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 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, then 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.