August 4, 2014

1943. Should Newscasters Voice Opinion?

The Editorial Debate

"Caricaturist George Wachsteter takes this view of the CBS-TV political commentators at work" (1956). Featured are Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout, Bill Downs, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and others

From Newsweek, October 4, 1943, p. 86-88:
Should Newscasters Voice Opinion?
CBS Says No; Commentators Object
Ever since radio went commercial, a major problem has plagued its news commentators. Unlike newspaper columnists, most of them are hired or sponsored by advertisers; if a commentator's opinions disagree too violently with those of the sponsor who is paying the bill, that commentator is likely to find himself replaced by somebody else when his contract expires. Hence one of the most frequent complaints against radio—chiefly from leftist sources—is that opinion on the air tends to agree with the views of big business as represented by a fairly small group of advertisers.
In the last three weeks that problem has flared into a wide open public discussion. On Sept. 13, James L. Fly, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, castigated an unidentified "so-called news program" for "peddling ideas from company headquarters" and tending "to get away from the news of the day to the philosophies of the particular sponsor."

Even before that the discussion had started. On Sept. 9 Paul White, Columbia Broadcasting System news director, told an Associated Press meeting in Chicago that CBS policy barred any opinion on any news programs, including those of commentators. A week later White and CBS were verbally paddled by H.V. Kaltenborn, NBC newscaster who is himself notoriously fond of air-editorializing. At a New York luncheon of the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association of Radio News Analysts, which Kaltenborn founded, he stated: "No news analyst worth his salt could be or would be completely neutral or objective." He did admit that it was "altogether too easy for timid broadcasters to go too far in catering to the sensibilities or special interests of a squeamish or powerful minority."

Last Monday CBS brought the whole issue out of the radio newsrooms and laid it before the public. In full-page advertisements in New York and Washington newspapers, the network reemphasized its policy: "We will not choose men who will tell the public what they themselves think and what the public should think" because "without such a policy it is easy to see that a powerful and one-sided position on serious issues could be created for a small group of broadcasters . . . freedom of speech on the radio would be menaced."

Ostensibly the ad was intended to free CBS, at least, from charges of peddling its sponsors' political ideas. Instead, it prompted some newspapers and commentators to accuse the network of everything from gagging free speech to kowtowing to the demands of "wealthy businessmen and Republican National Committee members" to "give our side a break." (White called this "utter fantasy.") Probably the loudest shouter was Walter Winchell, who frequently scolds the Blue network for trying to censor him on his Sunday-night program. In his syndicated newspaper column last Tuesday, Winchell found that "the air ain't as free as it used to be. It's subject to the whims of CBS and its highest mucky-mucks."

The climax came last Wednesday. Cecil Brown, CBS newscaster who took over the network spot vacated when Elmer Davis became head of the Office of War Information, announced he was resigning from the Columbia staff. And he made his letter to Paul White declaring that the CBS policy was intolerable because it "is not . . . intended to make CBS reporters neutral . . . but to make them creatures of your own editorial opinion of what constitutes the news."

Brown's resignation also climaxed his private fight with White. In a broadcast Aug. 25, among other things, Brown had remarked that "any reasonably accurate observer of the American scene at this moment knows that a good deal of the enthusiasm for this war is evaporating into thin air." He also criticized the President and Prime Minister Churchill for "failing to dramatize what we are fighting for."

Two days later White sent him a memo hinting his resignation would be acceptable. "I have looked over your 'analysis' of 11:10 on Wednesday night," White wrote, "and have found it to be, in my opinion, nothing but an editorial . . . the entire 'analysis' was a statement of what Cecil Brown thinks, of what Cecil Brown would have done had he been President Roosevelt, disregarding the very obvious truth that the people did not elect Cecil Brown but did elect President Roosevelt." As for the "evaporating enthusiasm," White angrily went on: "That statement is made at a time when all production records are being broken, when the largest sum of money ever to be sought by our government is going to be invested in government bonds by the people themselves, and at a time . . . when American military morale was never higher." White's memo was written only a few days after the Johns-Manville Corp. had informed CBS that it would not continue to sponsor Brown beyond September.

For the moment no other network showed any sign of joining in Columbia's "neutrality" crusade. But behind that crusade loomed the larger issue of the relations of broadcasters with the Federal Communications Commission.

Obviously, CBS's policy could be an answer to Chairman Fly's strictures on big-business bias in news broadcasts. And it would be an especially timely answer. For within the next two months Congress is expected to order hearings on the pending White-Wheeler bill which would modify the FCC's power to regulate network activities. At that time it would be up to Fly to prove that the networks need regulating. If he can't prove it, that would please the majority of broadcasters, who would like to see his authority limited.