As predicted by just about everyone on the planet, Carrie Underwood sang beautifully on last night’s live version of NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” in a production that was torpedoed and sunk by her lack of acting experience. To call her performance stiff and wooden would almost be generous.
Any production of “The Sound of Music” lives or dies by who plays Maria, and it was gutsy of Underwood to take the part. But NBC should have had the guts to nix her casting. It was unfair to both her and us to use this huge platform to see whether she could act. One could have given her a screen test and then politely told her to come back after she learned how to act.
“The Sound of Music” is the musical version of the story of the von Trapp family singers. If only NBC had listened to the suggestion of Francoise von Trapp, made in a blog entry a year ago.
Francoise, the real granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, wrote: “Carrie Underwood as Maria? Seriously? I mean, I have nothing against her personally -- she's an extremely talented country singer, but I'm pretty sure my father is repeatedly rolling over in his grave. Since the movie version of ‘Sound of Music’ won an Academy Award the year I was born, it's always been easy to identify with Julie Andrews' portrayal of my grandmother. It's a little harder to envision Carrie that way. (But I do realize that's what happens when Hollywood freezes time.) And while the girl can sing (although her voice lacks the soprano purity of Julie Andrews) can she act? I'd like to know who else was in the running. Personally, I'd have put my money on Anne Hathaway, who in her upcoming role as Fantine in ‘Les Miserables,’ proves that she can act and sing.”
Brilliant. Why isn’t Francoise working in Hollywood?
The irony about NBC blowing it by miscasting the crucial lead part in “The Sound of Music” is that the original Broadway star of that show, Mary Martin, starred in another live musical on NBC, originally in 1955. The network finally was able to put it on videotape five years later and today, almost 60 years after it was first broadcast, that musical still sparkles in its dazzling buoyancy. It was “Peter Pan,” and it is among the fondest TV memories of millions of baby boomers.
The original, live version of “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin as that boy who never grows up, was seen as part of NBC’s "Producer’s Showcase” on Monday night, March 7, 1955. Before airing, the show had had a limited run on Broadway. When it was shown by NBC, it was seen by 65 million viewers, at that time the largest audience to ever have watched a TV program. It was so successful that NBC had Martin and the cast -- including Cyril Ritchard as a wonderfully over-the-top Captain Hook -- perform it live, on-air, again the next year.
By 1960, videotape and color were working pretty well, so NBC recruited Martin -- then appearing on Broadway as Maria in the original stage version of “The Sound of Music” -- to stage “Peter Pan” one last time. From then on this color videotape version was repeated several times on TV, and then later transferred to VHS and DVD for us to see it anytime we want, at home.
Jack Gould, who was the first TV reviewer for The New York Times, had watched and reviewed hundreds of TV shows between 1947 and that Monday night in March 1955 when 'Peter Pan" originally aired live on NBC. He wrote that the show was an “exhilarating tonic. ... The magic of TV and the wonder of make-believe were joined in an experience not soon to be forgotten. What made ‘Peter Pan’ so supremely delightful? Miss Martin, yes; many times yes. Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook too. Sir James M. Barrie [who wrote the original play] as well. But there was something elusive and indefinable, a quality and a heart. Call it sublime fusion of skill and inspiration. … The greatness of the ‘Peter Pan’ telecast stemmed from a marriage of media under ideal circumstances. The advantages of ‘live’ television and the advantages of living theatre were merged as one. Alone neither medium could have offered the miracle of Monday evening.”
“Peter Pan” also worked so well, Gould wrote, because of the brilliance of the production, in “the heavenly flying through the air of Miss Martin, in her glorious performance that had spontaneity and yet was so professionally perfect and assured. The dances of Jerome Robbins? How different in their originality from the TV norm. And the style of Mr. Ritchard, so sure and deft and magnificent fun. There were, in short, many jewels, each brought to its own distinctive sparkle by patience, imagination and fantastic hard work.”
If you can, give yourself and your family a gift this holiday season and check out this “Peter Pan” on DVD.
Ah, if only NBC had listened to Francoise von Trapp and had cast Anne Hathaway as Maria. If it had, then all the TV critics would probably be singing NBC’s praises this morning as Gould did 60 years ago: “The National Broadcasting Company is entitled to unstinting praise for its wisdom and vision in forgetting formula-thinking in television and opening up its schedule to accommodate ‘Peter Pan.’ In the jargon of the trade it may be called ‘big television’ but far more accurately it is sensible television, even elementary television. … Excitement. That was what ‘Peter Pan’ had …”
Instead we got a “Sound of Music” that seemed more like a hail-Mary pass to a receiver going long downfield, an act of desperation from a network that is struggling to reclaim the greatness it once had.
Reading CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments yesterday about the future of CNN, I was struck in particular by one paragraph. Here it is, quoted from CapitalNewYork:
“The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,’ a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted 'because people have seen the results.'”
What struck me about this paragraph -- and kudos to Washington Post news media blogger Erik Wemple for noticing this as well -- is that Bourdain was recruited to come to CNN from the Travel Channel BEFORE Zucker was hired at CNN.
Here’s an excerpt of a report by David Carr of The New York Times that appeared on June 3, 2012, which was five months before it was announced that Zucker was going to CNN. And the person who hired Bourdain to come to CNN wasn’t Zucker, it was Mark Whitaker:
“Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide, has been working to decrease the network’s reliance on politics, where its middle-of-the-road approach often suffers in comparison to the edgier, more partisan offerings of Fox News and MSNBC. He began talking with Mr. Bourdain back in March in the belief that the chef’s penchant for traveling to far-flung places like Thailand and Saudi Arabia was a fit with CNN’s international credentials. More important, Mr. Whitaker wanted CNN’s first move out of its lane to come with a ready-made audience attached. CNN has no trouble attracting eyeballs, it just has trouble persuading them to stick around when the world is not on fire.
“‘Tony is appointment viewing and sticky in a way that we need to be,’ Mr. Whitaker said on the phone. ‘We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.’“
In the CapitalNewYork interview Zucker reiterates much of what he has previously said, most particularly that CNN needs to broaden its audience and attract viewers who don’t usually tune in to the network: He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E,” the story said. Furthermore, Zucker added, “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”
Zucker also said HLN is in for a complete overhaul: It will be “‘rethought, reimagined, and rebranded’ to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN ‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’ he said, but: ‘it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“
That’s when it dawned on me that Zucker reminds me of another TV executive, our friend Frank Hackett, the Robert Duvall character in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 movie "Network."
Hackett, as many of you will recall, was a top corporate TV executive at the UBS network.
People tell me -- OK, no one told me this, but I have a healthy imagination to make things up -- that when Zucker recently told some of the veteran CNN staff that he was going to reshape the network in the image of Bourdain’s show there was a big brouhaha and -- either consciously or subconsciously (no one could tell) -- Zucker started channeling Hackett and began shouting at the meeting, “You were hoping I'd fall on my face with this Bourdain show, but I didn't! It's a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don't have to waffle around in any of your shit anymore!”
Zucker, on a roll, continued: “And if you don’t like what I’ve done with Bourdain, you’re really going to hate what’s coming: The Network News Hour with Snooki the Soothsayer, weather with Miss Kellie Pickler, and commentary we’re calling Vox Populi, starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Keith Olbermann. I’ve hired the Duck boys to come over here to do sports and commentary about our new Dress Like a Zombie hour. Already sponsored for the whole damn season by Urban Outfitters.
"Listen, come next year at this time I’m going to be standing up there at the annual Time Warner management review meeting, and I'm going to announce unprecedented projected earnings for this network. That we’ve never had advertisers more pleased. That HLN now stands for the Holy-shit Louis C.K. -- Lady Gaga Network.“
At that moment Anderson Cooper got up to protest. Hackett, er, Zucker, basically told him that if he didn’t like the changes he could leave the company.
Cooper shot back: “Well, let's just say, fuck you, Jeff. You want me out, you're going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. And almost everyone here will walk out kicking and screaming with me.”
Zucker didn’t blink: “You think they're going to quit their jobs for you? Not in this economy, buddy.”
As Cooper was storming out of the meeting he turned to Zucker and said, threateningly, “I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.”
Without missing a beat Zucker replied, “Great! We can use all the press we can get.”
And the really funny thing is, while Paddy Chayefsky -- whose dialogue I've mostly borrowed above -- met plenty of TV executives over the years to use as the models for those he wrote about in “Network,” I don’t think he ever met Jeff Zucker.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 3: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True or Is It Something Worse?
[Today's entry is the final part of our series that we began last Friday. It ends as it began, with Dan Rather. We started our longish -- yet still abbreviated -- journey through the history of CBS News with documentaries made in the 1950s by Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow. Part 2 saw Howard K. Smith leaving CBS and the behind-the-scenes battle to replace Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” In tracing some of the history of CBS News thus far we’ve seen a number of major conflicts between the news division and CBS corporate. We begin today’s entry with the transition from Cronkite to Rather.]
As Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, ended his final broadcast anchoring the “CBS Evening News” on Friday, March 6, 1981, here’s what he said:
“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the ‘CBS Evening News.’ For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.
“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists -- writers, reporters, editors, producers -- and none of that will change.
“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, ‘Universe.’ Old anchormen, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.
“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Goodnight.”
As it turned out, when it came time for Rather to sit in that chair the following Monday, he chose not to. Here’s that story.
Bob Schieffer and Dan Rather have both said they have remained friends since first meeting many decades ago. But that doesn’t mean they are above being critical of one another.
When Schieffer came to work the day after Cronkite had left he was already “surprised … how the Rather crowd purged the broadcast center on West Fifty-Seventh of all remnants of the Cronkite regime,” wrote Douglas Brinkley in his authoritative 2012 biography “Cronkite.”
Brinkley continued, “Cronkite’s old beige set backdrop was repainted blue-grey, because Rather thought it enhanced his complexion. He even had the ‘Cronkite Newsroom’ plaque taken off the wall. ‘I would have had the “Cronkite Newsroom” sign plated in gold,’ a disgusted Schieffer scoffed. ‘I came to work that Saturday morning, March 7, after Cronkite quit. I was slated to do the “Evening News” that weekend night. And to my utter surprise, Walter’s anchor chair was gone from the set. “Where’s the chair?” I asked. I was told it had been moved to storage. “Go get the damn chair,” I told a stagehand. This being CBS it took all day to find it. But I broadcast the news from Walter’s chair.'”
Brinkley also wrote, “Rather, for all his great reportorial skills, was paranoid that Cronkite, after going on his global junket [to promote] ‘Universe,’ would plot a return to the anchor chair.”
We pick up the story from a blog post by Sandor Polster that was posted on March 7, 2011. Polster had been a writer on the “CBS Evening News” when Cronkite was the anchor, and he continued in this position when Rather took over:
“During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news perhaps standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.
“As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, ‘Two minutes. Two minutes to air,’ Rather stood up from the chair and declared, ‘I want to sit here,’ and moved the typewriter and perched himself on [a] shelf [behind the desk and chair]."
The director, in the control room, went nuts, Polster wrote.
Then he added: “On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, ‘Good evening,’ his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes. But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent.”
Sandy Socolow, long Cronkite’s executive producer, was also Rather’s executive producer that night, and he told Cronkite biographer Brinkley about Rather’s last-moment decision not to sit in the chair, “It was so disrespectful to the crew; it makes me sick to my stomach.”
And how did Rather look sort of half leaning on the shelf? Schieffer told Brinkley, “Quite frankly, Dan looked like he was going to the crapper.”
Brinkley said Cronkite, watching Rather’s debut at home, also thought it was weird: “Why was [Rather] embarrassed to sit in [what had been Cronkite’s] chair? It seemed to Cronkite rude and immature, like cooties in grade school.”
Rather himself must have realized it was pretty dumb, because after the first commercial break he was back in Cronkite’s old chair.
At least on that very first day Rather stayed on the set. A better-known incident occurred six years later, on Friday, Sept. 11, 1987.
Here’s Rather recounting what happened in his 2012 memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News”:
“Dead air in Miami. This is one of those incidents that has stuck to me like a wad of old chewing gum on the bottom of my shoe. … I had left the set because we’d been put on notice that a semifinal tennis match at [the U.S. Open] between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was going to run long. … We were set to go on the air at 6:30 with special coverage of Pope John Paul II in Miami. … We had a tightly scripted half-hour, and the first we’d heard about the tennis problem was about 18 minutes before airtime. If we were going to have an abbreviated broadcast, we would need some time to determine how to cut it down. And, of course, until the match ended, there was no way to know how much time we’d actually have. The only way to buy time to figure it out was to have CBS Sports stay on the air at the conclusion of the match.
“Let me be clear: I did not walk off the set in a snit. Was I unhappy that tennis was being allowed to preempt the pope? Absolutely. I thought it set a very bad precedent, in effect telling viewers that sports was more important than news. But going black is one of the great cardinal sins in broadcasting and not something I would have done just to make a statement. Not ever.
“As we got closer to airtime, what I said -- several times -- was, 'If tennis isn’t off and you don’t come to us at 6:30, don’t come to us. I’ll be in place, ready at 6:30, but not immediately after that if our newscast doesn’t start. Give us a chance to regroup and get ourselves together. Have Sports hold it until we can know what we’re doing.'
“I was in the chair at 6:30 but was told that the tennis match was still going on. Since I thought the plan was clear, I unhooked myself and went out of the studio. I understood that CBS Sports was still running the show. Sports understood no such thing. When the match ended at 6:33, Sports put us into black. There was no wrap-up, they just tossed the broadcast to News.
“This was not anyone’s finest hour. Within both the Sports Division and the News Division, there was surely enough blame to go around among executives, producers and directors. Some of it belonged to me, but I was urged to hold my peace and let our corporate spinmeisters deal with damage control. Their way of doing that was to lay the incident squarely at my feet.”
What follows next is the account of the dead air incident that appeared, in full, in The New York Times on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1987, just two days after it happened. It’s written by Peter Boyer, the reporter who was then covering the TV beat for The Times.
It seems to me Boyer’s account pretty much includes how Rather says the incident went down -- though Rather didn’t speak to him. And importantly, Boyer’s account also includes some facts Rather didn’t mention. And, like most good reporters who are doing their job and who take their job seriously, it’s clear that Boyer spoke to some of the principals involved and not just some “corporate spinmeisters.”
By Peter Boyer
Dan Rather, angered because CBS decided to shorten the ''CBS Evening News'' to broadcast the end of a tennis match on Friday, walked off the set and caused the network to ''go black'' for six minutes.
The occurrence -- six minutes without a picture being transmitted -- was unprecedented, according to many CBS members, and prompted a flurry of angry telephone calls Friday and yesterday between officials at CBS News, CBS Sports and network management.
Mr. Rather, the anchor, and the ''Evening News'' staff were broadcasting from Miami on Friday night to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II.
A special ''Evening News'' studio was set up at the CBS Miami bureau, and the ''Evening News'' staff was preparing to go on the air when someone from CBS Sports indicated that the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which CBS Sports was televising, was running longer than had been planned.
The call came at 6:15 P.M., just 15 minutes before the first transmission of the ''Evening News'' was scheduled to begin. Most of CBS's affiliated stations around the country use that early feed although a second broadcast is made at 7 P.M. for some stations, including WCBS in New York.
When Mr. Rather was told that the tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was closer than expected and that the ''Evening News'' would be truncated, he telephoned New York to protest to Howard Stringer, the president of CBS News, according to several CBS staff members.
Mr. Rather told Mr. Stringer that if his broadcast did not go on at 6:30 as scheduled, he would not be in his anchor chair and that CBS Sports should fill the rest of the half-hour, according to the staff members and CBS officials. Mr. Stringer then telephoned Gene Jankowski, the president of the CBS Broadcast Group, to negotiate an earlier end to the tennis coverage.
Mr. Stringer apparently succeeded in getting some of the time back, but the sports crew in New York still needed a couple of minutes of ''Evening News'' time to wrap up their coverage.
It has been a difficult summer for Mr. Rather, whose broadcast slipped into third place in the ratings after nearly five years in first place. There has been heated discussion inside CBS News over the past few months about proposed changes in the Evening News, and there was for a time speculation that a co-anchor would join Mr. Rather on the broadcast. But last week, a new ratings system took effect, and it showed Mr. Rather back in first place, and many in the organization hoped that the broadcast was past its difficulties.
When 6:30 came, Mr. Rather was in his anchor chair, his microphone on and ready to go. But when CBS Sports did not yield the network air, Mr. Rather disconnected his microphone and walked out of the studio, according to CBS people in Miami.
A moment later, at just after 6:32, CBS Sports went off the air, and the network switched to Miami for what it thought would be Dan Rather and the ''CBS Evening News.'' But Mr. Rather wasn't there.
For six minutes, the network was black -- no picture was transmitted. Tom Bettag, the executive producer, told Mr. Rather outside the studio that CBS News had won its point and had gotten most of its time back from sports, but Mr. Rather said, ''I told them to have sports fill the time.''
Television stations around the country that carry Mr. Rather's broadcast at 6:30 were dismayed. The Miami station finally broadcast several minutes of a game show to fill the time.
The scene at the CBS bureau in Miami was frantic, but finally Mr. Bettag was told that the network had ''gone black.'' He found Mr. Rather and said, ''Dan, we've got to go on the air, we can't let the network be black,'' and Mr. Rather agreed, according to sources on the scene. Mr. Rather returned to the set, put his microphone on, and at 6:39, the ''Evening News'' went on the air.
As it happened, the first three minutes and 50 seconds were on tape, and CBS News producers could have filled some of the empty time by transmitting that portion of the broadcast while trying to get Mr. Rather, who is also the managing editor of the ''Evening News,'' into his anchor chair. But that option was dismissed, said one producer, who asked that his name not be used.
''The managing editor had told the president of CBS News that we were not going on at all if we couldn't go on at 6:30,'' the producer said. ''Under those circumstances, you can't just take the air.''
Mr. Rather was on a fishing boat in Florida yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Stringer declined comment.
These two incidents are just some of the relatively few bumps in the road that Rather has had over a stellar career that included a 24-year stint anchoring the “Evening News” for CBS. But I do think they offer some clues into his personality. Douglas in “Cronkite” wrote: “Nobody at CBS ever mastered the riddling essence of [Rather’s] character” and, “He sometimes came across as simultaneously loopy and wooden, edgy and insecure.”
Rather has said about himself that he’s a workhorse, not a racehorse. Newsday, the newspaper on Long Island, N.Y., once wrote this about Rather: “To many viewers, this anchorman has looked like he is about to explode right into their living rooms. The tight-lipped smile, the stiff bearing, the hard forced friendliness always have seemed to many a form of blatant phoniness, but to people that know him, Rather is simply out of his element as anchor.”
I agree with that assessment. I’ve always thought that Rather was much more in his element when he was reporting, either live or on tape, as opposed to when he was behind the anchor desk on the evening news.
And it’s absolutely true that he’s far more relaxed when you speak to him face-to-face. Over the years I’ve probably spoken to Rather a half-dozen times, including when he was the featured interviewee whom I interviewed at a TVWeek event. He’s smart, thoughtful, has a trademark quirky wit -- I’ve never heard him utter a Dan Ratherism that hasn’t brought a smile to my face -- and he is unfailingly polite.
Over his 44-year career at CBS News he could not have been more high-profile, yet he survived myriad sea changes in management.
That someone such as Rather, with his on-air personality that so many find perplexing if not down-right uncomfortable, and who has clearly been controversial, could have such a long run in the treacherous quicksand that paths the halls of CBS is remarkable. He lasted there years longer than his mentor, Murrow, and such news giants as Howard K. Smith and Roger Mudd and many others.
Ultimately, Rather took the bullet for a “60 Minutes” report about George Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard that was aired in 2004. At the time I heard that some at CBS felt Rather had done some things to embarrass them into running another story that some of them had not particularly wanted to run, so he was vulnerable to their trusting him when questions came up about the Bush/Guard story. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.
What is true, as Rather has pointed out several times, is that it’s never been proved whether the documents used in the Bush/Guard story were forgeries or not, and if they were fake, who would have forged them.
So Rather is fired and later he sues CBS for $70 million. The court threw it out because CBS paid Rather his then $6 million salary, per his contract. Thus, as Rather himself wrote in his book “Rather Outspoken": “As long as CBS paid me according to my contract, which they had, I had absolutely no grounds to bring suit. ‘Contractually,’ wrote Judge James Catterson, who authored the unanimous opinion, 'CBS was under no obligation to use Rather’s services or to broadcast any program so long as it continued to pay him the applicable compensation.'”
One of the issues that Rather says most bothered him was a discussion Rather’s agent, Richard Liebner, had with CBS chief Leslie Moonves. Rather wrote Liebner told him, “I believe Moonves is under extraordinary heat from Sumner [Redstone, Moonves’ boss] to have you out [of the anchor chair at the ‘CBS Evening News’] the day before yesterday, but I can work with Moonves. He really does have your best interests at heart, Dan. He likes you, and he’s very sorry this has happened. If you agree to make the announcement that you’re stepping down, you’ll segue into working on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday and everything will be fine.”
Of course that’s not what happened, and Rather left CBS. Before his lawsuit was thrown out, Rather and his lawyer had deposed Moonves.
Rather wrote, “The issue was raised of the agreement that had been reached with my agent, Richard Liebner, to extend my contract and to keep me on at ’60 Minutes,’ and the letter of intent that Moonves signed to that effect. Moonves acknowledged that he had signed that document, but he maintained that it was not a contract and that he’d only signed it to get Liebner off his back. He said he never considered it binding and never had any intention of honoring it.”
Then Rather added that when the deposition was over, Moonves came around the table to shake his hand. “I shook it; I thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do. I didn’t feel good about it, but I did it …”
It reminds me of what Roger Mudd wrote about what happened when Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News, told him that Rather would be succeeding Conkite instead of Mudd. It turned out to be Mudd’s last few moments at CBS News after being there almost two decades. “We shook hands," Mudd wrote, "I don’t know why.”
Reading myriad memoirs about newsmen who spent large chunks of their careers with CBS News, it seems they never get over leaving the place. And Leonard said CBS News Presidents Richard Salent and Bill Small always felt they were first and foremost CBS newsmen, though both went to NBC when they left CBS.
Clearly Rather feels that same connection to CBS, where he spent the vast majority of his career. And for him, leaving -- especially not leaving on his own terms -- continues to bother him like a open wound, festering.
And having his lawsuit thrown out before it was heard before a jury was clearly throwing salt in the wound.
And there are hurt feelings among those who still admire Dan at CBS. And there are others there who just don’t like him.
So do I think CBS is trying to erase Dan from its history, as Dan suggests? I think when they don’t have to mention him they don’t and won’t. Why would they? What do they have to gain? Perhaps that’s not unlike the feeling Dan had when he replaced Cronkite.
It’s not a rewriting of history. Dan’s record of what he did at CBS has been well documented.
Dan is also concerned about journalistic independence. But I think as this long entry has demonstrated, the conflict between CBS’s corporate interests and CBS News goes back to the earliest days of TV. Somehow, though, great journalists doing great journalism seems to survive in our democracy.
Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely.
Same as it ever was.
I think if Mr. Springsteen were able to have a chat with Ed Murrow and Howard Smith and Roger Mudd and Salent and Small and Cronkite and the list goes on and on and on, and, yes, even if Dan Rather were in the room, and Springsteen were to ask all of them if a dream is a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse, they would all reply that, for whatever short time it was, the dream did come true for each of them, and it was better than any of them dreamed it could have been.
Here is a list of some of the books I used in preparation for this three-part essay. I recommend them all. They all can be purchased in both print and electronic versions except Bill Leonard's 1987 memoir "In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS," which is only available in a print edition. Both Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer have written a number of other books as well, all of which are worthwhile.
"Cronkite" by Dougles Brinkley. HarperCollins. 2012.
"Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control..." by Fred W. Friendly. Random House, New York. 1967
"In the Storm of the Eye:A Lifetime at CBS" by Bill Leonard. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 1987.
"Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News" by Dan Rather. Grand Central Publisher, New York. 2012.
"The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News" by Roger Mudd. PublicAffairs, New York. 2008.
"This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV" by Bob Schieffer. Berkley Books, New York. 2003.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 2: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True, or Is It Something Worse?
[In part 1 of this piece, posted last Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, we spoke about the bad blood that continues between Dan Rather and CBS News. This led into a discussion about the sometimes very contentious relationship between CBS corporate and CBS News that dates back to the beginning of serious news coverage on TV in the 1950s. At the end of part 1, the journalist who was responsible for presenting and hosting, for the first time, the most thoughtful documentary programming on TV -- Edward R. Murrow -- was, for all intents and purposes, forced out of CBS by the man who built the network (including CBS News) into a radio and TV powerhouse, company Chairman William S. Paley. Murrow’s last day at CBS was Jan. 31, 1961.]
When CBS news producer Fred Friendly had argued in vain to get Paley to allow Edward R. Murrow to become his co-producer and host of CBS’s new documentary series “CBS Reports," Paley countered, “What do you have against Howard K. Smith,” Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control.”
Friendly replied that he didn’t have anything against Smith, and in fact was a big fan of his. Smith was then a 20-year veteran with the company, first hired by CBS radio in 1941 as a war correspondent. He was one of the original “Murrow boys,” those men reporters who, like Murrow, kept Americans glued to their radios during World War II by reporting, primarily, what was happening in Europe.
With Murrow no longer an option, Friendly agreed that Smith would become the host of “CBS Reports.” Several months later, in May 1961, “CBS Reports” was filming a report about civil rights unrest in Birmingham, Ala. Smith was there as the CBS cameras caught civil rights workers being brutally beaten as the police just watched, Friendly wrote, and “in recording the closing piece for the program Smith quoted Edmund Burke at another time of crisis: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’"
CBS News President Richard Salent and Paley went ballistic. Paley, who had his fill of “stomach aches” from Murrow’s various commentaries, wouldn’t allow Smith’s quoting of the line to be aired. CBS management was also upset with “several other incidents about the forth-rightness of Howard’s commentary,” Friendly noted, which, in turn, angered Smith. CBS also had some issues about Smith in his new position as Washington, D.C., bureau chief, according to Friendly.
After arguing his case to no avail with Salent, Smith met with Paley. According to Smith, in his 1996 memoir, “Events Leading Up to My Death,” after Smith defended his commentaries, ''Paley reached into an inside pocket and drew out my brief. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. Then he threw the document across the table to me. 'I have heard all this junk before,' he said. 'If that is what you believe, you had better go somewhere else.'”
According to Friendly, “A brief, unsigned public notice was the only tribute to Howard’s 20 years of devoted service: ‘CBS News and Howard K. Smith announced today that their relations are being terminated because of a difference in interpretation of CBS News policy.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Smith went onto a long career delivering news and commentaries for ABC News.
Friendly wrote that he could not believe that in the space of a few months both Murrow and Smith were gone from CBS. When Friendly argued with Paley to try and have the CBS chief reconsider firing Smith, Friendly said Paley came up with the brilliant, ironic line, “What’s your objection to working with [Eric] Sevareid or [Charles] Collingwood." Such was the depth of the CBS News bench with distinguished “Murrow boys.”
In Smith’s short tenure as the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for CBS News, he had time to ask only one person to come on board as a correspondent. On May 31, 1961, Roger Mudd joined CBS News.
Bill Small became the Washington bureau chief in 1962. The next year, on Sept. 3, 1963, Walter Cronkite made this announcement to the nation when his evening newscast began: “Good evening from our CBS newsroom in New York, on this, the first broadcast of network television’s first daily, half-hour news program.” Prior to that day, regularly scheduled network newscasts ran only 15 minutes.
Mudd, in his 2008 memoir, “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS and the Glory Days of Television News,” says that landmark telecast “set off the seismic shift that moved television news ahead of the newspaper as the country’s main source of news.”
Nine years later, Mudd wrote, when Lesley Stahl joined the CBS News Washington bureau in 1972, it was THE powerhouse TV news bureau. Besides Stahl and Mudd, Small’s Washington bureau included Dan Rather, Daniel Schorr, Marvin Kalb, George Herman, Robert Pierpoint, Ike Pappas, Barry Serafin, Phil Jones, Bob Schieffer and others I’m sure I’m leaving out.
Even five years before that, in 1967, Mudd wrote that when Small tried to hire Doug Kiker to work in CBS’s Washington bureau, Kiker said, “If your entire first string was killed in a single plane crash and your second string came down with the flu and couldn’t work, I still wouldn’t get on the air.” Kiker, who wanted to move from being a print journalist to an on-air role at the time, instead joined NBC, where he stayed for 25 years.
In 1964, two years after joining CBS News, Dan Rather was assigned to the CBS News Washington bureau. Mudd wrote: “During his first year in Washington we became friends. I knew what he was going through, fearful of failing, anxious about being accepted, nervous about being beaten (to a story). We had connections to, or affinities for, the South -- its courtesies, its humor, and its sense of the absurd." Rather was born and raised in Texas; Mudd was born in Washington, D.C., and spent a lot of time in the South.
Mudd added that Rather was “strikingly handsome … . Gordon Manning, a news vice president, said when he walked through an airport with Rather young women would stumble to get a good look at him.”
Mudd also noted that Rather’s “Depression-era childhood in Texas had naturally left him scrambling for a better and perhaps more glamorous life. He once said he had always dreamed of going to the Metropolitan Opera -- not so much to see the opera as to arrive in a long, black limousine.”
Mudd continued, “We were about the same age, had married the same year, and had young families” and their families hung out together.
A year later, when Rather was transferred to London, the Mudds gave the Rathers a goodbye party, Mudd wrote.
After 10 months in London, Rather spent another 10 months as a war correspondent reporting from Vietnam. He then returned to Washington.
By 1965, with the war blazing in Vietnam, Fred Friendly, Murrow’s old co-producer, was president of CBS News. Mudd wrote that when Friendly asked him to leave Washington -- where Mudd was CBS’s go-to congressional correspondent -- to become a war correspondent in Vietnam, Mudd refused. Mudd wrote that he refused because “I had a young family and I was a political reporter who believed Congress need a full-time correspondent," just as other Washington beats had full-time correspondents.
When Rather returned from Vietnam, Mudd wrote, “He was a different Dan Rather. He returned to Washington more aggressive, more confident, more polished, more suspicious of his colleagues, and more skeptical of the powerful. He was tough, hard-working. ... But no White House correspondent in CBS history attracted quite as much lightning.
“As he began to challenge me on specials, during instant analysis, on the year-end wrap-ups, I discovered that he had become less my friend and more my rival."
Mudd wrote this in 2008. One might want to take Mudd’s remarks about Rather with a grain of salt because of a life-changing event that happened to both men in 1980.
By the summer of 1979, there was a major decision to be made within CBS News. Bill Leonard, who had first joined CBS at the end of 1945, had recently replaced Richard Salent as president of CBS News.
Almost simultaneously, the Most Trusted Man in America -- Walter Cronkite -- told Leonard he wanted to leave the “CBS Evening News.” Leonard tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of it.
In his memoir, “In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS,” published in 1987, Leonard wrote that he had three candidates to replace Cronkite.
One was Charles Kuralt. Wrote Leonard, “When he substituted for Walter on the ‘Evening News’ during the ‘Who’ll succeed Cronkite’ period in the summer of ’79 he seemed so relaxed, comfortable and old-shoe that hundreds wrote urging his selection.”
Another candidate to replace Cronkite was Mudd. By this time Mudd had become Cronkite’s regular substitute. Leonard wrote, “An unpopular choice in the executive suites at CBS and among our affiliates, circles in which he was unwilling to glad-hand, but probably the odds-on choice among senior news people. ... A good political and election-night reporter. Not much field experience outside of Washington. A superb news reader."
The third candidate was Rather. Wrote Leonard: “Clearly up-and-coming. He had most recently blossomed as a correspondent on ’60 Minutes,’ and the ratings of that program confirmed it. He has shown he was a superb convention-floor reporter and a cool hand in crisis. As an election-night studio reporter, he seemed to me and others to be perhaps the very best we had ever had, hardly even excepting Walter himself.
“There it was. Those were the only choices, really -- bearing in mind that NO ONE could replace Walter Cronkite.”
As critical a decision as this was to be, when Leonard was deciding who should succeed Cronkite he said he never discussed it with Paley, until he had already decided who he wanted. And, as chance would have it, the contracts of both Rather and Mudd were expiring as the successor to Cronkite was being decided.
Leonard’s initial idea was a double anchor. This had proved very popular at NBC with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Rather could be based in New York, and Mudd in Washington.
Leonard decided to sound out the idea with Rather and Mudd. Wrote Leonard, “Rather told us he had nothing but high regard for Roger, and if that’s the way management wanted to slice the pineapple it would be all right with him, all other things being equal (all other things being the right contract.)”
Leonard had one of his lieutenants, who was closer to Mudd than Leonard was, ask Mudd how he would feel about co-anchoring with Rather. Wrote Leonard: “Mudd didn’t even miss a beat. ‘I wouldn’t do it,' he said. ‘That’s final?’ And Mudd said ‘Yep.’ And that was that.”
Mudd, in his memoir, wrote that the reason he turned down the idea of co-anchoring with Rather was “mainly because I saw only trouble in harness with a man about whom I had professional misgivings."
For one, Mudd was critical of Rather over Rather’s famous confrontation with President Nixon during a Nixon press conference:
Nixon: Are you running for something?
Rather: No sir, Mr. President, are you?
Mudd opined in his memoirs that in this confrontation Rather “violated a central rule for journalists: never become more important than the story and never get in the way of the story.”
After CBS inquired whether he would co-anchor with Rather, Mudd wrote: “At that point I told my agent, Bill Cooper, that the next move was up to CBS and that I did not want him calling Leonard. Neither did I want him calling other networks, shopping me around. Negotiating with the competition while still under contract to CBS struck me as underhanded. I considered myself above the fray and was, in effect, dealing myself out.”
As you’re about to read, this strategy -- many would say it was an arrogant non-strategy -- was incredibly ineffective, bordering on being absurd.
Here’s Leonard’s account of the same event. Leonard, who died in 1994, published his memoirs 21 years before Mudd (who is now 85) published his memoirs in 2008. Leonard wrote that Mudd was uncomfortable with his bosses. He added that after asking Mudd if he would co-anchor with Rather, “In the months that followed, while the negotiations with Dan Rather swayed back and forth, there never was a word from Roger Mudd, not even a visit from his agent. It always remained a mystery to me why Mudd stayed so aloof from a process that deeply involved his career. Was it pride? Strategy? I never knew then and I do not know to this day.”
Rather, on the other hand, through the auspices of his agent, Richard Liebner, was very active, not only with Leonard and CBS News, but with testing the waters to see whether there was interest in Rather elsewhere.
Meanwhile, with not a word from Mudd or his camp, Leonard had a decision to make. Mudd would not agree to co-anchor with Rather. So who should he pick?
The highly respected Salant, who had just left CBS News, clearly would have picked Mudd, Leonard wrote. According to the 2012 biography “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, “Cronkite pushed for Rather to be his successor because he was a terrific international correspondent. Mudd, by contrast, had just worked the D.C. beat.” Later, Cronkite became unenamored of Rather.
Leonard said he made up his mind about who should be Cronkite’s successor based on “three qualifications desirable in a network news anchor.”
No. 1, the winner should “have excellent journalist credentials and be an attractive, convincing broadcaster.” Leonard thought Mudd and Rather fit the bill for this, but not Kuralt.
No. 2, “He should be at his best in a crisis, quarterbacking a major story.” Leonard thought only Rather qualified on this score.
And No. 3, the winning candidate should be good “ambassador from CBS and CBS News to the public and to the hundreds of CBS radio and television stations.” Leonard thought Kuralt and Rather would be excellent ambassadors but not Mudd, who he wrote was essentially “a very private person.”
So Leonard decided that Rather needed to follow Cronkite into the anchor chair on the “Evening News.”
Rather’s agent, Richard Liebner, at the same time was doing a stellar job of selling Rather, both to CBS News to succeed Cronkite, and to become ABC’s premier newscaster. How much did ABC want Rather, who was currently making $300,000 a year, according to Leonard’s memoirs? Well, four years earlier, in 1978, they had signed Barbara Walters away from NBC at a salary of an astounding $1 million per year for five years. And they were willing to pay twice that much for Rather.
So the package Liebner presented to Leonard for CBS News to keep Rather and to promote him to succeed Cronkite as the anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” was, at the time, mindboggling: $2.2 million a year for 10 years.
Leonard describes the moment on Feb. 7, 1980, that he shook hands on the deal with Liebner: “‘Richard,’ I groaned … ”you’ve got every damned thing you want. Everything. You haven’t left us with a single thing.’“
To which Liebner replied, “Oh yes I have, baby. I’ve left you Rather.”
But the deal wasn’t quite done. Leonard and his boss, Gene Jankowski, called a meeting to inform Paley and John Backe, the president of CBS, about the deal.
When the moment in the meeting came when Leonard had to tell Backe and Paley the price to keep Rather, Backe exploded, Leonard wrote.
“You made this deal!” Backe screamed at Leonard. When Leonard confirmed that he and Liebner had a handshake deal, Backe said: “Then unshake it. That’s the most obscene, indecent, irresponsible thing I have ever come across. You vastly exceeded your authority. Vastly. I’ll never OK something like this as long as I’m president of this company. Never.”
Then Backe went on about how it would ruin the salary structure of the news division. Leonard said he was worried about that too, but that he felt Rather going to ABC and not replacing Cronkite was more important, financially, to CBS, and thus “worth any kind of money.”
Backe exploded again: “This company doesn’t have ANY KIND OF MONEY!” We have whole divisions that don’t make $22 million in 10 years.”
Then Backe said Rather was not the right replacement anyway. Jankowski and Leonard defended their choice.
Finally, Paley spoke. He said that at one time he paid Jack Benny to move from NBC radio to CBS radio and it was the biggest deal of its kind at the time. Then Paley added, “I never thought I’d live to see anything approaching that for one man. It’s too much money for one man. Particularly a newsman.”
And, of course, Cronkite himself wasn’t making anything close to $2.2 million a year.
The argument went on and on for about an hour. Finally, Jankowski slipped a note to Paley that said simply that each rating point was the equivalent of $5 million. And Cronkite had at least a 2 point rating lead over his rivals.
Leonard wrote, “Paley read it and looked over at Jankowski. “Is that really true, Gene?” “Absolutely, Mr. Chairman.”
Leonard then said he had to get back to Liebner in less than an hour and he needed a decision. Backe said, “We’d be making a big mistake. I’m still dead set against it.”
They all looked at Paley.
The chairman spoke “slowly and deliberately,” Leonard recalled. “‘It’s been my experience in life,’ Paley said, ‘that some of the cheapest things turn out to be the most expensive and some of the most expensive things turn out, in the long run, to be the cheapest.’ He stopped, got up, said thank you, and left.”
Leonard flew down to Washington to tell Mudd. The two hadn’t talked in months. Here’s Mudd’s account of what happened:
Leonard: "We’re going with Rather. Of course we want you to stay, but you won’t be substituting for Walter anymore.”
Mudd: "Do you really think I’d want to?
Mudd wrote: “I told him his decision hurt, because it was such a sudden and public humiliation. His decision had been leaked and was on the radio even before I got the word. Leonard said he was sorry he hadn’t been able to keep me posted but he hadn’t known for sure until that morning whether Rather would stay at CBS. I found out later he had had a handshake deal with Rather’s agent for more than a week.
“I asked to be released from my contract immediately. He refused.
“He suggested that I was bitter. I agreed. He said the bitterness would pass in a week or two. I disagreed.
“We shook hands. I don’t know why. He was gone in 15 minutes, jetting back to New York to announce the news. A newspaper reporter asked him at his press conference why there was such a rush. Couldn’t he have waited until the next day, Friday. Leonard said it would have been a weekend story -- always the worst time for major press and TV coverage.”
In his memoir, Leonard also wrote of his meeting with Mudd that day, calling it “short and ugly. I have no idea whether the news that Dan would succeed Walter came as a surprise to Roger. I find it hard to imagine that he had no inkling of what might be coming.
“At any rate, he took it very hard. I told him that I had let him know as quickly as I possibly could, but he said it had been handled in a manner that was extremely embarrassing to him and his family, who apparently heard the news on the radio just before I arrived. His face was pale and his lips bitter and thin. And he asked me if he could be relieved of his contract, which had the best part of the election year to run. I said, as I recall, that I didn’t think so. And I stuck to that. I am very competitive and I did not want Roger Mudd, a first-rate -- perhaps the best -- network political reporter, working for the opposition during a presidential campaign. … He was deeply hurt and felt publicly humiliated …”
Mudd, in his memoir, picked up what happened that day after Leonard left. “In a quiet fury, I went back to my desk, gathered up my personal belongings and walked out of the bureau for good. … There was not a sound in the newsroom as I left. No one said a word. It was eerie.”
Mudd had been with CBS News for 19 years. He had been Cronkite’s full-time substitute for seven years.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon. After killing time by going to a used bookstore for a few hours, Mudd made his way home. He wrote, “The news I brought [my wife] E.J. that evening outraged her -- more than it did me, I think. Not so much the decision itself, but the way the whole affair had been handled and the callous disregard for her husband’s dignity.
“The questions neither of us could answer were: What were all those years of totally loyal service for? Why had I stayed on that ascending escalator for so long only to be pushed off one step short of the top? We sat in our kitchen near the big fireplace, stunned and bewildered, trying without much success to comfort one another.”
Eventually, E.J. said they had dinner plans and had to go. Most likely Roger Mudd, who had just turned 52 the week before, had forgotten the occasion. E.J. reminded him. It was the Feast of Saint Valentine.
To which Mudd wrote in his memoir a bitter chocolate response: “What a sweetheart of a day.”
He remained on the CBS News payroll until just after the November elections, though he remained off the air. It was the first national election he hadn’t covered in years. Eventually Mudd joined NBC, then PBS, followed by the History Channel.
Cronkite’s last night as the anchor of the "CBS Evening News" came 13 months later, on Friday, March 6, 1981. CBS News management, always mindful of the bottom line, had asked Cronkite to stay with the newscast through the February sweeps, which he did, according to Douglas Brinkley in “Cronkite.”
Dan Rather, who was 49, began his run as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” the following Monday, March, 9, 1981.
Part 3 of this column will continue tomorrow.
Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 1: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True or Is It Something Worse?
Dan Rather is still clearly upset that he was fired from CBS News after working there for 44 years, and there remains bad blood between him and the network. Most recently he’s pissed that CBS didn’t mention him in the press material it released about a show it aired on Nov. 16, 2013, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. (The assassination was 50 years ago today.)
In an AP story published several weeks ago, on Nov. 5, the reporter wrote that “Rather expressed concern about an effort by CBS to ‘airbrush this guy out because we don't like him,’" since he wasn’t mentioned in the press release about the JFK show. (CBS told the AP that clips of Rather -- who was on the scene in Dallas when Kennedy was shot -- were in the show.)
Last Thursday, on Nov. 14, 2013, Rather held a telephone press conference to promote his own show about the JFK assassination that airs tonight, Nov. 22, 2013, on AXS-TV, where Rather now works.
During that press conference Ed Bark, who has covered the TV beat for years, noted that he saw Rather’s remarks in the AP story. But, Bark asked, wouldn’t the fact that Rather was doing his own special on AXS end up being a lot better for Rather than being included for a few minutes in a CBS special?
Rather reiterated that he wasn’t mentioned in the original CBS press release about its special, and then he said: “This follows the pattern that they've had for some years of, in effect, trying to airbrush me out of their history. That doesn't bother me all that much, nor should it. If anybody is to care about it -- and I'm not saying anybody should -- it's one thing for the corporations, for their own purposes, to say, ‘Look, we just want it as if Dan Rather was never here.’”
Rather continued: “But as a news organization responsible for history, I think the consumer, the news consumer, might want to question whether you want large corporations trying to change history for their corporate interests. It's not a big issue. It may not be an issue at all, but if there's anything to be concerned about how [CBS] handled it, that would be it.” And then Rather added that he has moved on and said, “My focus is not on what CBS is doing or not doing.”
I wish Rather would just drop the facade of “aw shucks, this really isn’t anything” that he tries to temper these remarks with, when clearly he cares a lot about what CBS says and thinks about him, and thinks we should too. Someone who doesn’t really care a lot about a company that fires him or her after a 44-year run that enriched him or her by millions of dollars doesn’t then turn around and sue that company for $70 million, as Rather did.
For the past several years, at least, Rather has been concerned with big business being in bed with big government, and how that can be bad for journalism when news organizations are owned by big businesses. News is in crisis, he says, due to its corporatization, its politicization, and its trivialization. It's one of the points he makes in his most recent book, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in News,” published in 2012.
Rather has always considered himself as a latter-day version of one of “Murrow’s boys,” referring to legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and those reporters who worked with Murrow and followed in his footsteps. Rather joined CBS News in February 1962, about a year after Murrow had left the company, and Rather has said that Murrow is his “North Star.” Similarly, he puts William S. Paley, the man who built CBS into a radio and TV giant, and Richard S. Salant, an early president of CBS News, high on pedestals as almost saint-like figures but who weren’t quite perfect. Rather isn’t as generous when talking about current CBS chief Leslie Moonves, or Moonves’ boss, Sumner Redstone.
And while Rather is clearly familiar with what, in reality, has at times been a very strained relationship between CBS corporate and CBS News in past years, it’s not something he appears to dwell upon. But let us dwell upon it for a while.
At its core it’s a tale of influence and money, as these things usually are. And perhaps more than Rather would like to admit, what happened between him and CBS was more part of a linear continuum than an aberration.
We’ll begin with “See It Now,” one of the great documentary series in the history of TV. It debuted 62 years ago this week on CBS. It ran regularly from 1951 through 1955, and then occasionally, until July 1958. Murrow was the host and co-producer, along with Fred Friendly. The “See It Now” episode about Sen. Joseph McCarthy was the subject of the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which starred David Strathairn as Murrow and George Clooney as Friendly.
Besides McCarthyism, “See It Now” often dealt with controversial subjects. And Murrow would often make some editorial remarks at the end of the show that were also controversial, driving CBS chief Bill Paley to distraction.
Here’s Friendly, from his 1967 memoir, “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control” referring to the climate at CBS in 1954: “We could feel CBS’s support for ‘See It Now’ fading ever so gradually. For all its honors, the program had become as controversial as most of the conflicts we were reporting. ...
“During the 1954-55 season we did a two-part report on cigarettes and lung cancer, and both CBS and [‘See It Now’ sponsor] Alcoa aluminum felt the pressures of the tobacco industry, which buys both air time and aluminum foil. The attitude at CBS was: ‘Why does Murrow have to save the world every week.’"
[Ironically, Murrow was a heavy smoker and smoked on the air. Friendly says Murrow smoked 60-65 cigarettes a day, and Murrow died in 1965 of lung cancer. He was only 57 years old when he died.]
At the end of the 1954-55 TV season, Paley met with Murrow and Friendly. He told them that the show was losing its weekly time slot and would become hour-long, but not scheduled on a regular basis. As Friendly explained, “The new arrangement took long- and short-range scheduling out of our hands. ... No longer could we alone decide to do a McCarthy broadcast … or a report on lung cancer.”
He added that from the CBS corporate point-of-view, the freeing up of the “See It Now” time slot was “a business calculation to create more financial yield from the time period” by putting in an entertainment show rather than a documentary series.
Even with the irregularity of the hour-long shows, a number of the episodes still drew controversy. In March 1958, there was a “See It Now” program about making Alaska and Hawaii states. After its airing, a congressman demanded that CBS give him equal time because he was mentioned derogatorily by someone in the program. Friendly and Murrow were against giving the congressman any airtime, and wrote Paley notes saying so. Murrow even wrote a memo saying that if the network did give the congressman equal time it might make the continuation of “See It Now” problematic. CBS management gave the congressman the airtime he requested.
Soon after, Friendly and Murrow met with Paley. Murrow suggested a plan wherein in the future he and Friendly could participate more fully in decisions about demands for equal time due to anything said in episodes of “See It Now.”
Based on the notes Murrow and Friendly had written, Paley said to Murrow, “But I thought that you and Fred didn’t want to do 'See It Now' any more,” Friendly wrote.
There then ensued a 45-minute argument between Paley and Murrow and Friendly. Friendly wrote, “One brief burst of dialogue told it all:
“'Bill,' Murrow pleaded [with Paley] 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.'”
Friendly then added: “Nothing else that was said mattered. After seven years and almost two hundred broadcasts, ‘See It Now’ was dead.”
A few pages later Friendly wrote more in-depth about the cancellation of “See It Now":
“Production costs had something to do with it; the rising price of television time was also a major factor, for each time 'See It Now' came on the screen there were too many empty seats in the largest and most expensive auditorium in the world. That Murrow and I were difficult to handle was another factor. It is true that we might have worked more diligently at getting along with management, but it was our independence and Ed’s sure-footed confidence in an era of groping and decision-making by consensus that made 'See It Now' the force it was. Our autonomy did not exceed that of such independent souls as Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason, but impatience with them was tempered by their high ratings and sales value.
“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 to do a 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.’"
Friendly continued: “It can be argued, perhaps with some justification, that a commercial business should not take a strong stand on, say, McCarthy. ... What such a company can afford is a Murrow, a man of credentials and integrity who has his management’s respect and confidence and who can go out on a limb. When the criticism came, CBS management could always say, 'We may not agree with everything that Murrow and “See It Now” do, but his job is to call his shots as he sees them.'
“[No] reporter or production team at CBS was ever again given such complete responsibility for 'program content' or 'expression of opinion' and the stomach aches and much of the luminescence created by Murrow ended when ‘See It Now’ was extinguished.”
Three months after Paley killed “See It Now,” Murrow made his famous speech in Chicago at the meeting of the Radio-Television News Directors Association decrying that there was too much escapism on TV vs. the amount of news programming that was aired. Parts of that speech make up the opening scene of the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck.” In one portion of the speech, as Friendly noted, Murrow said that the responsibility for fixing television rested “on big business and on big television, and it rests at the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward -- good business and good television.”
The end of “See It Now” also marked the beginning of the end for Murrow at CBS. In February 1959 he announced that starting in July he would take a one-year sabbatical from broadcasting.
Murrow returned to CBS full time in the summer of 1960. To combat NBC’s popular team of Huntley and Brinkley at the political conventions, CBS teamed, for the first time ever, Walter Cronkite and Murrow. Friendly characterized it as a “fiasco.”
By this time CBS had started its “CBS Reports” documentary series, and in the fall of 1960 Murrow’s last great CBS program aired. It was called “Harvest of Shame." It was about migrant farm workers. Friendly wrote: “It was Murrow’s kind of story, and as he stood in the rich Florida farmland describing the dawn shape-up, all the anger and eloquence of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ seemed to emerge. Together Murrow and [episode producer David] Lowe fashioned a document of man’s exploitation of man that was full of anguish and outrage. When it was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving, it shocked millions of viewers.”
At the end of “Harvest of Shame” Murrow looked into the camera and said, “The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck.”
Asking Paley a few days later what he thought of the program, Friendly got this response: “Excellent. … I liked everything but the ending.”
Friendly added, “Management was disturbed by complaints about such programs as ‘Harvest of Shame,' even though they knew it was done fairly; what they always wanted was a ‘balanced' hour. But though objectivity is part of responsible reporting, all arguments, as Murrow had said, are not equal. … As Murrow once asked, ‘Would you give equal time to Judas Iscariot or Simon Legree?’”
Now that Murrow had returned from his sabbatical, Friendly tried to get CBS management to agree to let Murrow co-produce and host all of the “CBS Reports” shows, as he had done with “See It Now.” CBS would have none of this idea. Wrote Friendly: “Clearly CBS wanted the competence of the Murrow unit but not his prestige and outspokenness; they wanted the finest, most comprehensive information program in all television, but they would not allow the giant in his field to preside over it.”
Murrow left CBS on Jan. 31, 1961, hired by President John F. Kennedy to run the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA’s purpose was to explain U.S. policy to those who lived in other countries, particularly third-world countries.
It was a year later, in February 1962, that Dan Rather was hired by CBS News.
Part 2 of this column continues on Monday.
Just two months out of the gate and in the midst of her first November sweeps, Queen Latifah is more than holding her own with her eponymous syndicated daytime talker.
It’s a competitive landscape with rivals including Bethenny Frankel, Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric -- as well as Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil.
Unique amongst them, Latifah comes to the hosting chair as a successful musical artist whose career as a breakout female rapper dates back to the late 1980s and whose resume encompasses an extensive filmography.
On her mantel, a slew of hardware she’s earned for her work, including a Grammy, a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Image Awards.
This is actually her second go-round with a talker. Latifah, born Dana Owens, had a previous gabber from 1999-2001, which was billed at the time as a Dear Abby for the hip-hop generation.
The current incarnation of “The Queen Latifah Show” tapes at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., before a live studio audience.
With a steady diet of bold-faced names that this month includes LL Cool J, Kerry Washington, Johnny Knoxville, Vince Vaughn, Taye Diggs, Ray Romano, Ellen Pompeo, Will Arnett, Whoopi Goldberg and musical guests Janelle Monae, James Blunt, Gavin DeGraw, Jewel and Daughtry, “Latifah” also focuses on local heroes from the military, schools and communities.
Latifah sat down with reporters recently to talk about the many facets of the show, her philosophy for it and its multicultural impact. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: The ratings have been pretty monumental. How does that feel?
Latifah: I mean it's fantastic. And I think it's a testament to some of the needs that needed to be filled in daytime television. In terms of just entertainment, warmth, fun, a little bit of craziness, useful information -- those things we always need.
And as someone who watches television, I'm just constantly striving, along with my staff and partners, to make sure that we continue to make it better -- that I become a better host and I'm able to really continuously inject Queen Latifah into “The Queen Latifah Show” and really make it mine. It has been a learning experience, a growing experience, and we've been having a lot of fun and getting great feedback from people. So I'm pretty excited about that.
Q: You have been embraced by all people -- not just people of color -- but why do you think you have such an acceptance?
Latifah: I think maybe part of it is the fact that I'm a black woman, but I grew up in a family that was very multi-cultural. I had a Filipino aunt, I had a white aunt, you know? I mean I had a couple interracial couples in my family.
I had gay people in my family. I had people who were on the right side of the law, people who were on the wrong side of the law. I had sober people, I had drug-addicted people. I've had square people and cool people and everything in between in my own family that I was exposed to at a young age.
I grew up in the city of Newark, but I also grew up in Maryland and Virginia in the country. So I kind of had a diverse background. And I'm the daughter of an art teacher and a cop, you know? So I've been able to experience a lot of things through my parents' lenses first. And having parents who, sort of, allowed me to see the world, and tried to expose me to different cultures and different kinds of things and at the same time know who I am as a female, as a human being having a connection to God.
All these different kinds of things that I was exposed to at young age kind of helped me become who I am today -- and more importantly, to look at people as people. So I think the fact that I was not intimidated by different kinds of people allowed me to embrace different kinds of people at a young age.
You know, my father taught me that “when in Rome, do as the Romans” kind of thing, so every place that I went in the world as a young rapper -- from here to all these different countries and Europe. All these different cultures and languages made me sort of embrace those cultures rather than try to be like some of my friends who were on the road with me eating McDonald's in every different country we went to.
So I think maybe it's given me an understanding of people to a degree. And it's made me comfortable in my own skin. So I'm OK being judged among my own people, let alone other people. I allow myself the freedom to change and become whoever I want to be.
Q: Obviously anything can happen taping a show and there probably have been some surprises that may or may not have been on the air. What are challenges that you face that perhaps were unexpected?
Latifah: I think the challenges for me probably range from getting really comfortable being the person interviewing my peers because I'm much more used to being the one answering the question as opposed to posing the questions that we ask our guests.
So that's been a bit of a learning curve for me, which I'm adjusting to and becoming much more comfortable with. And just being really comfortable -- a comfortable chair, a comfortable outfit -- things that allow me to relax and not think about what I'm wearing, what I'm doing, and really just enjoy the person that I'm speaking to or enjoy some of the games that we're playing, or enjoy some of the musical performances or our human interest stories that we get into, and really connecting with those people.
Q: What about this experience did you not expect?
Latifah: Some of the surprises have been our crazy audience -- and a lot of that stuff doesn't make air -- and some of the crazy things that come out of my mouth when we're off air. It's much more relaxed, casual and zany than what you sometimes see on the show.
Audience members ask questions of our guests while we're taping or just say something as if we're all in the same living room together. See, people feel very comfortable around me. And they feel comfortable just responding and they feel very comfortable with a lot of our guests -- who they've known through television or film or their career -- for a long time.
But then we, obviously, have to kind of edit some of it so that it works for our viewing audience at home. But there's been a lot of fun stuff like that. Our audience has been great, and our guests have been fantastic.
And yes, probably one of the most fun ones was Cloris Leachman. She and I got it. We got the inside joke that she was going to do whatever she wanted to do that day. And so it was kind of funny trying to structure that for the TV audience, but it was so much fun and I think we were able to translate that.
Q: A lot of daytime talk shows seem to be based on trying to create controversy. What’s your take on that sort of philosophy?
Latifah: Well, the thing is that I didn't base this show on creating controversy or creating a spirit of negativity. If anything it was opposite of that. I think if anything we need more just entertainment and heart and fun.
So that's pretty much where we are. That's the space we want to live in. If people want to talk about controversial subjects, we're more than welcome to have that. They should be able to freely speak about whatever it is that they want to talk about.
And if there's questions that we need to ask -- if people are curious about -- I think we should be able to ask those questions. But everything doesn't have to be done in a salacious way that stirs up controversy intentionally. I just don't think that's the kind of show I really want to do on a regular basis.
So if it happens, it happens and we deal with it. And one of the things that I accepted a long time ago is that I'm going to be right and I'm going to be wrong. So as long as we're clear about that, then everything is all good. There's no such thing as a perfect show, a perfect host, a perfect person for that matter.
So nobody is going to do the right thing all the time. People make mistakes and that just has to be something that's accepted. If we can deal with that reality then I think everything will be fine.
Q: You have a lot of A-list guests this month. How much are you involved with the actual booking of talent on your show?
Latifah: I'm not hugely involved with the booking of the show but more involved with the approving of who gets booked on the show. But I mean I've definitely had a few of my friends on the show that I picked up the phone and called and said, "Hey, why don't you come on the show?"
And I have a couple other friends who are going to come on the show just because we’ve been talking and I'm like, "Why don't you just come on, you know, come on the show." Or they say, "Hey, I want to come on your show."
Q: So now that you're a few months in, how is it from a workload perspective? Is the daytime talk show more than you thought, less than you thought, and how are you adjusting to it?
Latifah: I'm really starting to get into a flow of it and getting into the rhythm of it. There's a lot of work involved. And that's one of the main challenges -- is just to be able to handle the workload of what you're doing and really be present at the same time and forward thinking.
So it was definitely a big load to carry, but it gets easier and easier as the days go by. And it gets more and more fun -- which is the goal -- to really make it something that's like old shoes eventually. And I think I will get there.
I think I'm already getting there. So I can see myself doing this for a very long time because it's a place where I can allow a lot of my different gifts or talents to land in one place and be able to share a lot and bring a lot to the world that others may not be bringing.
That sense of positivity that those great stories about everyday people who are doing amazing things every day on the front lines -- a message of positivity and hope that we don't always get in the news. We get plenty of bad news, but it's still great to bring some good news and cool people and fun stuff to people's sight every day, so that they know that there's a lot of great things going on in the world as well.
So as long as that continues to feed my soul, then I'll do it.
So I can become five different people on one day, you know -- from the host to someone doing a comedy skit, to being a partner in a business that is producing movies and television with Flavor Unit, to being my own musical guest on my own show performing a song, for that matter.
So luckily it's something that I naturally gravitate towards, wearing many hats in a typical day. And that's just been who I am since I was a young kid.
Q: Lenny Kravitz designed your set. What does he bring to your set that the other sets don't give us?
Latifah: What I think he's been able to bring is a mutual sense of style and peace. We both love modern architecture and I think we have one of the most gorgeous sets on TV, if I may say so myself. It's not the typical colors that you might see on some other shows that have been done in the past, or the same style of furniture.
It's really something much more modern and comfortable. We wanted something that felt sort of like my home. And my home is similar to the style that you would see on the show. A lot of people weren’t aware that he was even designing to the degree that he is. So it was a real honor and a pleasure to have him come on in and do our set as the first design that he's ever done for television with his firm. It's been pretty exciting to take that journey with him.
Q: One of the things that is so cool about this show is to see somebody who started out in the urban hip-hop community now sitting down and interviewing people like Carol Burnett and Dolly Parton and Cloris Leachman.
Latifah: I think the people who we actually interview -- especially people in my business -- tend to be exposed to a lot more different kinds of people than maybe an average person who is kind of in one area and grows up there, their family is from there, they don't really travel too much outside of that area.
I've found when you're exposed to different things you tend to open up your world a little bit and your lens gets wider because you see that there are different kinds of people. And at the end of the day people are people, you know.
And when you kind of break it down to the basics, then it doesn't matter how much money you have in your pocket, you still got to brush your teeth or you're going to have bad breath. And that's how it is.
I think we all tend to look for parts of ourselves that we can see in the media, and so it's been important for me to make sure that I'm places where people who look like me can see someone like me -- who has achieved an amount of success or that has been able to achieve in the ways that I have because then they know they can follow their dreams and goals and go for what they want in their own way, but know it's achievable.
From the very first notes of "Wild Thing" electrifying the crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 Jimi Hendrix fans will be riveted by a new two-hour "American Masters" documentary, "Jimi Hendrix -- Hear My Train a Comin'," premiering Tuesday, Nov. 5, on PBS.
The documentary, directed by Bob Smeaton, traces Hendrix’s meteoric rise as a rock icon and guitar god who came out of humble beginnings in Seattle, and whose life and career were cut short at the age of 27, just as Janis Joplin’s and Jim Morrison's were.
Seeing a cutaway of a fresh-faced Joplin in the crowd at Monterey is just one of the many pleasures of this film, which also features recently uncovered footage of Hendrix playing the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, home movies taken by Hendrix himself and an extensive archive of photographs, drawings and family letters that provide new insight into his personality and musical genius.
The documentary, an expanded version of which is also being released on DVD and Blu-ray, allows the music to play while incorporating insights from Hendrix's father, sister, former girlfriends, bandmates and some of his earliest boosters from his star-making trip to London, rock superstars Paul McCartney and Steve Winwood. Also among those interviewed are sound engineer Eddie Kramer and bass player Billy Cox.
Even those who know Hendrix’s story may be surprised to learn about his early gigs backing greats including Wilson Pickett, Little Richard and the Isley Brothers before a former member of the Animals named Chas Chandler became his manager and took him in 1966 to England, where they formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. Interviews with all three add depth to the history of Hendrix.
Their performance of “Purple Haze” on the U.K. show “Top of the Pops” in 1967 set them on the road to superstardom that soon led back to the States, where producers on the Ed Sullivan show deemed the act too risque to be on TV.
No matter -- it made the Experience a huge concert attraction and just seemed to add to Hendrix's image as a unique artist who was also breaking racial barriers during the height of the civil rights movement. Gigs like the one at Woodstock in 1969 made them legendary.
You may come away from the experience wanting to hear more of the interviews with Jimi himself, like one of the few TV appearances he did on Dick Cavett, yet still thrilled to hear from an artist who has remained inimitable for 40 years.
PBS has made the full documentary available for online streaming. Here it is:
John Lennon sure had it nailed when he sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I think of that this morning in the context of advertising. It must have been well over 20 years ago when I had my earliest conversations about interactivity being the future of advertising with Wes Dubin, who was then in charge of national broadcasting in the media department of DDB Needham in Chicago.
Much more recently, my pal Barry Frey was actually on the forefront of that movement when he ran the advanced ad platforms for the cable operator Cablevision. But as Barry eventually found out, while he and others were working on advertising’s version of “other plans,” real life was bringing even more exciting ideas to media.
And it’s in that stream of life that Barry has now hung his hat.
For the past several months Barry has been the president and CEO of the Digital Place-Based Advertising Association (DPAA).
As he explained to me the other day, digital place-based media is defined as digital video screens that exist in places where people dwell that has programming content and advertising. So it’s not static boards.
And next week the DPAA has its annual summit.
Frey explains: “We’re calling it our Video Everywhere event. It’s Oct. 22 at the New York Hilton.”
Clearly it’s a takeoff on cable’s TV Everywhere idea. As Frey says: “Video Everywhere speaks to the fact that video is being consumed everywhere by consumers, on all devices: smartphones, tablets, phablets, mobile, over the top. Advertisers need to follow the impressions from what was once just video in the living room to all these other screens. The screens of our members are a very important part of this eco-system.”
He continues: “People see our members' screens all day: at the office, at the gym, on planes, at airports and in malls. They are inside taxis, in retail, at gas stations, bars, points of care and on college campuses. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, it's over five hours a day that consumers watch these screens that are beyond the TV screens in their homes.”
Next week’s conference revolves around the planning and buying of video commercials across all screens, Barry says, noting: “To a large degree now, the decision makers and the folks that are planning and buying digital video are also either the same people, or are teamed up with the people, who buy regular video advertising.”
I asked him whether he thinks all these other screens are replacing or supplementing traditional TV advertising.
“We have examples where advertisers are spending more money against TV audiences but are topping out on their reach,” Barry replied. “So our members have been able to add reach to those executions with a very effective CPM. What’s happening is that consumers are leaving traditional television and watching our members’ screens more and more. And these screens are measured by Nielsen. So we can add reach to the traditional schedules.”
Now Barry was on a roll: “As video viewing is now becoming untethered from the living room and is spreading out to such a litany of screens and devices, our members are a way to reach people on the go, when they are on their way to make a purchase, when they are welcoming of brand awareness and brand inculcation. They are not sitting soporifically in front of the TV set -- their hearts are beating and they are very active.
“We have done a study, and we’ve found that the budgets going to digital place-based advertising are starting to come out of TV or digital budgets, in addition to what traditionally have been some out-of-home budgets.”
I then asked Frey who he thought would most benefit from coming to the Video Everywhere summit.
“Certainly advertisers, agencies, brand managers, media directors and media planners," he said. "Many of the digital place-based media companies will be showcasing their products. I’m a big believer that if you can touch and feel something you can understand it. I went to many of the upfront and new-front presentations this year, and I was inspired by what I thought was the best one I saw, which was the one for the AMC Networks. As you walked in you had zombies grabbing at your feet, then you went through a meth lab, and from there you walked into an office where you got involved in a pitch for Ovaltine. So you literally got to feel what the AMC programs were.
“And an old Chinese proverb was part of that inspiration. Here’s how it goes: Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand. So what we’ll be doing is involving the advertising community with our members' products so they will be able to touch, feel and understand them.”
Key to any conference is who's doing the talking, and Frey has lined up some interesting panels.
For example, the opening one features Robert Tas, managing director, head of digital marketing, JPMorgan Chase; Edward C. Gold, advertising director, State Farm; Bob Liodice, president & CEO, Association of National Advertisers; and Phil Cowdell, president, Client Services, GroupM. Tying it all together will be panel moderator David Verklin, a longtime advertising media maven who has always had a strong interest in how the consumer consumes media and the various implications we can draw from that behavior.
Later in the day, one of the fifth estate’s best and brightest media observers, Ken Auletta, makes an appearance at the conference.
If I’m not at my gym working out on my elliptical, with its engaging little TV screen, I’ll try to make it over there as well.
Well, that was pretty simple. Name-calling that’s easy for me as a columnist/blogger to do, and a terrific attention grabber. Thanks for clicking on this piece.
So who’s the asshole I’m referring to in the headline? Don’t have one in mind. Instead, I want to have a discussion with you about name-calling in the press, and honesty in journalism.
What got my attention was the media column published on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 by Michael Wolff in USA Today. It became the talk of the town at NBCUniversal and at other media shops, judging from the number of folks who have mentioned it to me.
In it he skewers present and former NBCUniversal executives Lauren Zalaznick, Steve Burke, Cesar Conde, Joe Uva and Randy Falco. He also attacks Patricia Sellers of Fortune magazine, who covers media.
Over the years I’ve known Uva and Zalaznick fairly well, Burke and Falco much less so, and I’ve never met nor spoken to Conde or Sellers.
In the piece, Wolff calls the TV executives above “empty suits” and, with the exception of Falco, paints them pretty much as buffoons as he writes about their recent losing and gaining of various executive jobs.
Wolff does this with great skill and, I am sure, by the end of the piece many consumers, as well as those in media, are having a great laugh at what Wolff has painted as a travesty of a mockery of a sham, to borrow a line from Woody Allen.
But honest journalism it is not.
Wolff writes that some “personnel shifts at NBCUniversal have brought an onslaught of self-congratulatory memos from top management and slavish coverage in the press, while many sentient insiders are doubled over with laughter at the real story.”
I question whether “many” insiders are laughing hysterically at the plight of these various executives.
And here’s what I know about almost all personnel shifts in the business world. Rarely, if ever, does a company say that someone has been “fired.” And it is a rare executive who says that he or she has been “fired.”
So what most responsible journalists do, when faced with someone leaving a company, is recount the positive accomplishments achieved by the executive, as well as what are generally acknowledged to be that executive’s shortcomings.
Furthermore, Wolff writes that “media writers are often trying to sell projects to the people they are writing about.” In fact, most legitimate journalists covering the TV beat are not doing that.
I’ve been covering the TV business for more than three decades. I have rarely interviewed a top executive who I actually thought was an empty suit, and it is certainly not a fair description of the NBCU executives in Wolff’s story. As most of us know, even the failings of various media endeavors are not the result of someone being an empty suit.
Wolff, of course, knows this. He’s held a number of other jobs himself over the years. I have met him a few times and we have spoken to one another once or twice. I don’t know whether he would recall any of those encounters.
Years ago, when I was at “Inside Media,” one of my colleagues there was quite friendly with Wolff and thought he was one of the finest media minds around.
On the other hand, another friend of mine, who worked at Adweek when Wolff was in charge there, dislikes him and has described him to me as, well, an “empty suit,” and as a rather unpleasant person.
Personally, I live in a glass house and have no illusions that some people like me and that others think I’m an A-hole.
But I’d never write a piece such as the one Wolff wrote Monday morning. It’s not honest.
Yes, executives have egos. And they have sides of themselves that aren’t pretty. But it’s actually a rare executive, in media or otherwise, who is both the fool and the clown as Wolff says the executives are that he wrote about in his column.
Wolff is also wrong about what he says at the conclusion of his column: “These are, clear to all, the emperor’s empty suits, the assets who descend in the elevator each night from their phony-baloney jobs. That’s network television! As it has always been, and as it remains, even with just about everyone saying how passionately they are focused on reinventing the business.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. The people named in his column and the jobs they have and had are not phony-baloney ones. The jobs are real, and these executives -- like most everyone involved in network TV, from those at the studios to those at the stations to those at the networks themselves -- are working their asses off trying to figure out how to put on programming that most of us want to watch and will tune in to.
THAT is actually network television. As it has always been, and as it remains.
It may be the men of "Sons of Anarchy" who suck all of the air in the room when they hold secret meetings in their clubhouse, but it is the women who provide much of the motivation for the adrenalized motorcycle gang action that happens in and around the fictional town of Charming, Calif.
Gun running. Drug dealing. Prostitution. Murder. Legitimate businesses to cover them up. It’s all there in creator Kurt Sutter’s edgy and twisted look at a gang of outlaws who continually confront threats to their way of life from corrupt law enforcement, overzealous developers and rival gangs, as well as life-and-death betrayals from within the core group.
And for all of the Emmy love that the testosterone-fueled FX drama somehow doesn't seem to receive -- and should -- audiences are making up for it in record numbers. The recent premiere episode of Season 6 is now down in the history books as the cable net’s most-watched telecast with 8.32 million viewers for Live plus 7 time-shifted viewing.
Full disclosure: I came late to the “Sons” party -- due only to the time required keeping up with all the other great dramas on television in this new golden age. But once I did, I was hooked -- drawn in by its echoes of Shakespeare and “The Sopranos.” So I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Maggie Siff (Dr. Tara Knowles) and Katey Sagal (Gemma Teller-Morrow) when they got on the phone recently with reporters.
The two actresses who play the wife and mother of lead character Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam) vie for his attention, loyalty and affection, and barely an episode goes by without their rivalry playing a central role -- and creating all kinds of ripple-effect chaos.
Sagal’s Gemma and her machinations make her the winner in the most recent round, by putting Tara in jail. It’s the same thing she did with her ex-husband and Jax’s hated stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman), the former president of SAMCRO from whom Jax has wrestled the reins.
Here are excerpts from the conversation with the two leading ladies:
Q: Every character has to make a lot of tough choices and to live with the choices that they make. Thinking of all the difficult decisions that Gemma had to make through the course of the show, what action was the hardest to wrap your head around and justify and to do on camera?
Sagal: Sending Clay to prison last season was a tough choice because she knew that it was a setup. That was tough for her. She kind of comes out of the situation and she has to think on her feet right at the moment, so I think at the time she never thinks there's that tough of a decision. It's high stakes all the time. If you think about it, our show takes place in about a week. What you see in a season, it's a week or two weeks. They pretty much react instinctively and there's not a lot of time to think “Is this a hard thing to do?"
Q: Gemma seems to have some pretty complex relationships with a number of characters on the show, particularly with Unser and Tig, who has always been loyal to Clay. What do you think the relationship is between her and these two?
Sagal: I think they’re a very close-knit group. They are their own family members. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a sexual tension amongst all of them, really, because they are a very bonded group, and not by blood. I definitely think Tig has eyed her as she has him. In that culture there is sort of the unspoken acceptance that some of the guys, when they’re out of town, they do what they want with other women. I think that there’s a loose approach to all of that, but out of respect to his best friend he would never do anything like that. I think she feels the same way towards him. She feels really close to all those guys, which I think there may be a blurry line.
She grew up with Unser, and I've always imagined he's like an older brother to her. She had a very strained relationship with her parents and she wasn't close to her own family, necessarily, so he's like a family member to her. But then, he has that unrequited crush on her, which he's always had.
Q: How much do you relate to Gemma as a woman, maybe not in the situation she’s in, but as a female?
Sagal: She's all about her family and keeping this lifestyle of hers together and keeping this group together. There's that similarity. I think that Gemma tends to be vain, as I do in certain ways. What's been really interesting to play this season is not a softer side, but a more Zen-like approach, when people start to have a conscience about really where their lives are going and what's been happening. I think a lot of her viewpoint is being influenced by Nero [Jimmy Smits], who is not as ruthless, so I think that it shades her and she tends to soften a little bit around him, which I think she likes.
All these characters have been changing. Over the course of the seven years there's actual life to all the people. They're not just one way and this is the way they always are every time you see them on the show. As an actor, that's really fun to say, "Oh, this is a different aspect of that character. This is not how this character was before." But in life, we’re never the same day-to-day. I mean, we have certain codes that we live by. But our responses and reactions will change as our circumstances change. I think that these characters do the same thing.
Q: Tara has made a big evolution. What still surprises you about playing her, and what are the facets of her character that you find most intriguing?
Siff: I've been joking that Tara's like the place people go to see their dreams die, so I guess what surprises me is the darker and darker regression of the things that she sees fall away. The thing that surprises me in playing her, and in figuring out how to play her, are her reserves of strength and power. Even as her mind is sort of warping and things in her psyche are shifting in a way that I think is really negative and things are kind of breaking, there's also a fierceness in her that rises up perpetually. That's the surprise.
From the beginning, I thought the thing that's interesting about her being a doctor and a surgeon is she's somebody who has to be capable of performing surgery, of dealing with the blood and the guts of life. To me, that means she's somebody who's really fierce and tough. I could also connect it to the part of her that came from that world and was able to deal with life and death and darkness, and shadow and light. So it'll be an interesting coin to flip through the series, to see her going between these places of healing and destruction. I think she's lost right now because she's lost her ability to be a doctor and a healer. She has to turn her attention other things, and I think it's really wreaking havoc on her and bringing up the darker parts of her nature, but I don't think that part of her that is a healer has been destroyed.
Q: Fans were very upset that Jax cheated on Tara. What did you think when you read that in the script and how do you explain the disconnect between them?
Siff: I'm glad to hear that fans were upset. I was upset as well. I think at the end of Season 5 we saw just incredible disillusionment on both their parts with the other person. I think Jax is feeling the sting of her betrayal in terms of trying to set things up so that the kids would be given to Wendy and she was feeling the sting of his betrayal in terms of a real lack of support for her priorities in terms of getting out and getting her kids into a safe place and also some of the more violent and terrifying aspects of his nature that were revealed to her at the end of last season.
They're on different planes right now and she can't even see him when she's in prison. What I was playing with in the premiere episode is that she's using the time to really collect her thoughts and create a plan for herself in terms of what she's going to do to protect herself and her kids because nobody else is going to help her, and that includes Jax. Therefore, she can't expose herself to him because it would be too difficult.
Q: Then, would it be hopelessly naive to keep pulling for Jax and Tara as a couple at this point?
Siff: I don't think so. I think the thing about the show that really pulls people in is that no matter how awful things get between people, there is this deep and passionate, kind of violently passionate love between the characters, within the family, between Jax and Tara. It's hard not to, on a basic level, root for that. I think I root for that. I think we all root for that. That said, it's such a brutal and brutalizing world, God knows how it's all going to end. I guess the thing that I really wish for them is that they learn how to communicate with each other. I think they're very dysfunctional. I think the thing that I connect to with the character, and I think other people connect to, is how these two people who clearly love each other can’t reveal themselves to each other.
Q: Gemma is one of the most fascinating and boundary-busting characters on television, male or female, who is just filled with surprises -- but how does her character balance the intensity of feelings she has for both Nero and Clay?
Sagal: Like all the relationships in the show, it's a lot of duality. I think that Clay crossed some lines with her that she can't get back from. At the time when he tried to kill Tara, it wasn't even so much the beat-down he laid on her, but it was all the things he did to other people. Gemma’s very family-oriented. I think that what Jax asked her to do, which then ultimately landed Clay in jail, she had conflict about it, but she made somewhat of a peace about it. At the same time she had his new relationship with a different kind of outlaw. Nero is an outlaw too, but he may not be quite the ruthless cold-blooded type that Clay is.
Q: Getting back to Gemma’s not so lovable qualities, she manages to justify the acts of vengeance and betrayal as taking care of her family. Do you attribute this to her being in such a patriarchal society?
Sagal: You have a group of people that live outside the grid. The whole point of anarchists is that they have their own rules and regulations and responses, and this is the little world that they have created. So if you really think about what that must feel like, it's sort of you against everybody else. It brings certain intensity to protecting and honoring that group. It is her security, it is her survival. She's a person that left home, left her family, has no roots. These are her roots. Her back story is that she ran away from home when she was a teenager, she hooked up with this group of motorcycle guys that were coming right out of Vietnam and that became her life. She has babies within it, the women she knows are the women that are also with these guys, so it's their own little society. So yes, she would fiercely, fiercely protect that system. Without it, what is she? Sometimes I trip about it. These are people that don't necessarily have retirement funds, 401(k)s. That's not the world they live in. I think it's all in a mattress under the bed.
Q: Kurt seems to have great insight into the female character with the way he writes both Gemma and Tara. Does being married to him inform what he knows about women?
Sagal: First of all, he loves women. He's a very sensitive guy. I mean, nobody really wants to realize it, but for him to write the way he writes, there's a very deep emotional place that he has. He writes women better than anybody I've read before. He really has a deep understanding. He would tell you he has a strong feminine side that he is able to tap into. He's a mush at heart.
Siff: I think that what we see on the show are two very powerful and smart women who are also marginal to the life of the club and the kinds of decisions that get made. In certain respects they’re reactive to events and then in other respects they’re very conniving and right at the heart of how things get done, and what happens. I think Kurt is walking a really strange and kind of interesting line in terms of where their power lies. I have moments where I'm like “Hmmm” and then I have moments where I'm like, "That's interesting." I think they're pretty powerful women in general in terms of the spectrum of powerful women on television.
Q: We’ve seen Tara become more like Gemma over the years, and the recent prison scene where she beat someone really showed her manifesting her “Gemma-ness.” What's it been like for you playing that conflict and becoming this person that you are really trying to escape?
Siff: Yes, it's pretty fascinating. I think there's something almost magnetizing about Gemma and Tara. The way I've been thinking about it recently is Gemma is like this fierce mother figure. She's just such a powerful matriarch and she loves fiercely and will protect to the death her children, her clan, anything she feels is going to threaten the sanctity of her family. Tara is like this quintessential orphan who's parentless and she's been so in need of parents and protectors and people she can look to. So between those two things there's this magnetism, which is why I think they're so drawn to each other and repelled by each other. Gemma is the only person around who serves that role for Tara. It's a huge source of conflict, because I think while she desperately needs a parent she desperately doesn't want to become Gemma. It's just had her bouncing back and forth between states of mind over the last six years. It's really fun to play, especially with Katey, who I love. She's a very maternal figure but she's such a fierce actress we just flip in and out of these modes acting and hating each other, and then love each other as people. It's all there for us to play with. It's a fun relationship.
Q: You’ve worked on "Mad Men” and “Sons of Anarchy,” two of the best-written shows on television. What appealed to you most about the writing of “SOA,” and why do you think people connect with such a dark world?
Siff: My feeling about the script when I read it for the very first time and what I wish people could see, although I think it comes across, are Kurt's descriptions of events on the page, his descriptions of the action sequences, his descriptions of what's going on inside the minds of the characters. He writes very beautifully. It's swift, dramatic and it's funny. And it kind of sweeps you along. He's writing on a grand scale about the feeling of heart and flesh and bikes and the motion of all that storytelling. You feel about when you read the scripts.
The juxtaposition of the dark material up against his incredible sense of humor I think is the thing that actually makes the show work. He's just a very skilled that way. I think it took us a little while in the first season to figure out the tone of the show.
Q: Did Kurt tell you in the beginning about Tara’s character arc or did it just grow in an organic way?
Siff: I think he always wanted to see Tara progress towards Gemma and towards assuming the role of matriarch. I think he didn't know how that was going to happen, in particular because she was a moral compass, which I think was not necessarily what he anticipated for the character. I think it was a combination of who I was as an actor and some beginning notions that he had about her. Early on, the thing that he would say to me is that he realized that she was like the window through which the audience could see these people. Like the audience, she loved this man but knew better, and that's sort of the audience’s position as well – like you love them, but you know they're bad people.
Q: Have things changed on the set since Charlie was cast in "50 Shades of Grey"?
Sagal: There’s a lot more paparazzi there. We’re inundated now with them taking pictures of our movie star. I love Charlie. I know he thought long and hard about taking that role because he would not take it lightly. He really likes the director. I've watched Charlie work for the last six years. This is a kid that is 100% committed to what he gets committed to. So he's somewhat method-y. He embodies what it is he's done on our show, and I'm sure he's going to be just awesome and will bring all of it, whatever it is he needs to bring, if you know what I mean. It'll be great.
Q: With the show reaching its conclusion next season, can you imagine how you will feel and deal with it coming to an end?
Sagal: This season, we all kind of know the end is near. It's a great vibe on the set this year. There's something that happens when you realize that everybody really likes your show and the work that you're doing. It's really fulfilling. We think the storytelling is great and then people respond as well. It's an amazing experience. I know from personal experience that it's really rare. Everybody has a sense of that, that this just does not happen that often with television shows, that you're able to continue your story, that your audience rises each season and that we all made such close relationships and close friendships and have done really wonderful work together. It's very bonding. So yes, there's a melancholy that will start to set in. Everybody sort of clings onto every moment because we know that there's a countdown about to happen. It's kind of bittersweet, but what's really cool about our show is, I think that it's one big story. So it's nice to have that and to be at this part of it. "Nice" is a weird word to use, actually, because I'm sure it's going to be bloody.
("Sons of Anarchy" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.)