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?

Nov 22, 2013

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 Mur
row, “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.

To read part 2 of this column, please click here.

To read part 3 of this column, please click here.

2 Comments

  1. There’s a lot of irony that a reporter out to “get” George W. Bush, which resulted in Rather’s firing over a forged document, is concerned about a story about JFK, who was arguably more fiscally conservative than Bush. In fact, JFK was on his way that day in Dallas to make a speech in support of cutting personal and corporate taxes to stimulate the economy. The anniversary stories today won’t report that, nor will they comment that JFK’s passing ushered in a half-century of social engineering and higher taxes, as well as a failed war on poverty. We can only wonder how things might have played out had JFK and RFK lived. Maybe Dan Rather would not have needed to bend the rules of reporting and lose his job over the Texas Air National Guard story.

  2. This is context and history that too many in broadcast journalism have forgotten–or never learned.
    That Edward R Murrow could never be hired to be a TV news reporter today says nothing about him and everything about TV news–none of it good.
    “CBS Reports: Harvest of Shame” can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E ). It is as powerful, as heartbreaking, as it was when first broadcast 53 years ago. The comments below the video on YouTube are the reason we still need to watch “Harvest of Shame” and need to keep reporting on issues that make us uncomfortable.
    Back to work:

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