Wartime Editorial Cartoons
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|Bill Downs during an interview with Gamel Abdel Nasser in late 1954|
June 10, 1954
Finally have gotten out from under the canonization and a host of visiting firemen to drop a line about my recent trip. The toughest part about it was making out the expense accounts, which involved at least six currencies and a long and doubtful memory.
I went to Lebanon, Jordan, Cairo, Cyprus, and Israel in something like 13 days -- it was too fast, but I did get a lot of contacts made, picked up a few stories, and was able to get back in time to go to Paris for the big correspondents meeting.
The Middle East is fascinating -- but they haven't quite discovered the 20th century as yet. In fact, I don't think the Arabs are particularly interested in it. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is a beautiful place loaded with American cars which everyone drives at breakneck speed down the narrow streets with a thumb on the horn. It's one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, with a perfect seashore and mountains in the background. They have a big American University there, which makes it the intellectual center of the Arab world...but that's about all.
I next flew down to Arab Jerusalem in Jordan. Jerusalem is cut in half by the war with a kind of no man's land perhaps a block wide separating the Arab and Jewish sections of the city. The Arabs have the old part with all the Christian and Moslem shrines. I went to the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and over to Bethlehem. Most of the roads are under military observation, and every night there is some kind of shooting incident. It's a beautiful but barren country...but there's nothing there but tradition to fight over.
The next hop was down to Cairo where I spent five fruitless days trying to get a filmed interview with the new head of the Egyptian revolutionary government, Colonel Nasser. The trouble was that it was Ramadan, the Moslem religious holiday, which forbids Moslems from touching food or drink during the daylight hours. In other words, nothing much got done. However, the CBS stringer, Frank Kearns, did finally get the Nasser interview a couple of weeks later.
Traveling from the Arab world to Israel is a touchy business. There's a war on, and if you have an Israeli visa in your passport the Moslems won't let you in the country. Consequently the Jews, understanding the problem and hot after tourists, give visitors a kind of separate passport which you carry hidden and use when you fly to the island of Cyprus. There you pick up another plane to go to the Israeli airport at Lydda.
Where the Arab world is still struggling with wooden plows, nomad Bedouins, and ancient superstitions, the Jews are creating a 20th century society in the Mid-East. The spirit is tremendous...a little like our early Western days of expansion. They have a long way to go before they make the desert bloom, but they are making progress. Whether you approve of the Zionists or not, you have to hand it to them. For these were the same people, a lot of them, who came out of Hitler's concentration camps. I did get a film interview with the Prime Minister, Moshe Sharrett. You remember the Zinders from Washington -- I believe we went over there for drinks one night when Herblock the cartoonist was there. Well, Harry and Hamdah are in Jewish Jerusalem now. He's public relations adviser to the government. They asked that I send you their regards.
I got back to Rome around the 16th and Roz and I left immediately for Paris for a few days. The conference with Frank Stanton concerned splitting up radio and TV news -- which it was agreed is practically impossible in the foreign field. So I will continue to wear two hats here. The TV work is getting heavier all the time -- but no additional money as yet.
Paris is about twice as expensive as Rome -- but it still turns out the best food and wine in the world.
I've got to go to Greece and Turkey next -- perhaps next week. But right now things are quiet and I hope it remains that way.
. . .
This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But I am persuaded that the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television in this generous and capacious land.
I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard, the one that produces words and pictures. You will, I am sure, forgive me for not telling you that the instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.
You should also know at the outset that, in the manner of witnesses before Congressional committees, I appear here voluntarily—by invitation—that I am an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting System, that I am neither an officer nor any longer a director of that corporation and that these remarks are strictly of a "do-it-yourself" nature. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Seeking neither approbation from my employers, nor news sponsors, nor acclaim from the critics of radio and television, I cannot very well be disappointed. Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to radio and television. These instruments have been good to me beyond my due. There exists in my mind no reasonable grounds for any kind of personal complaint. I have no feud, either with my employers, any sponsors, or with the professional critics of radio and television. But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture, and our heritage.
Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 PM., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: "Look now and pay later."
For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive quite literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then perhaps some young and courageous soul with a small budget might do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done—and are still doing—to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.
I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained, and more mature than most of our industry's program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is: an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.
Several years ago, when we undertook to do a program on Egypt and Israel, well-meaning, experienced and intelligent friends in the business said, "This you cannot do. This time you will be handed your head." It is an emotion-packed controversy, and there is no room for reason in it." We did the program. Zionists, anti-Zionists, the friends of the Middle East, Egyptian and Israeli officials said, with I must confess a faint tone of surprise, "It was a fair account. The information was there. We have no complaints."
Our experience was similar with two half hour programs dealing with cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Both the medical profession and the tobacco industry cooperated, but in a rather wary fashion. But at the end of the day they were both reasonably content. The subject of radioactive fallout and the banning of nuclear tests was, and is, highly controversial. But according to what little evidence there is, viewers were prepared to listen to both sides with reason and restraint. This is not said to claim any special or unusual competence in the presentation of controversial subjects, but rather to indicate that timidity in these areas is not warranted by the evidence.
Recently, network spokesmen have been disposed to complain that the professional critics of television in print have been "rather beastly." There have been ill-disguised hints that somehow competition for the advertising dollar has caused the critics of print to gang up on television and radio. This reporter has no desire to defend the critics. They have space in which to do that on their own behalf. But it remains a fact that the newspapers and magazines are the only instruments of mass communication which remain free from sustained and regular critical comment. I would suggest that if the network spokesmen are so anguished about what appears in print, then let them come forth and engage in a little sustained and regular comment regarding newspapers and magazines. It is an ancient and sad fact that most people in network television and radio have an exaggerated regard for what appears in print. And there have been cases where executives have refused to make even private comment on a program for which they were responsible until they had read the reviews in print. This is hardly an exhibition of confidence.
The oldest excuse of the networks for their timidity is their youth. Their spokesmen say, "We are young; we have not developed the traditions nor acquired the experience of the older media." If they but knew it, they are building those traditions and creating those precedents every day. Each time they yield to a voice from Washington or any political pressure, each time they eliminate something that might offend some section of the community, they are creating their own body of precedent and tradition, and it will continue to pursue them. They are, in fact, not content to be "half safe."
Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission publicly prods broadcasters to engage in their legal right to editorialize. Of course, to undertake an editorial policy, overt, clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored, requires a station or a network to be responsible. Most stations today probably do not have the manpower to assume this responsibility, but the manpower could be recruited. Editorials of course would not be profitable. If they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use this money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that will be paid for that is not libelous, obscene, or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.
So far as radio—that most satisfying, ancient but rewarding instrument—is concerned, the diagnosis of the difficulties is not too difficult. And obviously I speak only of news and information. In order to progress it need only go backward. Back to the time when singing commercials were not allowed on news reports, when there was no middle commercial in a fifteen minute news report, when radio was rather proud, alert, and fast. I recently asked a network official, "Why this great rash of five-minute news reports (including three commercials) on weekends?" And he replied, "Because that seems to be the only thing we can sell."
In this kind of complex and confusing world, you can't tell very much about the why of the news in broadcasts where only three minutes is available for news. The only man who could do that was Elmer Davis, and his kind aren't about anymore. If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, and only when packaged to fit the advertising appropriation of a sponsor, then I don't care what you call it—I say it isn't news.
My memory—and I have not yet reached the point where my memories fascinate me—but my memory also goes back to the time when the fear of a slight reduction in business did not result in an immediate cutback in bodies in the news and public affairs department at a time when network profits had just reached an all-time high. We would all agree, I think, that whether on a station or a network, the stapling machine is a very poor substitute for a newsroom typewriter and somebody to beat it properly.
One of the minor tragedies of television news and information is that the networks will not even defend their vital interests. When my employer, CBS, through a combination of enterprise and good luck, did an interview with Nikita Khrushchev, the President uttered a few ill-chosen, uninformed words on the subject, and the network thereupon practically apologized. This produced a rarity. Many newspapers defended the CBS right to produce the program and commended it for initiative. The other networks remained silent.
Likewise, when John Foster Dulles, by personal decree, banned American journalists from going to Communist China and subsequently offered seven contradictory explanations for his fiat, the networks entered only a mild protest. Then they apparently forgot the unpleasantness. Can it be that this national industry is content to serve the public interest only with the trickle of news that comes out of Hong Kong, to leave its viewers in ignorance of the cataclysmic changes that are occurring in a nation of 600 million people? I have no illusions about the difficulties reporting from a dictatorship, but our British and French allies have been better served in their public interest with some very useful information from their reporters in Communist China.
One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks, with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales, or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.
It is, after all, not easy for the same small group of men to decide whether to buy a new station for millions of dollars, build a new building, alter the rate card, buy a new Western, sell a soap opera, decide what defensive line to take in connection with the latest Congressional inquiry, how much money to spend on promoting a new program, what additions or deletions should be made in the existing covey or clutch of vice presidents, and at the same time—frequently on the long, same long day—to give mature, thoughtful consideration to the manifold problems that confront those who are charged with the responsibility for news and public affairs.
Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest. A telephone call or a letter from the proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer. It is tempting enough to give away a little air time for frequently irresponsible and unwarranted utterances in an effort to temper the wind of political criticism. But this could well be the subject of a separate and even lengthier and drearier dissertation.
Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty. Not so long ago the President of the United States delivered a television address to the nation. He was discoursing on the possibility or the probability of war between this nation and the Soviet Union and Communist China. It would seem to have been a reasonably compelling subject with a degree of urgency—a test. Two networks, CBS and NBC, delayed that broadcast for an hour and fifteen minutes. If this decision was dictated by anything other than financial reasons, the networks didn't deign to explain those reasons. That hour and fifteen minute delay, by the way, is a little more than twice the time required for an ICBM to travel from the Soviet Union to major targets in the United States. It is difficult to believe that this decision was made by men who love, respect, and understand news.
I have been dealing largely with the deficit side of the ledger, and the items could be expanded. But I have said, and I believe, that potentially we have in this country a free enterprise system of radio and television which is superior to any other. But to achieve its promise, it must be both free and enterprising. There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or in the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse. I do not suggest that news and information should be subsidized by foundations or private subscriptions. I am aware that the networks have expended, and are expending, very considerable sums of money on public affairs programs from which they cannot receive any financial reward. I have had the privilege at CBS of presiding over a considerable number of such programs. And I am able to stand here and say, that I have never had a program turned down by my superiors just because of the money it would cost.
But we all know that you cannot reach the potential maximum audience in marginal time with a sustaining program. This is so because so many stations on the network—any network—will decline to carry it. Every licensee who applies for a grant to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity makes certain promises as to what he will do in terms of program content. Many recipients of licenses have, in blunt language, just plain welshed on those promises. The money-making machine somehow blunts their memories. The only remedy for this is closer inspection and punitive action by the FCC. But in the view of many this would come perilously close to supervision of program content by a federal agency.
So it seems that we cannot rely on philanthropic support or foundation subsidies. We cannot follow the "sustaining route"—the networks cannot pay all the freight—and the FCC cannot, will not, or should not discipline those who abuse the facilities that belong to the public. What, then, is the answer? Do we merely stay in our comfortable nests, concluding that the obligation of these instruments has been discharged when we work at the job of informing the public for a minimum of time? Or do we believe that the preservation of the Republic is a seven-day-a-week job, demanding more awareness, better skills, and more perseverance than we have yet contemplated?
I am frightened by the imbalance; the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once wrote, "No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch." I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won't be, but it could. But let us not shoot the wrong piano player. Do not be deluded into believing that the titular heads of the networks control what appears on their network. They all have better taste. All are responsible to stockholders, and in my experience all are honorable men. But they must schedule what they can sell in the public market.
And this brings us to the nub of the question. In one sense it rather revolves around the phrase heard frequently along Madison Avenue: "the corporate image." I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public image, or believe that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain.
So the question is this: Are the big corporations who pay the freight for radio and television programs wise to use that time exclusively for the sale of goods and services? Is it in their own interest and that of the stockholders so to do? The sponsor of an hour's television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour. If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or "letting the public decide."
I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders' money for advertising are in fact removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice presidents, public relations counsel, and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough.
But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination, and faith in the future. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.
Let us have a little competition. Not only in selling soap, cigarettes, and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. Why should not each of the twenty or thirty big corporations, and they dominate radio and television, decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: "This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren't going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas." The networks should, and I think they would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders rise up and object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if the people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the right decision. If that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations and the rest of us are done for.
There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. I am grateful to all of you for not having employed it earlier. It was: "Go hire a hall." Under this proposal the sponsor would have hired the hall. He has bought the time; the local station operator, no matter how indifferent, is going to carry the program—he has to. He's getting paid for it. Then it's up to the networks to fill the hall. I am not here talking about editorializing but about straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned, and impartial as fallible human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore also the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information. It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are many, even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling.
There may be other and simpler methods of utilizing these instruments of radio and television in the interests of a free society. But I know of none that could be so easily accomplished inside the framework of the existing commercial system. I don't know how you would measure the success or failure of a given program. And it would be very hard to prove the magnitude of the benefit accruing to the corporation which gave up one night of a variety or quiz show in order that the network might marshal its skills to do a thoroughgoing job on the present status of NATO, or plans for controlling nuclear tests. But I would reckon that the president, and indeed the stockholders of the corporation who sponsored such a venture, would feel just a little bit better about both the corporation and the country.
It may be that this present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic, and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason ours differ from the British and French, or the Russian and Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information, and our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.
I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex, or Silex—it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests on the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: both good business and good television.
Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said—and I think it was Max Eastman—that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporations that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers, or their listeners, or themselves.
I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.
We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure might well grow by contagion. The economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure—exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.
To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent, and insulated, I can only reply: there is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse, and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.
This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
Stonewall Jackson, who is generally believed to have known something weapons, is reported to have said, "When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival. Thank you for your patience.
August 30, 1942.
. . .
I have had an offer of a job from Columbia Broadcasting System to do news commentary along the lines of Ed Murrow and Charlie Collingwood. I'm seriously considering it as I think it will pay more money. Besides, radio news commentary is a good racket to get in on -- especially now when radio reporting is just getting underway on a large scale. I have made a test broadcast to New York. The studio there made a recording of my voice which the various big shots will listen to and judge whether it's okay. If it is, and I should know within the next few days, we start talking turkey. I know I'll get more money. However, the job probably will entail my being transferred to some other spot besides London after I break in on the job. Current possibilities are either Moscow or Cairo. I wouldn't mind either assignment. From a personal point of view, I think it would be a wise move. Not only would it establish my name -- i.e. if I'm any good -- but the work is easier and I believe it has more of a future. I can always write on the side if I want.
. . .
All my love,
September 13, 1942.
Dear Mom, Dad and Bonnie Lee,
. . .
As I cabled you, I have quit the United Press and joined the Columbia Broadcasting company. The offer was just too good to turn down, and besides, I would like to see the other side of the war. I also believe that this international coverage of news by radio is a coming thing likely to expand fast. I will be on the ground floor for a career in that field after the war. All in all, I'm happy with the shift.
Here are the details. Ed Murrow called and asked me to make a voice test, which proved satisfactory. Then he offered me $70 weekly and a full expense account to go to Russia. It means that my salary will pile up each week that I'm there. They agreed to purchase all the kit I need -- such as heavy clothing etc. -- and said the stay there should not exceed one year, after which I will be shifted somewhere else on the battlefront. Probably will get a brief vacation when I come out of Russia to the United States.
I do not leave UP until my notice is up sometime next week. Then I will break into the radio racket here in London for three or four weeks getting a few news broadcasts under my belt, after which I'll leave for Moscow.
It was a hell of a decision to make. I didn't want to walk out on the best story of the war by leaving the Western Front. Still, I figured that the Eastern Front is going to last through the winter and into next spring and that it will continue to be an important factor in the war. The competition will be so hot over there and I should be able to make myself a name. The payoff is good and the prospects better, so I'm sure I did right.
. . .
I don't want you to worry about me. Everyone else has been taking care of themselves over there and there's no reason why I can't do the same. You won't of course hear from me as often as when I worked in London, but I'll get messages back via radio as often as possible. Anyway, you'll be able to hear my voice over CBS about five times a week.
I should be able to leave London without any debts -- including cleaning up $150 worth of U.S. income tax -- although I don't expect to have much left over. Anyway, I don't owe anyone, which is something for me.
I won't be leaving until around the first of November so I'll have time to receive a couple of letters from you. I'll write whenever I get a chance to cop a couple of spare minutes. Meanwhile, you might keep an ear peeled for the worldwide news roundup by CBS, as I should be going on the air sometime soon. Let me know how I sound.
. . .
|"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|
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.