|CBS journalists Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly in happier days|
More than McCarthy finally did in the award-winning, groundbreaking CBS News series See It Now.
Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly had helped end Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s reign of anticommunist terror with their much-applauded 1954 exposé, but their reporting made them a political target.
Nevertheless, they didn’t back down from controversy, but even subsequent seemingly noncontroversial topics for the show — on the fate of small farmers, on Hawaiian statehood — attracted bizarre denunciations and demands for equal time.
The corporate taste for the predictable profits provided by mindless, soothing programming and Murrow’s ethical imperatives about the journalistic responsibilities of the television medium continually clashed.
|CBS Chairman of the Board William Paley|
The showdown came in the office of CBS Chairman of the Board William Paley in 1958. Paley had long been a principled and hands-off supporter of Murrow’s high-minded journalism, but he had grown weary of the headaches they caused him. And big profits beckoned from the cheap quiz shows (whose corrupt practices, ironically, would eventually give him bigger headaches than See It Now ever had).
Friendly described the scene in his memoir Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, noting that: “…Paley quietly said, ‘But I thought that you and Fred didn’t want to do ‘See It Now’ anymore.’
“ ‘Bill, what I am proposing is a procedure by which we share in the decision about equal time and under which we could continue to do ‘See It Now,’ Murrow said. ‘Of course we want it to continue.’
“The chairman replied with the firmness that goes with final authority. ‘I thought we’d already decided about ‘See It Now,” he said flatly.
“Whereupon enforced calm vanished, and 45-minute scene ensued in which these two commanding figures, the industry’s foremost reporter and its top executive, who had been intimate friends for 20 years, faced each other in a blazing showdown with all guns firing.
“One brief burst of dialogue told it all.
“ ‘Bill,’ Murrow pleaded at one point, ‘are you going to destroy all this? Don’t you want an instrument like the ‘See It Now’ organization, which you have poured so much into for so long, to continue?’
“ ‘Yes,’ said Paley, ‘but I don’t want this constant stomach ache every time you do a controversial subject.’
“ ‘I’m afraid that’s a price you have to be willing to pay. It goes with the job.’
“Nothing else that was said mattered. After seven years and almost 200 broadcasts, “See It Now’ was dead.”
Astute filmgoers will have recognized that conversation, which appears almost verbatim in Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s 2005 outsstanding film about Murrow’s battle with McCarthy. The movie is remarkably faithful to the actual history recorded by Friendly, with David Strathairn, Frank Langella and Clooney’s dialogue frequently an exact reproduction of the words of Murrow, Paley and Friendly.
As the ‘50s faded and the ‘60s soared, Friendly sized up why the prestigious program had died.
“The fatal complication — all the other symptoms could have been treated — was the very strength that made Murrow unique. The man who could decide to do a program about McCarthy or Radulovich, or fly off to see Chou En-lai, or to report on smoking and lung cancer, could only do these broadcasts because of his fortitude and independence, and those same virtues which gave CBS distinction also brought it controversy, enemies and ‘stomach aches.’”
“What Paley and (CBS President Frank) Stanton did not realize at the time, and what we failed to articulate — if in fact we truly understood it — was that Murrow’s independent spirit was the biggest asset the corporate body had. CBS couldn’t afford a platoon of Murrows, but logistically and spiritually, it could certainly support one responsible, universally respected, if not unanimously applauded, reporter who was able and willing to do and say precisely what a corporation could not.”