t,” Cronkite said.
“Yes, you will,” Mickelson said.
The solidity and enduring professionalism which Cronkite had first shown in 1952 set him apart when the time came to choose an evening news anchorman. He was by television standards an easy man to work with. What was on the outside was on the inside; he liked, indeed loved, being Walter Cronkite, being around all those celebrities, but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself. Why, who was it John Glenn’s mother most wanted to meet at the ceremonies marking her son’s return from the first orbital space flight? Walter Cronkite, of course. Cronkite felt an enthusiasm for life and for his work that smacked of the country boy let loose in the big city; it was all wonders and magic. His was a profession filled with immense egos, crowded with very mortal, often quite insecure men blown overnight to superstar status. Cronkite too had considerable ego, but unlike many of his colleagues he had considerable control over it, and his vanity rarely showed in public. He knew by instinct the balance between journalism and show biz; he knew you needed to be good at the latter, but that you must never take it too far. He was enough of an old wire-service man to be uneasy with his new success and fame. He was just sophisticated enough never to show his sophistication.
In addition, he had physical strength and durability. Iron pants, as they say in the trade. He could sit there all night under great stress and constant pressure and never wear down, never blow it. And he never seemed bored by it all, even when it got boring. When Blair Clark and Sig Mickelson recommended him for the anchorman job, that durability, what they called the farm boy in him, was a key factor. He was the workhorse. After all, an anchorman did not necessarily have to be brilliant; he had to synthesize others, and there were those who felt that Sevareid had simply priced himself out of the market intellectually. Eric was thought to be too interested in analysis and opinion, and thus not an entirely believable transmission belt for straight information.
But there was a part of Cronkite that had never left St. Joe, Missouri, and which he consciously advertised. Though he had been a foreign correspondent, in his television incarnation he had been definitively American: air power documentaries, political conventions, space shots. When there was an Eisenhower special to do, Walter did it, and that too was reassuring. (Among those not reassured was John F. Kennedy, who, right after his election, cornered CBS producer Don Hewitt and complained that CBS was against him. “Walter Cronkite’s a Republican, isn’t he?” the President-elect asked. Hewitt allowed as how he didn’t think so. “No, he’s a Republican, I know he’s a Republican,” Kennedy said. Hewitt said he thought Cronkite was probably an independent who had voted for Ike over Stevenson and for Kennedy over Nixon, but that was only a guess. “He’s always with Eisenhower,” Kennedy replied, “always having his picture taken with Eisenhower or going somewhere with him. . .”)
The men who ran broadcasting had become sensitive about going against the American norm, and being ahead of it. For their purposes now Walter was perfect, he was the norm. For him to be against the norm was like going against himself. In addition, he had a strong self-imposed sense of what the limits of his role were, and the dangers of violating the trust that had been given to him. So it worked; he became over the years one of the most trusted men in America. His more elitist colleagues in print journalism, even if they found him on occasion slow in picking up on certain stories, nonetheless respected his integrity. When political pollsters wanted to check on the credibility of possible presidential candidates, they always included Walter Cronkite on the poll as a benchmark against which the trust and acceptability of candidates could be measured, and Cronkite often scored very high.
He was compatible with the style of the news show that CBS executives had in mind. Television reporting was evolving into a special form; a good “page one,” not much more, not that much explanation of events. The correspondents were to be part wire-service men (in terms of the restraints on personal expression) and part superstars, more recognizable on national political campaigns than some of the candidates. They were intelligent and sophisticated, but they were often underemployed. The contrast between the shorthand of their regular appearances and the intelligence they flashed during slow moments of political conventions was striking. The news show was like putting the New York Times on a postage stamp. An insiders’ joke at CBS News was that if Moses handed down the Ten Commandments, the lead would be, “Moses today came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the two most important of which were…”
In the spring of 1962 Cronkite became the CBS anchorman. He was rooted in a certain tradition and he was the best of that tradition. He set standards by which others were judged. In Sweden, anchormen came to be known as Cronkiters. He was not a distinctive writer himself, but he was a good editor, and when others wrote for him, his ear told him what would work and what would would not. He was not a great interviewer; he was too aware of danger of seeming combative, and his questions were often easy (most memorably at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when he pitched softballs to Mayor Daley of Chicago). But he was a good synthesizer and clarifier, working hard in the brief time allotted to his program to make the news understandable to millions of people. And his style and character seemed to come through. People set him apart from his office, as they did Eisenhower. When news was bad or upsetting, the audience might be angry with television reporters, but rarely with Walter Cronkite personally. He was exempt.
In 1970, a President who viewed television commentators as a major opposing power center was manipulating political pressure against them, and networks were on the defensive. At a meeting that year between CBS executives and affiliate owners, the resentment and anger of the affiliates against the CBS news team was showing. Cambodia and Kent State had just taken place, and the Nixon-Agnew attacks on TV commentators were their peak. The meeting had been bitter and there was a smell of blood in the air. That night CBS gave a banquet and the management trotted out all the stars, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day and many others, and they all walked in and received polite applause. And then Cronkite came in and the house went wild, a magnificent standing ovation from the very people who had been echoing the Nixon-Agnew assault on CBS that morning. You can have it both ways.
Charles de Gaulle, living in a democratic society that had one (state-controlled) television network, spoke for all chief executives: he used to say that all print reporters were against him, but television belonged to him. It was a classic statement of a politician about journalism: print can be too querulous, can do too much analyzing of motives, can spread too much doubt. But broadcasting is different; it accepts by and large what has been said and passes it on, often uncritically. A politician often has difficulty getting on the air, but a President can go on when he chooses in the setting he chooses.
If, as the choice of Cronkite to anchor the half-hour news show made plain, the limits on network journalism were becoming narrower and more sensitive to pressures from high public officials, then the converse was also true. Those in the highest of offices were becoming more aware of television, more powerful because of television, and more skillful at exploiting it.
Eisenhower had used television well and had let the cameras into the White House on a regular basis, but he was a man of a passing era. Jack Kennedy, by contrast, was a modern man, the first television President. He performed with such charm and dispatch that much of the intellectual elite of the country, which might have reacted with distaste to the blending of politics and television because of the potential for demagoguery involved, enthusiastically applauded him. (The applause was generated in no small part because the alternative to him was Richard M. Nixon.) He and the camera were born for each other. He was its first great political superstar; as he made TV bigger, it made him bigger. Everyone using everyone. The President using the media, the media using the President.
Kennedy understood that television executives respect power and that television producers love film, and thus that the President and the executive branch could virtually go into the business of producing film, producing their own shows. The President’s travels to other countries were events, special affairs that reporters and cameras would follow not just dutifully but enthusiastically, as they would never follow a Senate majority leader or a Supreme Court Justice or a lowly governor. He could in fact make his travels—often travels with a high degree of domestic political, orientation—the nation’s travels, and he could thus induce network journalists almost unconsciously to drop their normal critical roles and become a part of the pageantry, heralds of it, as it were, and little more. The farther the President was from Washington, the less he was seen as a domestic political figure and the more he was a kind of national symbol, President of all the people (Nixon’s China trip was the ultimate example of this). Similarly, the less knowledgeable and secure the correspondent, the weaker his own sources of information and the greater his dependence upon the President’s entourage for what he reported. The network reporter’s ability to get on the air increased as his ability to understand what was going on decreased.
In countless ways John Kennedy wrote the book on television and the presidency, a book which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon studied carefully, both of them feeling very much in his shadow. But however deep the shadow, each man developed his own shrewd sense of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the networks, and played upon them.
Thus, regardless of who was President, the decade saw a change in political and power balances: Fred Friendly in 1960 a liberal CBS television executive anxious to help counsel a liberal President-elect on the use of television went to Washington at the request of his superiors to help advise the new President on how to be more effective and more spontaneous. A little more than a decade later he was calling the office “an electronic presidency,” and in the summer of 1974 he complained to his old associate Walter Cronkite that Cronkite’s accompanying Nixon on the latter’s dubious trip to the Middle East would escalate the importance of the trip.
Television not only changed the balance of power, but it became a vital part of the new balance of power. Presidents knew the advantage they had in gaining access to the air and the difficulties any competing politician or institution had. Presidents had used or suffered press conferences for a variety of reasons, including a chance to listen to the country. Kennedy seized on live television as an opportunity for political theater. He used reporters as pawns to help make him look better, smarter, shrewder, more capable, and in control. Indeed, mastery of the press conference became a kind of substitute for mastery of the political scene The Bay of Pigs, for example, was a disaster and it was Kennedy’s fault, but it was not a televised disaster: there were no cameras on the scene. The response to the Bay of Pigs, however, was televised, and Kennedy had the power, authority, and the cool to handle it. He put off serious questions about the origins of the disaster and the decision-making about it on the basis of national security; then he accepted responsibility for it. He seemed completely in control, yet explained nothing. No wonder his popularity soared upward. Similarly, a year later, during the Cuban missile crisis, he could use television and an external threat to bind the nation to him. Space shots were to be covered: space shots were national and space heroes were to be welcomed by the President and hailed, their success merged with his office. He was identified with the space program, which was successful and modern, and with the astronauts, who were young, handsome, virile, brave, and much admired. Astronauts showed that America was on the move; astronauts and Kennedy and Jackie showed that America and Jack Kennedy were on the move.
He also sensed the danger of overexposure; that was unique, since it was a time when the politicians who understood television tended to clamor for more and more time. Early in his administration, he asked Pierre Salinger to find out how many Fireside Chats Roosevelt had given. Why? Salinger asked. Because the public remembered them, Kennedy explained; in the public mind Roosevelt was credited with giving lots of them, and it was important to see why they were so memorable. One reason they were memorable, Salinger soon found, was that there had been so few—roughly two a year until the war. You see, Kennedy said, the public thought FDR had been on the air all the time, and yet he had carefully rationed his appearances. Besides, he added, television was far more powerful and dramatic than radio, and thus there was all the more need to conservative: television could eat you up. When Salinger or other Kennedy aides would go to him and request that he make a particular appearance he would hold back; he had been on, he would say, a week ago or two weeks ago, and he was wary of how carnivorous the electronic beast was. At one point he checked with Robert Kintner, president of NBC, to ask if perhaps Jackie was being overexposed on television, and decided that in fact she was, and that it was time to hold down on her appearances.
Kennedy knew that television could widen the gap between him and his congressional opposition. The Republican party tried—almost pathetically—to answer him. The two Republican congressional leaders, Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck, started holding a weekly press conference designed primarily for television. The problem was that Dirksen and Halleck were not designed for television: they had not risen to power by the route of open national exposure. Dirksen was like a huge and rich vegetable that had become slightly overripe; watching him, one had a sense that he was always winking at the audience, winking at the role that he had chosen to play, the stereotype of a slightly corrupt, old-fashioned senator. At best, “The Ev and Charlie Show,” as it became known, was a disaster, as if two burned-out old Shakespearean actors had been hired to cavort around at Kennedy’s request to play the part of a tired old opposition.
Kennedy also knew about the inner mechanics and desires of television producers. The television people wanted the best show, and the best show had him at his best. He talked CBS into televising a tour of the White House with Jackie. When the show was filmed, he was allowed a last-minute appearance. He knew immediately, even before it was over and before anyone looked at the film, that his tone was wrong, that he had been perhaps too flip, and he asked CBS to redo it. When the producers looked at the film they found he was right, and of course accommodated him.
When he did a special with all three networks, there was an agreement to film ninety minutes and cut to an hour. Some people watching the filming noticed that George Herman of CBS seemed to ask the toughest questions, and that when he did the President became vague. When the editing took place it was the network producer’s instinct, not the White House’s suggestion, to cut the weak answers. They weren’t sharp, they did not make a good show.
He was on occasion angry with television, but he usually overcame it. Once, after a network news broadcast on his handling of the steel crisis seemed more critical than he deemed appropriate, he called FCC director Newton Minow, demanding that he raise hell with network executives and threaten them about their licenses. Minow was not alarmed by the nakedness of the threat and did not do it. Kennedy called him the next day and thanked him for preventing a President from making fool of himself.
Nothing symbolized his sense of pleasure and ability with television better than a conversation he had with André Malraux. Malraux, Minister of Culture in that great democracy where the state controlled the one broadcast network, came to America and was surprised by the degree of independence of American news shows. He asked Kennedy why he put up with the Huntleys, Brinkleys, and Cronkites. Kennedy said that he didn’t mind as long as he got equal time. Then he laughed. He laughed because he knew he always got far more than equal time.
In that sense, John Kennedy changed the presidency more than any recent predecessor with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, who had slipped so naturally into the radio presidency. Kennedy’s ascendancy, like Roosevelt’s, was a confluence of a man and a technology, of a new political force and a Politician with the skills and instincts to exploit it. The television audiences were acutely aware of style now. The President came not just into their towns but into their homes. He had attractive personal qualities, and occasionally dubious political qualities; he was therefore inclined to emphasize the personal side of the presidency. So it was not surprising that audiences judged him on a new scale of qualities, not necessarily the way they would have judged a politician in the past. Now what kind of man he was became paramount; what the feel of him was, what kind of family he had.
Once in 1971, two years after he had left the White House, Lyndon Johnson was appearing in a series of retrospective documentaries for television—for CBS, that is, the network of which Frank Stanton was president. CBS was the Johnson network, as Holt, Rinehart & Winston, the CBS book division, would become—to its financial loss—the Johnson publisher. He was in a relaxed mood one afternoon during the filming, and one of the senior CBS producers, John Sharnik, asked him what had changed in politics since his first years in Congress some thirty-four years earlier. Sharnik said it casually, and he was stunned by the vehement quality of Johnson’s answer: “You guys,” he had said without pausing to reflect. “All you guys in the media. All of politics changed because of you. You’ve broken all the machines and the ties between us in Congress and the city machines. You’ve given us a new kind of people”—a certain disdain passed across his face—“Teddy, Tunney. They’re your creations, your puppets: No machine could ever create a Teddy Kennedy. Only you guys. They’re all yours. Your product.”
He was a man of the thirties, and he never really adapted to the new technology of his own times. Characteristically, he was one of the few people in Washington in the late sixties who was a devoted listener to radio, though his and his wife’s private fortune centered around their Austin, Texas, radio-television station. He never really made it on television, though during the honeymoon that followed his accession to the presidency, he seemed to know his way around the medium. He reveled in it, President of all the people, anchorman for all the networks. He could do whatever he wanted, no one could catch up with him. These were great moments for him: His own impetuosity enhanced by being President, and a televised President at that; and his surprises being orchestrated as surprises for the whole country.
There was the time he was settling a railroad strike and, looking at his watch, saw that it was nearly seven o’clock: he would announce the news himself at seven o’clock on the button. He decided to go to the CBS station (the White House was not yet set up for instant presidential specials; that would come in a few weeks—hot cameras ready for a hot Lyndon), and so suddenly the whole White House team was rushing into cars, sirens screaming, tires screeching, tearing through Washington evening traffic, and yes, at the very instant that Walter Cronkite came on the air in New York, he was put in the position not of giving the news, but of introducing the President of the United States, the only President we had, and Lyndon was there announcing that he had settled the railroad strike. He loved it, it was exhilarating. When he returned to the White House and a dismayed Lady Bird asked why he had done it, why he had risked his life tearing through traffic like that, he laughed and said, Because I wanted to see the look on Walter Cronkite’s face when I walked in the studio.
In the beginning, simply being there was enough; he was the message, and the rest of the government was part of the stage set. Years later, when power began to slip away, and the Vietnam War was darkening everything, and critics like Bobby Kennedy began to make speeches against his policy, he tried on occasion to smother the trouble and upstage the critics by in effect moving the first rank of his Administration to the Pacific en masse for war planning conferences and consultations that dominated the news. Bill Moyers, then his press secretary, went before the National Press Club and gently mocked this tendency by answering to a planted question that he was not trying to take headlines away from Bobby, but yes, he was able to announce that he was sending Hubert Humphrey to the moon. Lyndon Johnson was not amused.
He never really came to terms with television. As he was a beneficiary of it, so he became a victim of it. He was an excessive man, and he did not know how to restrain his use of the medium; at the same time, he tended to be awkward and stiff on camera. The combination of his own style and the impact of television was deadly. In Lyndon Johnson there were many pluses and many minuses, but whatever else, he was not a man to ration himself; he wanted, as a politician and as a man, to give too much and to take too much. Where Jack Kennedy was aware of the danger of overexposure, Johnson was almost maniacal about being on the screen; he wanted to be on all the time. When his aides, particularly the holdover aides from Kennedy, warned him that he dealing with fire, that he had been on yesterday land the day before, he responded yes, but he wanted to be on today as well. On all three networks. And if Jack Kennedy was in a sense first television President, or the first President made by television, then Lyndon Johnson was first who was brought down by television, or at least in part by television. For it enhanced not only his hold on the presidency while he rode high, but ultimately the forces that came to be ranged against him. He was too volatile a man in too volatile a time using too volatile an instrument.
His farewell to politics that most people remember was his surprise announcement on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek re-election. But he uttered a much more interesting farewell the next day in Chicago, before the National Association of Broadcasters. There he very simply blamed them for his defeat, and for defeat in Vietnam. They had turned the country against him, he said. Winston Churchill was never very far from his mind, and he asked them what would have happened at Dunkirk if they had had their cameras there. They had beaten him, those cameras and all those punk kid reporters in Vietnam. They, the broadcasters, had beaten him, not Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the kids in the streets. He was more than a little right, and he had learned the hard way that because of television, what goes up goes up quickly, but things can come down as quickly. He saw television as a gimmick and it brought out the worst in him: acting, preening, false piety. He would try to play someone else. Kennedy. Roosevelt. Churchill. Almost anyone but Lyndon Johnson. He could not be himself. He fell prey to the worst habit a politician or a major television correspondent can form: he watched himself endlessly on the replay, and waited up for the late night shows to study himself, not liking what he saw, always looking for ways to change it. When he did a television special with three network reporters, he walking out, ostensibly to take phone calls, but really to check the videotape. After the show had been filmed, while he was flying to Australia, he called in corrections from Air Force One—always on grounds of national security—so many of that CBS finally noted that the program had been edited with White House supervision,
If television was a gimmick, then he had to keep trying his own gimmicks with it. A better lighting man, a better makeup man, a better pair of glasses, a better TelePrompTer, a better television adviser. He was always unhappy with the way he across, the big nose (what is politely called in the television trade “prominent features”) forever casting unwanted shadows. Makeup men would come and makeup men would go, and the Rushmore of the features remained, casting shadows. When Johnson first became President, CBS had a young man named Mike Hunnicutt working in its Washington bureau, and one night he made Johnson up just as the President went on the air. Afterwards Johnson summoned Hunnicutt, and the man was ushered into the Oval Office for a memorable meeting with the leader of the Free World.
“Boy, you trying to fuck me?” asked the President of the United States.
“Sir?” said the young man from CBS.
“Boy, you trying to fuck me?” Johnson repeated. The young man looked puzzled.
“Get him out of here!” Johnson roared, and a Secret Service man rushed Hunnicutt out of the office, whereupon it was explained to him that the President had not liked the way he looked.
In 1964, still bothered by his image, he asked his friend Frank Stanton for help, and Stanton dispatched Fred Friendly to advise him. Friendly was clearly there to teach Johnson about television. President Johnson surprised him by demanding that he would join the White House staff: Fred Friendly would become Johnson’s chief intellectual, the domestic version of Mac Bundy; the country needed Fred Friendly. Friendly, despite his own outsized ambitions, knew he was in dangerous waters. He called old friend Ed Murrow, who warned him off: “It’s the worst idea I ever heard—they’ll cut your balls off in four weeks.” So despite further presidential pleas—“Make up your mind, make up your mind, what are you going to do, sit around in New York at some fancy restaurant drinking old-fashioneds and making $100,000 a year, or are you going to help your country?”—Friendly remained in television. And Lyndon Johnson continued his search for someone to transform him on television. Someone who could make him less Texan, more eastern, shrink his nose, and gentle his accent. He could not hire Friendly from CBS, so he eventually hired Kintner from NBC, but his problems remained.
His years saw the change in the unofficial network policy of giving the President air time. In the past the networks had asked whether the national interest was involved. Under Johnson that changed—he asked and they gave. He went to great pains to have his appearances filtered by the White House correspondents as little as possible. Where Kennedy thought of exchanges with reporters as part of the game, and knew that the process of give and take—or, more accurately, the semblance of give and take (he was taking more than he was giving)—worked to his benefit, Johnson was far more wary of journalism’s sharks. In addition, Kennedy knew that the presidency did not endow him deep down inside with any qualities that he did not already possess; he was still a mortal working politician who had been given great new technological advantages. But Johnson, like Nixon after him, was less confident and secure, and he wanted the presidency to invest in him qualities that were not already there and did not necessarily belong to mortals. He was the President. He was special. He was above other human beings. He was above his fellow citizens, who were no longer citizens, but subjects; he was a democratic Monarch, and he did not like that last vestige of democracy, working reporters who seemed to keep nibbling at him.
He tried to change the rules of presidential television, to expose himself to less questioning, and to use TV as much, as possible as a forum for his (regal) announcements. But even under the best and most controlled of circumstances he felt miscast. The medium was theirs, not his. “I can’t compete with Walter Cronkite,” he once said. “He knows television and he’s a star. So when I’m with him I’m on his level and yet he knows what he’s doing and so he does it better and so I lose.” Press conferences, to his mind, elevated others to his level and thus lowered him to theirs.
Reporters in particular were a problem, still given to covering him as if he were a working politician instead of President of all the people. Even on CBS, his favorite network, there were reporters like Dan Rather who were a constant irritation to him. Johnson alternately cajoled, ignored, and threatened Rather. From time to time Johnson reminded Rather that he had friends at CBS, and suggested that perhaps the way to get ahead was to play ball.
Indeed he did have friends. Why, his very best friend in the world, he liked to tell young CBS reporters, was Frank Stanton, and anyone who worked for Frank Stanton could count himself lucky. Even at the very end, when he had been forced out of the presidency, he would point to a knoll on his ranch and say there, right there, was where Frank and Ruth Stanton were going to build a home.
The friendship had started in the 1940s when he was a young congressman looking for a network connection for Lady Bird’s little radio station. Bill Paley sent him to see young Frank Stanton. Stanton knew what a congressman was. He decided that, by chance, just what CBS needed was a little affiliate station in Austin, right between those big stations in Dallas and San Antonio. Over the years Frank Stanton counseled the Johnsons on that station, made sure they got the best of advice, and certain benefits, such as the coaxial cable long before larger stations received it. Senior CBS executives could recall going into Stanton’s office and hearing the president of CBS on the phone to a CBS affiliate in Texas saying that Senator Johnson was going to be on Face the Nation that Sunday, and Stanton hoped the station would carry it.
We all like a little help from our friends, and this relationship, so mutually beneficial, flowered. The station, first radio and then television, was the key to the expanding Johnson fortune. Johnson’s own increasing political influence did not hurt the lobbying efforts of Stanton and CBS. Stanton was also there to help Johnson on trips to New York—theater, hotels, small help like that. And he advised him on how to deal with the elite of the eastern Establishment, big help like that. There were a variety of services. It was Stanton who sent Fred Friendly, then considered CBS’s best producer to help President Johnson with mastering the art of television performing in 1964. When Johnson had trouble with his White House desk because his legs were so long, Stanton, amateur carpenter, redid the desk legs for him. The LBJ-Stanton relationship was special: the Johnson White House was a relatively open place, and staffers on domestic affairs cut across lines easily. But not when a problem called for Dr. Stanton. Johnson might say to a staffer, “Call Frank Stanton and tell him…” Then he would stop in mid- sentence, check himself; and say, “No, I’ll call Stanton myself.”
Johnson appointed Stanton to serve on USIA advisory board. As the Vietnam War heated up, Stanton was thus in a certain conflict between two roles. He was upset by CBS’s coverage of opposition to Johnson’s war policy. In 1966 he called up Fred Friendly, after a disaffected Senator William Fulbright had appeared on Face the Nation, to say that a rotten thing had been done to the President of the United States. That year too Friendly arranged a lunch for Bill Paley and Walter Lippmann, which Paley had sought. It was difficult to arrange because both Paley and Lippman were difficult to organize. Friendly expected Stanton to be a co-host for the occasion, but Stanton ate separately in the CBS dining room; he would not break bread with the dean of the Fourth Estate, who had become an outspoken critic of the President and the war.
Murray Fromson, CBS correspondent, reported that American bases in Thailand were being used as staging areas for the bombing of North Vietnam; Stanton was furious and complained to Friendly that this was a violation of embargoed information—a position neither true nor plausible, since the North Vietnamese, unlike the American people, knew precisely what was being done at the Thai bases; it was only the American people who had been kept ignorant. Friendly pointed this out to Stanton, who said yes, that’s true, but it might be embarrassing to the government anyway.
And week after week, at the news executives’ lunches with Paley and Stanton, Stanton would pass on what flak he had caught from Johnson that week, the litany of complaints, how angry Lyndon was about this piece of coverage, that bit of commentary. The news executives who watched this performance wondered what was behind it. Many saw that Stanton had placed himself in a somewhat twisted position: the star testifier before Congress, Statesman of Broadcasting, chief CBS lobbyist was trying to let CBS News know how much tension it was already causing (and thus, in a subtle way, suggesting that additional critical coverage might be too much). At the same time he was trying to let them know that he, Stanton, was shielding them from the heat of the outraged, all-powerful President of the United States, his friend, CBS affiliate owner Lyndon B. Johnson. It did not sit well with the newsmen present.
The naval and air engagement in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964, and its consequences, were probably the high-water mark in the rise of the unquestioned powers of the modern presidency. Indeed, the events of Tonkin raised questions which began to change the way many Americans regarded their President. At the heart of the relationship between the President and his fellow citizens was trust, and Tonkin damaged that trust. But the doubts were retrospective. No one cou1d keep up with the President at the time. The hard questioning of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came two years later; in the summer of 1964, it acquiesced totally, as did the rest of the country.
A CBS News documentary airing questions about the Tonkin Gulf incident came seven years later; in 1964 CBS, like other news organizations, endorsed the blank check LBJ wanted. Gradually the Tonkin affair came to symbolize not a model of a strong, activist presidency, but the abuse of presidential powers. At the time, the episode reflected the power of the presidency, in terms of political processes and political myth. The myth: it came after almost twenty years of Cold War, which had made the President the curator of the American national interest, the man who had all the information, to whom we gave all our trust, and who protected us from communist conspiracies. In terms of processes, the presidential reach had become longer and swifter than that of any competitor or challenger. Speed was vital to his new power: thrown into an instant international crisis, the country and the Congress had no time to inquire, no time to doubt, only time to accept. The American Air Force planes were already on their way back from the Tonkin Gulf; the President had already talked to the entire nation. He had the ability to put the Congress, and indeed the nation, in a position where they had to back him up. The President could in effect control events, or so it seemed; control the flow of information, and virtually control how the events were reported.
The television networks responded by presenting the government side, as Johnson knew they would. Even the choice of location for the incident was crucial: there was no New York Times or CBS correspondent in the Tonkin Gulf. There was no alternative source of information. The only film that was used was government film. The TV news showed the verities—or semiverities—of Johnson, McNamara, and Rusk. A case for caution in the Tonkin affair existed, but if the case could not be aired, then in the eye of the TV camera it did not exist. It was all a calculated exploitation of an event. Indeed, LBJ’s standing in the popularity polls went up, convincing him that his “reality” was indeed reality. But there was a built-in danger. His control of the media, and the readiness of the networks to march to his tune, tempted him, and his successor as well, to reach too far. Beyond the belief that he could define issues and news was the notion that he might also define events.
Among those upset by what Johnson was doing with the country and with the networks was Ed Murrow. He was sick and dying, out of the government by then, out of CBS, full of misgivings, both about the Vietnam War and about Lyndon Johnson. The night the Tonkin Gulf news unfolded on the screen, Murrow did something he had never done before. He called up his onetime protégé Fred Friendly, by then the head of CBS News, and tore into him. In the past when Murrow had been angry with Friendly, he had handled him quietly, and sometimes his silence was the most eloquent form of his anger. But this time he was in a rage. “By what God-given right did you treat it this way? What do we really know about what happened out there? Why did it happen? How could you not have Rather and the boys do some sort of special analysis?” Friendly was shocked by his anger, and felt a certain amount of it hit home, because that day he had been on the phone with the White House correspondent; Dan Rather, and Rather had said that it all seemed a bit tricky. Friendly had told Rather for God’s sake not to say anything along that line on the air. Friendly was perplexed but he simply did not know how to cover something as elusive as this, how to raise the questions. He was still, like the country, more hawk than dove, and he was apprehensive about dealing with the war. He was also in close contact with the Johnson Administration. There was some talk about coming back on the air later that night—perhaps a midnight special—but that idea was dropped.
At the same time that television was granting immense and almost unchallenged power to the President, it was granting less and less power to anyone else, particularly its own people. The role of reporter and commentator was diminishing There was less time for serious analysis, and fewer explanations of complicated stories. As the role of the reporter diminished, the role of technology grew. Film was of the essence: a bad story with good film could beat out a good serious story without film almost any time. And film demanded action. So action there would be.
In the decade beginning with the mid-fifties television began to change, and change quite dramatically, the nature and pace of American life. It speeded the pace of social protest. Television had a great deal to do with the surge of the civil rights movement. It brought black people into white homes and white people into black homes. Television simplified events and conditions; at the same time, it was deeply dramatic. Often a news show had an effect like that of live grenades thrown into people’s homes without anyone bothering to explain what had happened—and it reached a vast new national audience. If the news shows were in essence a good “page one,” there was nonetheless little explanation of all these complicated dramas and changes in American life. There was what Daniel Schorr called a “greenhouse effect”—events, personalities, fads came (and went) at an accelerated rate because of television. A saturation point came more quickly too; people were bored with a subject before an issue was solved, finished, or determined. Television heightened interest in the war in Vietnam, heightened for a time the enthusiasm for it, probably hastened the demise of it, and left people exhausted and disheartened by it long before it was in fact over. That is, the war was over in people’s minds while it was unfinished upon the battlefield.
Lyndon Johnson could manipulate the early escalation of the war in Vietnam and the news coverage of it. But he could not control what he had set loose in Vietnam, nor the news coverage that followed. For now, with the volatility of television, events had a power and force of their own. They could sweep past politicians, moving faster than the political system itself, past political scenarios and calculations. Fred Friendly, who was good with slogans and who had come up with phrase “the electronic presidency,” had another good phrase. He called Vietnam “Morley Safer’s War.”
Morley Safer, a Canadian by birth, had worked for several years as a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In the summer of 1965 he had just gone to Saigon for CBS. He was thirty-five that year, and he was not, by journalistic standards (it is a young man’s profession), a kid. He had covered combat and guerrilla warfare for the better part a decade, first in the Middle East, then in Cyprus, and then again for several prolonged tours in Algeria. He was not naïve about the harshness and cruelty of political warfare, knowing that it was infinitely more personal and bitter than great global warfare. He had joined CBS in the spring of 1964, assigned to the London bureau and expecting to cover England and the Continent. But then Vietnam began to heat up and CBS asked him to go to Saigon for six months; he was, after all, experienced in covering warfare, he was new at CBS (and thus expendable), and he was single (thus even more expendable). It was Safer’s impression that he was chosen because no one really expected the war to last that long; that the idea of sending a young Canadian was attractive on the premise that no one else in the office was likely to be interested. In retrospect, what struck him most about the American military mission in Saigon when he first arrived was its innocence. The American public information officers were helpful, little aware of the change in the nature of war and the complexity in press relations that this war would produce. They were graduates of previous wars, wars of survival, and they thought the rules were same: our side, their side. Oh, yes, there had been dissident print reporters in the past, but there was an assumption that they were the exception, and that once the flag was truly planted, it would be the good old days again.
In August, 1965, shortly after Johnson’s dispatch of American combat units to Vietnam, Safer had gone up to Da Nang, the Marine staging area. He had no precise idea why he had gone there; it was simply that he had not covered the Marines lately. In the trade Safer was known as having exceptional combat luck, two kinds of luck—the luck that wherever he went he found plenty of action, and the luck to live to narrate it. He was having coffee with some Marine officers, trying to get a feel for the area and the kind of action that was going on. A young Marine officer said he had an operation going the next day; would Safer like to go along? Safer would. So the next day they went on amphibious carriers o a place called Cam Ne, a complex of villages. On the way the young lieutenant confided to Safer that they were going to level it, really tear it up. Safer asked why, and the lieutenant said because they had been taking a lot of fire from the goddamn village, and the province chief wanted it leveled. (Years later another reporter who had studied that area told Safer that reason Cam Ne was leveled had nothing to do the Vietcong; rather, the Vietnamese province chief was furious that the locals had refused to pay their taxes, and he wanted the village punished; and the Americans, who were to do the punishing, were not aware of that.) The Americans walked toward the village in single file along a small tributary, everyone firing. One fact stuck in Safer’s mind: it was all friendly fire, and though three Marines were wounded, all three, as often happened in this war, all three were wounded in the back by their own men. But this added to the American anger nonetheless, and when they finally took the village, with no hostile fire, the Marines did in fact tear the place apart, setting fire to the hutches and leveling the village. Safer, surprised by the destruction, remembered feeling how senseless it was.
Years later, he was not bothered by the impact of the story he filed; to the degree that he was worried at a professional level, it was about whether the story, explosive as it was, had been too soft, and whether he should have done a harsher story. For the facts were uglier than what he reported: the Americans were throwing grenades down into shelter holes and using flamethrowers on the deeper holes, where cowering civilians were either burned to death or asphyxiated. At one point Ha Thuc Can, a Vietnamese cameraman who worked for CBS and who was fluent in both French and English, saw a group of Americans about to fire a flame-thrower down a deep hole. The sounds of women and children could clearly be heard, and Can started arguing with the Marines, screaming at them not to do that; there were Vietnamese women and children in there, he cried. He argued with the Marines for several minutes, and since he was the only one present who spoke both Vietnamese and English (Safer asked the Marine officer why he had no one in his group who could speak Vietnamese, and the lieutenant said he didn’t need anyone), Can began to talk the Vietnamese out of the hole. It took some time and risk on his part, but he finally did it, saving perhaps a dozen lives (for which heroism Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, tried to have him fired, complaining that one of the keys to this evil story was that CBS had used a South Vietnamese cameraman, a sure sign of alien influence).
For Safer, no innocent, this was something new: part of it was that it was Americans who were doing it. He had become accustomed to French cruelty in Algeria, but these were Americans, and like most people, including most Americans, he thought Americans were different. And part of it was the senselessness of it all, for even when the French had applied torture they had usually done it very deliberately; this seemed, in addition to everything else, haphazard, sloppy, and careless, and therefore perhaps worse than French habits of war. He filed his story on the spot, a decision he later regretted, thinking that if he had taken more time he might have made it better and tougher.
When Safer’s report came into CBS in New York there was an immediate awareness of the force and danger of it. Fred Friendly was called and awakened at home. At this point all CBS had was Safer’s radio broadcast, which they were about to use on the Morning News Roundup. Friendly was groggy and not entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of the story, but he asked one question: Is Morley sure of his facts? The CBS desk man at the other end of the phone answered: “Not only is he sure of his facts but he’s on the Q circuit [a kind of hold line] and they’ve just talked to him, and not only does he have it right—but wait until you see the film.”
Friendly felt nervous and frightened. He was going to have to decide whether or not to put this film on the air, and he knew the implications. CBS had not assigned the story. CBS, God knows, did not want American boys to burn down Vietnamese hutches. And if the hutches were to be burned, most high CBS officials probably would have been pleased if Morley Safer had missed the helicopter that took him there.
Friendly called Stanton to warn him about the story, and then he called Arthur Sylvester of the Defense Department to tell him to listen to the CBS radio station in Washington. Sylvester did, denied the story, and called it inaccurate. At this point the CBS news executives decided to hire a line to Los Angeles so they could look at the film. In those days a line cost three or four thousand dollars, and they were usually reluctant to hire one, but in this case the money looked very small. Fred Friendly, now joined by associates including Walter Cronkite, sat in a small room in New York and watched on screen a film of American Marines setting fire to Vietnamese thatched huts, Americans leveling a village. They knew they had to go with it. It was not so much that they wanted to go as that they simply could not fail to use it. They looked and they were shocked. But once the film was in, they were the prisoners of it. The only talk was about whether Morley had gotten the context of the story right, and so they called back to Safer to be sure that they had the full explanation for why something so terrible had happened. And then they went with it. It was an eerie evening for Friendly. He stayed at his desk that night to answer the phone calls, and he noted that the evening news has an interesting effect. Response to it comes in ripples because it goes out at different times to different time zones, and so, each hour on the hour or the half-hour, a new time zone’s of good Americans called in to scream their at CBS for doing something like this, portraying our boys as killers; American boys didn’t do like this. Many of the calls were obscene.
Among the obscene phone calls was received the next day by Frank Stanton, president of CBS, member of President Johnson’s Advisory Commission on the USIA, an agency whose mission is to promote the image of the United to foreign countries. The call came from Stanton’s great and good friend, the President of the United States. (Stanton, asked about the call years later, said he could not remember it, but the call and the reaction to it remained vivid in the memory of other CBS officials.)
“Frank,” said the, early morning caller, “are you trying to fuck me?”
“Who is this?” said the still sleepy Stanton
“Frank, this is your President, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag,” said Lyndon Johnson. Then he administered a tongue-lashing to Stanton for letting CBS employ a communist like Safer and for being so unpatriotic as to put on enemy film like this. Johnson was sure that Safer was a communist; he sent out a search party to check his past; it was arranged that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would check out everything about Safer. The conclusion was that he was above suspicion and law-abiding. Johnson was not happy about these findings, and he insisted that Safer was a communist. When aides said no, he was simply a Canadian, the President said, “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.” He was also convinced that Safer had bribed the Marine officer in charge of the operation. “They got one of our boys,” he told his staff. He immediately called through to the Joint Chiefs to launch an investigation of the officer in charge, to make sure that he had not been bribed by a communist reporter, that he had not taken money. Even after the investigation returned a report that there was no bribing, that it was just one of those things, that those tricky newspaper people had tricked a green young officer, the President of the United States believed there was a conspiracy involved. Some of his underlings in the Defense Department kept up background noise claiming that Safer had staged the incident.
Safer’s film helped legitimize pessimistic reporting for other television correspondents (and made sure that if they witnessed a comparable episode, they filmed it). It illustrated the different dimensions of print and television journalism. A print report on a comparable story might have produced a brief flurry of reaction, but this was different. It marked the beginning of the end of a myth: that Americans were special, that American soldiers gave out chewing gum, and that American cowboys rescued women and children from the savagery of Indians. It also helped prepare the way for a different perception of the war. Now there was a greater receptivity to considering darker news about Vietnam, and to sensing that, despite all the fine words of all the public relations men that the Defense Department and the President employed, and all the fine posturings of high Administration officials on Meet the Press, there was something wrong going on out there. Sooner or later someone like Morley Safer was bound to stumble into something like Cam Ne, and when it happened it was electric. Overnight, one correspondent with one cameraman could have as much effect as ten or fifteen or twenty senators turned dissident.
CBS executives, talking to Stanton in the days following the incident, knew that he had it in for Safer. He would dearly have liked to dump him. For several days they thought that you could actually hear Lyndon Johnson’s voice in Stanton’s mouth. Then it became more subtle, reflecting Johnson’s doubts as distinguished from his rage: What do we really know about Safer? How did he get with us? What’s his real background? At CBS in the next couple of weeks there was an effort to get more positive stories on the air to balance the Safer report. But the Safer story had had an effect.
The problem for Frank Stanton was considerable. He was straddling dual roles: with the decline of Murrow, he had, ironically, been drawn more and more to the news department, and privately he believed it was the most important part the giant corporation. But the other Frank Stanton was still the establishmentarian and lobbyist who worked at getting on with the big boys, knowing the inner corridors of power, and never revealing what was inside them. As the sixties passed, the conflict between the two roles became irreconcilable. It became impossible to stand for a good public service broadcasting network and be the closest friend of the liberal and well-intentioned President of the United States. The raw edge of power was too harsh to permit Frank Stanton the luxury of both roles.. On the one hand Frank Stanton grew cold at the mention of Morley Safer’s name, and he was not, to say the least, a champion of Safer’s career. On the Other hand, Safer himself never knew it. The other news executives at CBS protected him, and he remained in Vietnam, a respected-figure among working correspondents.
A few days after the broadcast, Frank Stanton, he of the Establishment, whatever his complicated private feelings, went before a meeting of advertisers and defended the right of CBS News to cover stories as negative and as ugly as Safer’s. It was, some of his colleagues thought, the making of Frank Stanton. He was a different man after it; he was more independent and had somehow cast himself more with the news department than with the presidency.
The president went on television relentlessly in pursuit of his war policies, or his proxies went there for him, on the evening news shows or on the Sunday interview shows. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, watched his old comrade Lyndon Johnson and decided after several months that the country was being taken, that the President was waging war by means of television, using this vehicle almost unchallenged to whip up support for a war that Fulbright had come to suspect had very little basic support among the American people. Fulbright had steered the Administration’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the Senate in August of 1964; now he was having an awakening. Later he gave a series of speeches demanding more broadcast time for the Congress and the opposition party; he had not previously noticed the degree to which the President could exploit and dominate television. You go along with him and it doesn’t bother you, Fulbright thought, until you suddenly disagree with him on an issue, and then you realize your helplessness
Senatorial helplessness was a subject upon which Bill Fulbright was increasingly becoming an expert. He could make a dissenting speech on Vietnam and he would be lucky to get a line or two in the New York Times or a minute on the evening news. Still, Bill Fulbright was not a man to throw himself into the breach. By nature he was an aristocrat, a man of rationality and decorum, uneasy with anything he thought might be demagogic. He was not a man to take on a President, or to lead a crusade. He had broken with Johnson over the Dominican Republic in 1965. He was disturbed by the escalation in Vietnam, by the semicovert way Johnson had been expanding the war, and by the manner in which the President bypassed the Congress, holding consultations at the White House. There the only congressional function was to listen. It reminded Fulbright of the age of kings, with their divine right.
Fulbright searched for a way for Congress at the very least to ventilate the issues, to bring some outside reason to bear on the stealthy war policy. The occasion turned out to be annual hearings on foreign aid. It was mostly happenstance, like two armies not expecting to fight each other but stumbling onto the same battlefield. Fulbright had not really chosen to make these hearings a confrontation, and he had not expected television coverage, except perhaps for the usual banal two-minute summary (“Secretary Rusk claimed…Senator Fulbright charged…”). Indeed, when the confrontation took place, aspects of it offended his own sense of civility as much as they did that of Dean Rusk. The television lights bothered Fulbright and he wore flip-up sunglasses. But the time was right, if not late. He had particularly articulate allies now on the committee—Wayne Morse, Albert Gore, Eugene McCarthy—and his own staff had become critical of the conduct of the war.
It became clear as Rusk testified on the first day of the Foreign Aid Bill hearings that foreign aid had nothing to do with it. These would be the public hearings on the Vietnam War that should have been held two years earlier at the time of Tonkin; the congressional debate about the meaning of the Administration’s policy that the nation had a right to expect. Ironically, what legitimized them in the public mind, and emboldened the timid television networks to cover them, was the men who came to testify were by and large Administration witnesses, and the lead witness not some antiwar critic, but Dean Rusk. What the Secretary of State said was news, and when he spoke it was all right for pencils to write and for cameras to run. It was legitimate, his title conferred legitimacy as Fulbright’s did not. If the first witness had been James Gavin or George Kennan, there probably would have been no such legitimacy, no precedent for television coverage, and thus, in all likelihood, no coverage.
It was, in fact, the first time that the Administration, however involuntarily, had sent its warlords before a body of serious critics—men with titles—where the questions and doubts which the war was provoking would be raised. Like the Ervin committee hearings some seven years later, the Fulbright hearings were the beginning of a slow but effective educational process, a turning of the tide against the President’s will and against his awesome propaganda machinery. It was a rare alliance of the media and another political institution against the presidency. It was the ventilation of various opposition views (led not by the opposition party—most of the key members of the Fulbright committee were from the President’s own party), and it helped legitimize dissent on the war.
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.
Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam in 1965, at the peak of his professional career. For most Americans it was hard to imagine national television without him. He was a fixture in American life, a point of solidity and comfort. Americans worried when he was ill and took comfort when he recovered. He was not controversial; it was a mark of his style and of the times passing that he could dominate television journalism for so long without becoming controversial. It was a mark of the raw, harsh decade to follow that even Walter Cronkite became controversial.
Before then, the one assault on Walter Cronkite had come from his own network superiors, and it had been deeply disturbing. The CBS Evening News ratings had slipped badly in 1964, and he had been made the scapegoat by CBS. He had been chosen to anchor the news in the first place because he was comfortable rather than flashy; now it was as if CBS felt he wasn’t flashy enough, or had become too stolid.
The occasion was the 1964 political convention season. NBC was riding high in the public affairs field. CBS, under network chief James Aubrey, had won an impressive lead in nighttime programming and was pulling in profits to show for it, but one price of that lead had been deliberate neglect of public affairs. (That summer Aubrey told a close friend, “The only thing that Paley and I agree on is that we’re not going to blow all that fucking money on the conventions this year.”) NBC’s Robert Kintner, however, with less to lose at a time when NBC was number two in the ratings, was emphasizing public affairs. He believed that the key to a strong network was public affairs, that news generated excitement, that news could become the sinews of the entire organization. He had worked doggedly to build up NBC News, liked to put on instant specials, and had come up with Huntley-Brinkley. They made a finely tuned anchor team: Huntley, from Montana, Cronkitelike in his steadiness; Brinkley, the tart, slightly rebellious younger brother, who could by deft tonal inflection imply touches of irreverence and skepticism, qualities generally notable for their absence from the medium. Backing them at political convention time was a force of fine floor reporters.
In 1956 NBC had challenged CBS’s news supremacy for the first time. It was the year of Huntley-Brinkley’s emergence, and as the conventions had dragged on hour after hour (too much convention, too much coverage, journalistic overkill, the selection of the same two candidates who had run in 1952), they had become a fine showcase for Brinkley’s dry humor. The surge in NBC’s ratings scared CBS. Don Hewitt, the CBS producer, panicked and suggested to Sig Mickelson that they team Cronkite, who was then doing the anchor, with Murrow. The two big guns of CBS against the upstarts at NBC. A sure winner on paper. It was a disaster: they were the same man playing the same role. Two avunculars for the price of one. They did not play to each other or against each other as Huntley and Brinkley did. The chemistry was bad and Murrow was not a good ad-libber. This failed experiment propelled Huntley-Brinkley even higher. By 1960 the Huntley-Brinkley nightly news was number one in the ratings. Bill Paley loved to be number one; he was not happy. Kintner loved it. He ordered the NBC people to close the nightly news with a statement saying that this program had the largest audience in the world. Bill Paley was number two.
In 1964, as the national political conventions approached, NBC was keeping it up, putting emphasis on public affairs and news coverage. CBS was trying to get through the conventions with minimal commitment. The NBC motto at the time under Kintner was "CBS Plus Thirty": however much CBS was putting on and thirty minutes more. The conventions were the payoff. NBC poured in immense amounts of logistical support and technical preparation. It was as if the two networks were out there, not covering the political story of the year, but rather defining themselves. In no way would CBS or NBC put comparab1e effort into trying to find out what made America work, or into covering important subsurface stories on a regular basis. Convention coverage was not so much journalism as a kind of show-biz preening, tied to ego and ratings and image.
On those scores, NBC’s 1964 success was sweet. Kintner had a booth of his own with a special phone to call his subordinates, and at one point the job of handling Kintner and his phone fell to a producer named Robert ("Shad") Northshield. The phone rang.
“Northshield,” said Northshield.
“The new ratings we’ve got are 86,” said Kintner in his gravelly voice.
“That’s great,” said Northshield.
Kintner hung up immediately. A second later the phone rang again. “Did you get that straight?—86,” Kintner said, and hung up.
Seconds later the phone rang again.
“It seems to me that you could give me more a reaction,” Kintner said.
“Well, what do you want, 100 percent?” asked Northshield.
“Yes,” said Kintner. Bang went the phone.
The difference between he NBC and the CBS coverage at the Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater and William Miller was not that great. NBC had a strong team; CBS had a young team, and a new, frenetic executive group under a very tense Fred Friendly. But there were not that many stories to miss. The big difference was in the ratings, and clearly, someone at CBS would have to pay. It would not be the people who had failed to support the news division—Paley and Aubrey—who would be blamed. It would be the news division and Walter Cronkite.
Cronkite had not had a good convention. There was a feeling among some of his colleagues that he had become a mike hog, a charge not without justification. It was also true that he had been a bit petulant when Friendly and Bill Leonard, who were running the show, put Eric Sevareid into his place a table next to him. Sevareid was ostensibly there to do commentary and only commentary, but to Cronkite it smacked suspiciously of an attempt to make him share the anchor post, which in fact it was, and he accepted it badly. It. had not helped anybody’s temper that the Goldwater had become enraged over a CBS story by Daniel Schorr linking the candidate with some right-wing Germans, a story which CBS had apologized for, and which had upset William S. Paley.
Paley now wanted drastic changes in the news team. He was not about to accept being number two. Friendly and Leonard argued that CBS had fielded a young team under Cronkite in San Francisco and there was no point in trying to change it now. Leonard and Friendly had weakened their position slightly in their talks with Paley by saying that Cronkite had talked too much during the convention. Paley immediately seized on that—Cronkite talking too much. A villain. Suddenly it was clear: Cronkite was going to be the fall guy, as far as Paley was concerned. Why was he on the air so much. Why did he talk too much? He had to go, and there would be a new anchor. Paley and Stanton (usually it was Stanton who brought the word down from the world of Olympus, but this time Paley was there as well) asked ominously what changes the news department was recommending. Friendly and Leonard said they were going to do nothing. Do you recommend, said Paley, that we get rid of Cronkite? Absolutely not, said Friendly. Paley told them to come back with specific recommendations in a few days. The corporation, it seemed, was about to meet the news department. So Friendly and Leonard met with Ernie Leiser, who was Cronkite’s producer, and after much soul-searching, recommended that it was impractical to do anything about the convention team. NBC was going to dominate the upcoming Democratic convention at Atlantic City, and the best course was simply to take the lumps and plan for the future.
It was not what Paley wanted to hear. This time the suggestion was a little more like a command: Come back and bring with you the names of the correspondents that you intend to replace Walter with. They were meeting almost every day. At the session Friendly and Leonard were still trying to hold the line, but Paley now had his own suggestion: Mudd. This terrific young correspondent, Roger Mudd. Mudd, he said, was a born anchorman, Mudd was a star. And now with Mudd, said Paley, how about Bob Trout? If Mudd was young and from television, Trout was a veteran from radio days, and a word man. Trout could indeed go on for hours with lingering descriptions of events in the old radio tradition. A Mudd-Trout anchor, that was Paley’s idea. There was no talk of substance, or missed coverage, or bad reporting. It was all of image and ratings.
Friendly had coveted the job of head of CBS News, lobbied for it, and now he was caught between his ambition and his news department. What bothered friends, as he talked his dilemma out, was that at the time he seemed, or at least half seemed, to accept management’s right to make non-news judgments on news questions. Friendly complained bitterly to one high-level colleague of the pressure from Paley, and added that he did not know what to do. The friend asked, Fred, is it just ratings, or is there a professional case against Cronkite? And Friendly’s company-man response was the familiar one: it was their candy store; CBS belonged to Paley.
Friendly warned the Chairman that Walter would not stand for the change and might well quit; he was shocked by Paley’s response—Good, I hope he does. There was one last meeting of Leonard and Friendly with Leiser, and Leiser thought he had held the line. But the next day Friendly gave in. Among CBS working reporters, Friendly’s decision was not popular. Two years later, when he resigned over CBS’s failure to maintain coverage of the Fulbright hearings, many colleagues thought he had chosen the wrong issue. They thought that the larger issue had been the yanking of Cronkite, that Friendly had then lost the power to protect the rights of the newsroom, and had accepted the primacy of ratings.
Friendly and Leonard flew out to California to break the news to Cronkite, who was vacationing there. There was some talk of a Mudd–Cronkite anchor, but Cronkite, fiercely proud, wanted none of it; he did not want to share with Mudd, and he knew CBS did not want him in the booth. Cronkite was careful not to criticize the company. He held a news conference, and he said yes, he thought CBS had a right to change anchormen. No, he was not going to worry about it. Nor did he agree to the suggestion of the company PR man who asked him to pose by a television set for an ad which was to say, "Even Walter Cronkite Listens to Mudd–Trout." His loyalty to CBS did not extend to fatuousness. At the Democratic convention in Atlantic City he did happen, by chance, to enter an elevator in which Bob Kintner of NBC was riding, and reporters who spotted them emerging together thereupon wrote that Cronkite was going to NBC, a rumor which helped sweeten his next contract. All in all, it could have been worse for him. He was fortified in his time of trial by a certain suspicion that a Mudd–Trout was likely to be an endangered species.
When Friendly returned from California and called Stanton to tell him that Walter Cronkite had been separated from his anchorman role (it made Friendly feel like a character in a Shakespeare play: "Yes, the deed has been done, sire"), Stanton said, "Good, the Chairman will be delighted." CBS put on Mudd–Trout, who were a failure. NBC routed CBS even more dramatically in Atlantic City than they had in San Francisco.
Friendly worked hard to keep Cronkite from quitting outright and to persuade him to stay with the Evening News. He did, and that fall CBS put together strong election coverage. CBS was far ahead of NBC in the ratings throughout election eve. Cronkite was immediately rehabilitated. The Huntley–Brinkley format had slipped a bit. It had been on top for eight years, a long time by television standards.
There was a footnote to CBS’s treatment of Walter Cronkite in 1964. The Cronkite who came back after his public humiliation was a proud man, and as the next few years passed and he became ever more dominant over his competition, the pride intensified and occasionally flashed. During the 1968 Democratic convention, the delegates were voting on the platform’s peace plank. And suddenly, as sometimes happens at conventions, Cronkite and everyone else started using a single word to refer to a situation: the word this year was "erosion," which replaced "slippage," the previous convention’s word. "Erosion" referred to the loss of votes for a leading candidate or position. Cronkite had just mentioned that there was an erosion of votes in the Alabama delegation. He was broadcasting live from the booth, and suddenly a scribbled note was passed to him: "Tell Walter not to use the word ‘erosion.’" Cronkite, without missing a beat in his commentary, scribbled his own note: "Who says?" Back came another note: “Stanton." Suddenly it was as if fire were coming out of Cronkite’s nostrils, and even as he continued the delegate count, he scribbled one more note: "I quit." Someone scribbled a note to pass to the brass, saying: "Walter quits." This was passed back, and even as it was being passed back, Cronkite was standing up and taking off his headset and reaching for his jacket. It was an electric moment. Suddenly someone was yelling: "For God’s sake, tell him to get back down there, don’t let him leave! They’re not trying to censor him. They just don’t like the word ‘erosion.’" So he sat down and continued his broadcasting. They might mess with him once, but no one messed with Walter Cronkite a second time.
When Walter Cronkite decided to go to Vietnam in the summer of 1965, he had successfully resisted an ill-advised attempt by his own company to displace him, and he was the senior journalist of the most important broadcast news medium in the world.
In those days Vietnam was a consensus war, and Cronkite was television’s consensus newscaster. But in Saigon on that trip, his best qualities seemed to haunt him. He symbolized an American tradition of good faith and trust—and these characteristics were about to become casualties in Vietnam. He was inclined to take without question the word of men who had titles and positions. Often these were from World War II, men who had been his peers then and who were his peers now. It was a generational situation: he shared not just their perceptions but their seniority. They were four-star, he was four-star. They had to know what they were doing because he knew what he was doing. It was a danger of the journalist as superstar: instant access to the top of the ladder before doing hard grounding in the field, finding out the difference between what was going on out there and what the top brass said was going on, and why there was such a difference.
When he went to Vietnam in 1965, Cronkite was not an objective man but a centrist man, and there is a difference. In his own mind he was objective, a middle-of-the-road containment man. The government’s position, which he accepted, was not necessarily objective or legitimate, but it represented the center. He did not doubt the corruption weakness of the South Vietnamese government, and he did not expect to see democracy flower in the Mekong Delta, but he had been conditioned to the rhetoric of a generation—indeed, he had helped push some of that rhetoric in long CBS documentaries on American air power, and in coverage of those great American space shots. He did feel at ease with the people who were attacking the conventional wisdom, and when he arrived in Saigon in 1965, he did not like the cynicism and brashness of the younger correspondents. (From to time he remembered, not entirely with pleasure, his own brashness during World War II.) Morley Safer, who was then CBS Saigon bureau chief, tried to put Cronkite in contact with younger officers, men who were in touch with the day-to-day reality of the war, but it was an uphill struggle. The Air Force, on which Cronkite had done those sympathetic documentaries in the 1950s, reached out to him and showed him all its finest toys and newest weapons, and he simply could not go against the past. He knew almost intuitively how hard to look, and how hard not to look. It was important that in his own mind he was not violating his objectivity by accepting unquestioningly the government position. Rather, at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, he challenged the government position, and he was aware then of a departure from objectivity.
He was also, whatever his own sympathies, the man who, as managing editor of the CBS Evening News, ultimately passed on the reporting of the younger, critical reporters from Vietnam. And while the nightly CBS report from Saigon had faults—lack of air time, lack of cumulative meaningful texture, an emphasis on blood and bang-bang in film—it nonetheless stood out. Some of the American military people called CBS the Communist Broadcasting Station. But by journalistic consensus, the two best television reporters of the war were CBS’s Safer and his younger colleague, Jack Laurence.
What television did slowly but surely with this particular war was to magnify its faults and brutalities, and to show, as the Safer film from Cam Ne proved, that you could not separate civilian from combatant. That was part of it. The other part was the way television had speeded the pace of life in America. Everything had to work faster—even war—and as bench mark after bench mark of victory predicted by the architects passed without victory, the war seemed to drag on. Everything now, because of television, was part theater, and the Vietnam War was becoming a drama with an unhappy ending which had played too long. Slowly the consensus began to change, and as it did television began to change, too, becoming more doubting, more mistrusting. And so Walter Cronkite, the man of consensus, changed as the nation changed. Walter Cronkite was always acutely aware of his audience and its moods; he was very good at leading and being led at the same time, at once a good reporter and a good politician.
At the time of the Tet offensive, early in 1968, Lyndon Johnson and his war policy were extremely vulnerable. Cronkite returned to Vietnam to do his own special broadcast; he was in effect covering a very different war. He was uneasy; he knew that he was stepping out of his natural role. He had carefully avoided revealing his real opinions and feelings on the Evening News, and there was no doubt that even people who agreed with what he was about to do would have a new kind of suspicion about him—Walter was somehow not quite so straight anymore, not so predictable. He was very good at anticipating the reaction; he knew that Huntley–Brinkley, particularly because of Brinkley, were already perceived as being more editorial than he was, and that serious implications rode on that perception. He talked it over with the various producers at CBS and with Dick Salant, head of CBS News, and they agreed that whatever misgivings they had, their shared sense was that if you were the signature figure of a serious news organization, your obligation was to cover a major story at a time when it was confusing and dividing the nation.
With that encouragement, but not without a good deal of reservation, Cronkite went to Saigon at the time of the Tet offensive. It was an Orwellian trip, for Orwell had written of a Ministry of Truth in charge of Lying and a Ministry of Peace in charge of War, and here was Cronkite flying to Saigon where the American military command was surrounded by failure and trying to sell it as victory. He and his producer, Ernie Leiser, traveled together, and they had trouble landing in the country. All the airports were closed. They finally reached Saigon, a city at war. Cronkite wanted the requisite briefing with General William Westmoreland, and that was truly Orwellian: pressed fatigues, eyes burning fiercely, the voice saying that little had happened, almost surprised that Walter was there, though of course it was fortunate that he had come, since Tet was such a great victory. Exactly what the Americans wanted.
Then Cronkite headed north with Leiser and Jeff Gralnick, his favorite young producer, who had just come to Saigon as a correspondent. They tried to get into Khe Sanh, which was undergoing very heavy fighting, but no one would write the insurance policy; it was too dangerous. So he went instead to Hue. Just the day before, Westy had said that the battle was over. But it was clear that no one had bothered to tell the North Vietnamese; and the Marines were fighting desperately to retake Hue. The younger CBS men were impressed by the sight of Cronkite striding right into the center of the street fighting: The old war horse, they thought, takes all the risks. But it was a crucial moment for him, because for the first time he saw the credibility gap, face front.
He was shocked, not so much by the ferocity of the fighting, but because to his mind the men in charge of the war were not to be trusted. Even his way of leaving Hue was suggestive. There were exceptional precautions, extra weapons aboard (having had the U.S. Embassy in Saigon overrun on the evening news was bad enough, but if the American mission lost the best-known newscaster of the day in a city which it had allegedly just pacified . . .), and the plane was carrying, along with the famous commentator, twelve dead GIs in body bags
They stopped at Phu Bai on the way back to Saigon, and Cronkite met with his old friend General Creighton Abrams. Abrams was then the deputy commander, scheduled to replace Westmoreland eventually. He was candid with Cronkite about the dimension of the catastrophe, the degree to which the command had been taken by surprise, and the impact of it. Here was the number two man in the American command—close to, but free of responsibility for, the debacle—confirming Cronkite’s own doubts and sounding like one of the much maligned American journalists in Saigon, and explaining how and why the mission had been so blind. From there Cronkite returned to Saigon to meet with his CBS colleagues. He was, thought those who worked with him, very different on this trip, introspective and disturbed, searching for answers. Usually Cronkite prided himself on his objectivity, on his detachment and his lack of involvement. An event was an event and nothing more.
The last night he had dinner with a group correspondents on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel, and he kept asking, again and again, How could it have happened? How could it have happened? Peter Kalischer, the senior and most knowledgeable of the correspondents, spoke strongly: It has been happening for years, there were lies from the start, we had been building on a false base, we were essentially intruders in Vietnamese lives. Later Cronkite went up to the roof of the Caravelle with Jack Laurence, the youngest and probably the most anguished of the CBS reporters. He was twenty-six when he arrived; his reporting had been distinguished by a human dimension, and he seemed to catch the feel of the young American GIs better other television correspondents did. Cronkite and Laurence stood on the roof and watched the artillery in nearby Cholon, and Laurence felt a certain resentment. He didn’t like the breed of older correspondent who observed the war from the Caravelle roof, armchair generals who watched the shells and did not know or care where they landed. He and his contemporaries preferred on days off to sit in their rooms and get stoned on pot. He did not know if this was less or more moral, but it allowed him on occasion to forget the war and the bodies.
Cronkite, who was trying to measure the distance on some of the artillery rounds, must have sensed this resentment, because he talked to Laurence, not so much as a senior correspondent to a junior one, but almost as a father to a son. He said he was grateful to Laurence and the other reporters who had risked so much day after day for the news show, and he understood how frustrated a younger man could become with the bureaucracy of journalism and what seemed like the insensitivity of editors. He had undergone similar frustrations in World War II, the difficulty of communicating with older men thousands of miles away who were not witnessing what he was witnessing. Laurence was touched, and felt that Cronkite been changed by what he had seen,
Cronkite did a half-hour news special, which he insisted on writing himself—which was by itself unusual. This was the period when the Johnson Administration was seriously considering a commitment to Vietnam of 200,000 troops. He said that the war didn’t work, that more troops would not turn it around, and that we had to start thinking of getting out. These were alien and hard words for him, but he did not feel he could do otherwise. He was ready for it and the country was ready for it; he moved in part because the consensus was moving, helping to shift the grain by his very act. Other forces were at work: Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenging Johnson out front; Defense Secretary Clark Clifford leading a reassessment from within the Administration. But Cronkite’s reporting did help change the balance. It was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a commentator. In Washington Lyndon Johnson watched and told his press secretary, George Christian, that it was a turning point; that if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run for re-election. He had lost his consensus. Cronkite, hearing of what Johnson said, tried on future occasions to bring the subject up when he was with Johnson; but Johnson knew the game, and, when the question was raised, took off on long tirades against the press in general and the press’ sinister betrayal of the national interest in particular.
The Nixon Administration was even more preoccupied with television than its predecessors. Richard Nixon himself was obsessed by television, perhaps because he scored an early coup (the Checkers speech) on it, and was later a victim of it (the debates with Kennedy); perhaps because he sensed that if he controlled it he could make it show the Nixon he wanted to be and not the Nixon he was. In the Nixon years, television was not just a means but an end. Those who opposed him on it became his real opposition. He struggled to control his exposure. Unsure of who he was, Nixon was obsessed by exterior definitions of himself. His was a television White House; it was dominated by Bob Haldeman and his people. Haldeman came from the world of the manipulative arts, not from the world of politics. Haldeman paid close attention to television. He knew after which prime-time shows it was advantageous to schedule a presidential broadcast, and which ones never to break in on. In 1968 Haldeman devised the campaign tactic of scheduling only one appearance a day that could be filmed, on the theory that if the network producers had choice of film for two or more Nixon campaign appearances, they would always pick the least flattering one. Therefore, schedule Nixon tightly, control the environment, and give the networks the film you want, not what they want. It was Haldeman, too, who, during the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (kids, cops, pols, blood, all in the street, and all on television), made sure that Nixon was on a boat and out of reach of a camera so that there could be no connection, not even subliminal, in the public mind between Nixon and that kind of politics. Once they were in the White House, more time and energy of more key White House people was spent deciding when and how to get the President on television—and how to keep potential adversaries off—than in dealing with the Congress or the Democratic opposition.
By comparison with Nixon and his aides, previous Presidents had pressured the networks with kid gloves. Now there was an orchestrated assault upon the integrity of the network news divisions, an attempt to put them on the defensive and to reduce public respect for them.
CBS News was the strongest of the three networks, and the theory was that if CBS was bent, the other two would follow. Early in the conflict between the Nixon Administration and the media, Walter Cronkite called it a conspiracy. At the time, Joe Wershba, an old Marrow hand, had congratulated Cronkite on his response to Agnew, but said that he was bothered by the word "conspiracy"; wasn’t that too harsh a word? A few years later, as more evidence began to come out from Watergate, including a memo on NBC by Larry Higby of Haldeman’s staff which said that the aim was to destroy the institution, Wershba apologized to Cronkite.
Nixon dispatched Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack the press in general and the networks in particular ten days after he announced his policy of Peace with Honor. He intended to sell his policy with as little negative or pessimistic analysis as possible. Americans would think they were getting both peace and honor in Vietnam, even if neither was in fact, under the conditions set by Nixon, attainable. But the selling of the policy was more important than the policy. He had, in singling out the networks and unleashing Agnew upon them, picked up the scent of the networks’ vulnerability. For a decade they had been, if not the cause, at least the bearers, of bad and jarring news: racial conflict, a terrible war, arid protest against a terrible war. Kill the messenger.
To many Americans, the old verities about America still lived: America was good, and the less said about the bad, the better. The Nixon–Agnew onslaught against the media was more successful than most television executives like to admit. Nixon drew blood, and people in television were newly sensitive to the issues raised. Yes, the networks would carry bad and unsettling news when it was warranted, but there was a subtle drop-off in their aggressiveness in seeking it out, and a new defensiveness about their reporting. At CBS in the early 1970s, for example, Charles Kuralt’s reports on roving around America became easier to include in the news show. Kuralt had been doing charming bits of Americana for some time; now there was an intensified effort to find Kuraltlike human interest stories—good stories, but that did not jar people’s nerves. There was a word for them at CBS—"HI," Human Interest—and the word was, get more HI. At the height of the Nixon–Agnew pressure, Bill Paley decided to drop instant analysis after presidential speeches. Later it was reinstated. CBS did not back down on really important issues under the attack (or remove Dan Rather from the White House beat, which was a prime Nixon priority). But it made sure that with the bad news, the abrasive or critical reporting, there was a certain amount of sugar coating. TV correspondents as good guys. If not lovable, at least likable.
The Nixon Administration’s war on the networks had a second front. That was a subtle but deliberate attempt by the Administration to turn the outlying affiliate stations against the network news divisions in New York. The Nixon men saw strongest, most centralized rival for power and political opposition in network television. They set out to do something that Kennedy and Johnson had never tried—to decentralize the networks, provoke regional pressure from the affiliates on home-office news questions. They had discovered that the affiliates were the soft underbelly of the networks. The affiliate station owners tended to be Republicans, but there was more than party politics to this effort. There were social and cultural aspects of it: the local station owners were businessmen; they were closer to the local chamber of commerce outlook than to any notion of a journalistic tradition and they were not from New York. They did not like the contemporary counterculture in its various manifestations, especially not when the networks covered it and, by covering it, encouraged it. In any showdown between the traditionalist values or the allegedly traditionalist values, of the Nixon Administration and those of the CBS newsroom, the affiliate owners were by inclination and instinct on the side of the Administration.
In 1970, CBS planned to put on a small, frail show called The Loyal Opposition, designed to compete with presidential use of television—four half-hour shows in an election year. The Nixon people roused the affiliates against it; they brought so much pressure that the show was canceled abruptly after only one viewing. Herb Klein, the nice guy of the Nixon Administration press operation, quietly worked the boondocks, taking the “good cop” approach. He was not, like Agnew, looking for headlines, but rather stirring up the natives against network news, encouraging the affiliate owners to protest the kind of coverage that alien forces in New York were subverting them with—the impudence of Dan Schorr and Dan Rather, the lack of patriotism in the Saigon bureau. (Dick Salant, head of CBS News, spent two days arguing a committee of affiliate representatives out of the idea that they should visit the Saigon bureau, shape it up, and express their displeasure with the reporting. The suggestion originated in the White House.)
There was no doubt that the Nixon Administration found a receptive response among affiliate owners: the things that Nixon disliked, they disliked. They began to put a constant pressure on the news show, particularly against Dan Schorr, and most of all against Dan Rather. The Administration hit a sensitive nerve. The affiliates had a powerful lever against the less than mighty news department: the power not to take CBS programs. Indeed, right after the 1974 tangle between Rather and Nixon and the Houston meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, CBS officials went to their affiliates’ meeting and had to defuse a major recall movement against Rather.
In 1972, Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency by being President, as incumbents usually do. He had learned the lessons of the 1970 off-year election when he made a number of hard-sell campaign appearances as if he were running for sheriff. His ultimate 1972 campaign weapon was his trip to China. Whatever history was made, he played it as political theater, hour on hour of picture postcards of China, Nixon with Mao and Chou and a cast of 800 million exotic extras. Campaigning. The networks had bitten all the way for that one, covering it exactly as Nixon had planned, perhaps a little more so. Senior network news executives smuggled themselves on planes as sound technicians. One Nixon aide thought it was as if there were two Republican conventions that year, the first in China, the second in Miami.
Even so, the Nixon people took few chances with the second, and real, Republican convention. They studied how the networks had covered previous national conventions, and they broke the code and wrote their own scenario. They knew when the networks took breaks, and how long the breaks lasted, so that if there was something they wanted to slip by quietly, they were ready to use the network commercial breaks as a cover. They had the convention timed to the second. They doled out a roster of young attractive Republican comers and stars to the networks as the convention wound on. All of it went according to script, according to schedule—balloons to be let off at exactly the right moment. Then someone got hold of the schedule, but even that didn’t really cause any bother. All of it was perhaps boring, but better boredom than chaos of earlier conventions. Control was of the essence.
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.
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.
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.