The Columbia Broadcasting System at 50
Broadcasting magazine [PDF], September 19, 1977, pp. 110-115:
CBS: The First Five DecadesAs time marched on, CBS News reported the cadence
Unhindered by custom, uninhibited by formidable opposition, network carved a niche in journalism history; it was the determination of a Paley that spread to the Whites, Murrows and a legion of dedicated newsmen
When the Germans marched into Austria in March of 1938, William Paley, sick in bed, got the word from his executive vice president, Ed Klauber, that the network wasn't going to get the news out of Vienna. A phone call from Mr. Paley to his friend who headed the Austrian Broadcasting Co. in the occupied city did no good.
"So I called Klauber," Mr. Paley remembered in a Broadcasting interview last year, "and I said . . . we have to do something special, something that's never been done before; and then I thought of the idea of the World News Roundup, of having people from various capitals going on the air one after the other."
About an hour later, he got his engineers' reaction: impossible. "I said 'there's no reason in the world I can think of why it can't be done. It has to be done. You go back to them.' So he called my back later and said 'OK, we found a way . . . '"
CBS News was born and developed from how Mr. Paley and his hired hands found a way. It had been the press associations' refusal to supply news to broadcasters that brought the Columbia News Service into the news gathering business in 1933. It was the reporting demands of World War II that pushed the service from adolescence toward maturity.
But then there's also the "tradition"—one encompassing both philosophy and personality.
Palmer Williams, who joined CBS to work with Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly on See It Now and now serves as senior producer of 60 Minutes, talks of it in terms of "good strong medicine"—"the absolute top-priority interest" top management has shown in news without becoming directly involved with it. A former CBS News president, Sig Mickelson, says that "when the crunch came, you could be pretty sure management was behind you." Dave Klinger, who retired as CBS News director of business affairs after 24 years with the company, speaks of "getting the facts no matter where the chips fell."
Said an ex-CBSer David Schoumacher (now an anchor at ABC-affiliated WJLA-TV Washington) in a 1974 Washington Post feature: "At CBS you are very much aware of the tradition, and it goes all the way back to the radio days and Ed Murrow. You have a different view of yourself that is not much different than the feeling of a New York Times man . . . that you are better than anyone else." Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes who'll celebrate his 30th year with CBS next February, speaks of CBS starting out with the best team and "we always felt we had something to live up to."
That there was a master plan in the birth and development of CBS News seems doubtful. That there was hardly enough time to react to growing pains—let alone ponder them—seems certain.
In the early 1930s and before, CBS relied on the wire services for newsgathering. In 1928 it aired its first presidential election returns (four years later the network devoted an entire evening to them). The newspaper stories were supplemented by radio's own news—on occasion. In 1930, there were 23 CBS broadcasts from London on the Five-Power Naval Disarmament Conference and the following year, CBS carried the address of Pope Pius XII on the ninth anniversary of his coronation.
But as a 1935 Fortune magazine article pointed out, scoops by radio were more likely to be the exception. "Once in a while a microphone with portable transmitters arrives on a scene of actual news. The greatest break of this kind was the Ohio State penitentiary fire in April 1930, which CBS broadcast from the spot, including the screams of the dying." It was in that year that Ed Klauber, former night city editor of the New York Times, came over to CBS, as did H.V. Kaltenborn and Boake Carter, who were to become regular CBS commentators.
The security of knowing that the press associations were there supplying the news ended with the 1932 election when CBS and other radio networks beat the newspapers with the facts the newspapers had collected. Wire service feeds to the networks stopped.
The CBS reaction was to form its own newsgathering service. Given the jobs was the CBS publicity director at the time, Paul White. But even before Mr. White was handed the assignment, it was becoming clear to publishers that the infant news medium was a threat both in the race to break stories and in competition for advertising dollars.
It showed up conspicuously in early 1933 after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami. An eyewitness account showed up on the CBS network within 90 minutes, thanks to CBS Technical Director Edwin K. Cohan who happened to be vacationing there at the time.
Later that year, CBS began its first regularly scheduled daily newscasts, five minutes at noon and 4:30 p.m. and 15 minutes at 11 p.m. Its newsgathering strides however didn't last long, as the Fortune article concluded: "With characteristic initiative, CBS took the lead to organize its own news service, collected 600 correspondents and a sponsor (General Mills) and began feeding its own news . . . As a result the newspapers threatened to strike CBS program schedules from their columns and to organize a lobby in Washington for stricter government control of radio. Mr. Paley's news dream collapsed in favor of a newspaper-authorized Press Radio Bureau which today  feeds news to the networks under certain conditions." The basic restriction was that radio wouldn't be getting the beat on newspaper material.
But again, it was a reaction—this time to the movement toward war in Europe—that brought CBS out of the compromise and back into the daily reporting business. The demand for radio news was growing rapidly.
Before the Germans went into Austria, Edward R. Murrow was in Europe, and as European director for CBS in 1937 doubled the size of the staff with the hiring of William L. Shirer to assist in the production of musical and informational shows. Staff building continued with the likes of Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Larry LeSueur, Howard K. Smith, Richard C. Hottelet, Winston Burdett and Cecil Brown.
With the German takeover of Austria, Mr. Murrow chartered a 27-seat plane for $1,000 and flew from Prague to Vienna. That proved to be Mr. Murrow's first assignment as a war correspondent. (The first Europe-to-America combat reports had come two years earlier with Mr. Kaltenborn reporting on the Battle of Irun during the Spanish Civil War.)
While March 1938 turned out to be the month of the multiple pickup and the start of the World News Roundup, September of that year brought the first two-way interview, with Mr. Kaltenborn beginning his frequent discussions with the people in London, Prague and other cities. The following March the two techniques were combined—as CBS pioneered the four-way hook-up with listeners hearing Mr. Kaltenborn in Chicago, Mr. Murrow in London, Mr. Shirer in Paris and Melvin K. Whiteleather, an AP correspondent, in Prague. As a CBS press release the following day (March 20, 1939) said, "It took from early Saturday morning to 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon to clear radio channels for half an hour."
By the end of 1940 CBS had 39 correspondents across the world, and that year broadcast more than 2,000 pick-ups from Europe, the Far East and Latin America. By 1941, the number of correspondents and stringers had risen to 65.
For that time and for some years to come, CBS News meant CBS radio news. But experimentation with television was going on. Robert Skedgell, now CBS director of broadcast research, was a copy boy in Paul White's newsroom when the boss asked him if he wanted to write TV news. "Hell, I hardly knew what television was," Mr. Skedgell recalls.
He was sent over to CBS's experimental WCBW above Grand Central Station in New York to form a news team consisting of himself and the on-air man, Dick Hubbel. Admittedly, the main CBS concern "was the technical aspects of putting on a show," says Mr. Skedgell, but again events prompted journalistic innovation, primitive as it was. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, WCBW aired a nine-hour broadcast, TV's first instant news special.
"We had a lot of panel talks that day," Mr. Skedgell recalls, adding that the station borrowed reporters including Linton Wells and George Fielding Eliot "when they were not being used on radio."
(A decade before, CBS had used the interview technique for the first regularly scheduled news program series on television in 1931 with Bill Schudt's Going to the Press where reporters and editors were interviewed on news subjects.)
When special television graphics were needed to present President Roosevelt's declaration of war, the CBS television news team brought an American flag up to the studio, turned a fan on behind it, and while it waved, ran the audio. During the war, CBS cut back on WCBW's programming from 15 to four hours a day.
Airtime for radio news, however, during the war jumped some 40% and from Pearl Harbor to VJ-Day, CBS Radio presented some 37,500 broadcasts, said to amount to about nine solid months of war-related programs in total. Most remembered from those broadcasts is Edward R. Murrow and within one of his "This is London" reports, he presented a taste of working conditions overseas.
"This—is London. I'm supposed to tell you how the news reaches you. If this report is disjointed—well, that's the way things happen. All the American networks are operating from a basement here in London. It wouldn't be big enough for a vice president's office back in New York . . . There's a shortage of telephones. I can get through to our New York office in less time than it takes to telephone a man upstairs. There are three small studios, each about big enough to hold a Shetland pony, or a couple of broadcasters.
"Occasionally a burst of gunfire or the roar of a falling bomb sweeps through the room where we do our writing—that's someone listening to a record from the front, editing it before broadcasting. A censor comes in with what's left of the script. As a matter of fact, the censorship has been fast and reasonably intelligent . . .
"You get accustomed to these long-distance conversations after a few years, but that first two-way with the beachhead produced a pleasant thrill. I gave [Bill] Downs the go-ahead. Twenty seconds later, the bottom fell out of the circuit and he became unintelligible. That's the way it goes.
"Over the far shore the boys stumble through the dark to reach their camouflaged transmitters. They speak their stories. Sometimes they get through and sometimes they don't."
After the war, Mr. Murrow took over as CBS vice president and director of public affairs, but for less than two years. He returned to broadcasting saying that "in-baskets and out-baskets aren't for me."
It was in 1949 that CBS received the first Peabody award for television journalism. But, as Sig Mickelson recalls, it was a long haul extending well into the 1950s. Compared with NBC, he said, CBS News was in a "weak secondary position." On the day he took control over CBS television news in 1951, he recalls having only 14 on his staff: Douglas Edwards (who had been anchoring and co-producing a 15-minute news program, CBS-TV News with Douglas Edwards), four film editors (who doubled as cameramen at the CBS-owned New York station), three directors, two graphic artists and four writer/assignment editors.
Mr. Mickelson remembers having to rely on stringers because "we had no cameramen in the field." This, he says, was alongside NBC which "already had its own camera teams across the world." Mr. Mickelson claims it took him a two-year fight with management to get a $2 million film-gathering budget. Compounding the television news department's troubles, he says, was the "constant rivalry" with CBS radio news, especially in the use of personnel. By 1954, he says, "the corporate officials decided there was enough rivalry between radio and television" and the departments were merged. Mr. Mickelson became vice president of CBS and general manager of CBS News.
|From Broadcasting magazine, September 19, 1977, p. 2|
The growth of television news, however, can be shown through a comparison of political convention coverage in the years 1948 and 1952, the first "a radio year," according to Mr. Mickelson, and the second, "television's." Recalls Douglas Edwards, the TV newsman sent to cover the first 1948 event: "I went to Philadelphia with no firm assignment of the convention . . . We were ad libbing, we were improvising." After the first day, he was assigned anchorman and had two people working with him, Ed Murrow and Quincy Howe. Two small studios were available to them—one with a TV camera and another with a monitor and a microphone. "We couldn't even see the convention floor except on the monitor," he remembers, and were unable to switch to the floor. Still, CBS television began its tradition of gavel-to-gavel coverage, with the three-man team, as well as the carbons provided by the radio newsmen.
Four years later, Mr. Edwards was back at the conventions, this time to co-anchor some of the sessions with Walter Cronkite. By then the capability of going to the floor was developed and, as Mr. Edwards says, "Television was less the tail being wagged by the dog; it may have been the power."
Mr. Cronkite, who had been brought in from WTOP-TV Washington by Mr. Mickelson, anchored every convention and election night coverage from that time with the exception of 1964 when Robert Trout (who'd handled conventions previously for CBS Radio) and Roger Mudd were assigned to compete with NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and ABC's Edward P. Morgan and Howard K. Smith. The change reportedly was made in view of ratings and critics' notices—but when CBS remained second to NBC with the new team, Mr. Cronkite was brought back as "national editor" on the 1964 election night.
From 1951, CBS did have its "showpiece," as Mr. Mickelson calls it—See It Now with Edward R. Murrow as host and co-producer with Fred Friendly (who later rose to the CBS News presidency). The program represented a move out of the "newsreel" era. Among the show's innovations for television: it was the first to shoot its own film and use a sound track without dubbing, as well as the first to record footage without a script.
It may therefore be appropriate that the first See It Now took advantage of the newly laid coast-to-coast coaxial cable and presented TV's first coast-to-coast transmission, showing the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges.
Above and beyond technology, See It Now gave the television industry "the missing ingredients . . . conviction, controversy, and point of view," wrote Mr. Friendly in his book "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:" "The industry found them on the night of Oct. 20, 1953, when Murrow looked up at the television and said: 'We propose to examine . . . the case of Lieutenant Radulovich.'" It was the first of the shows that See It Now presented regarding the anticommunist campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
A later show, on March 9, 1954, points that up again. As Mr. Friendly wrote: "Ed's conclusion, the product of six or seven rewrites, was tight and forceful. There was no doubt in his mind that the ending crossed the line into editorial comment, but we both knew that the line had to be crossed again. To do a half-hour on so volatile and important a matter and then end with a balanced 'on the other hand' summation would be to dilute and destroy the effect of the broadcast."
Senator McCarthy also got top billing when, in November 1954, CBS introduced Face the Nation. Another guest, who made his first television appearance after considerable negotiating from CBS President Frank Stanton, was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
By that time, the CBS television documentary unit was already in its fifth year and during the 1950s regularly scheduled series of that nature included Air Power, The Twentieth Century, Small World and Conquest. CBS Reports came on the scene on Oct. 27, 1959, and if the McCarthy See It Now broadcasts had started the documentary style off as a social mover, CBS Reports continued it with such programs as "Harvest of Shame," "Hunger in America" and the "Selling of the Pentagon" (which brought a congressional subpoena for CBS to turn over its background materials. Mr. Stanton protested on First Amendment grounds and the House of Representatives did not cite CBS for contempt when the network refused to comply). A couple of years earlier, in 1970, however, CBS News was censured by the House Investigations Subcommittee regarding its preparation of a story on a planned invasion of Haiti.
From 1948 until 1962, Douglas Edwards anchored the evening news. During that period CBS pioneered the use of video tape for delayed West Coast broadcasts. The evening news remained 15-minutes until a year after Walter Cronkite took over as anchor.
Addressing the 1955 national convention of Sigma Delta Chi in Chicago, John Day, director of CBS News, noted that the 15-minute newscast (actually 11 minutes, 30 seconds without commercials) "is all too short when one is striking to cover the news with scope and perspective." However, he added that it was still "possible to do a pretty good job" with those time constraints "with very careful editing."
Douglas Edwards, who continues today as a news anchor but on the afternoon news, recalls times, however, when it wasn't a question of editing it down but rather stretching it to fill. Without any tape, he says, "we just didn't have enough visual material at that time to do a half-hour and some nights we worried about filling 15 minutes visually." During the Korean War, frequent use was made of a bas-relief map, in addition to miniature tanks, guns, jeeps, ships and other such visuals.
The CBS News presidency went from Mr. Mickelson to Richard Salant in 1961. By then, some 55% of the CBS radio schedule was produced by the news division. Six domestic news bureaus were formed the following year in New York, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The CBS News Election Unit, claimed as the first all-year political reporting organization in network history, also showed up in 1962. That year also saw the launching of the Early Bird satellite, a joint project of American and European broadcasters.
Walter Cronkite took over as anchor of the Evening News in April 1962 and about a year and a half later the broadcast was expanded to a half-hour. The lead-off show for CBS's longer news featured Mr. Cronkite interviewing President Kennedy. Since assuming the anchor role, Mr. Cronkite has remained there as well as been a familiar face on the special news broadcasts such as the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969 and the 16-hour In Celebration of Us Bicentennial program.
Mr. Cronkite also had chief reporting responsibilities of the coverage following the assassination of President Kennedy. Coverage ran for four days and four nights without commercials, and as Mr. Friendly (who took over as news chief the following year) saw it, it was a time when the CBS News team "was able to do its best because it was inappropriate to do anything else." Mr. Friendly, however, is less satisfied with the CBS News operation in general and sees the Kennedy assassination coverage as "only proving what (news departments) could do." The CBS News team he calls the best, but claims that "it never gets to play to its full capacity," because at basics, "you take all that marvelous talent and you try to jam it all into 22 minutes."
Mr. Friendly's resignation as CBS News president came in February 1966, after the network chose not to clear a Feb. 10 hearing on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His resignation letter included the following: "It was the considered news judgment of every executive in CND (Columbia News Division) that we carry these Vietnam hearings as we had those of the other witnesses. I am convinced that the decision not to carry them was a business, not a news, judgment." Mr. Friendly's successor was his predecessor, Mr. Salant, who still is in the post.
Earlier this month, CBS News went into its 10th season with its magazine documentary show, 60 Minutes, which began featuring Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner and now includes Mr. Wallace, Morley Safer and Dan Rather. Neither Senior Producer Williams nor Executive Producer Hewitt claim to have expected that such a news show would be ranked in the top 10 among all programs—never "in my wildest dreams," says Mr. Hewitt, who adds "we have achieved a tremendous rating success without compromising one iota."
Actually, 60 Minutes may be too good. Before it became a prime-time success, Mr. Salant says, "it was common for us to take refuge in the time period." By showing that news can compete with entertainment, 60 Minutes "may have spoiled everybody." The magic in the show is the producers and correspondents who make it, he adds, "and I don't know how many times we can put a team together like that."
The competition, meantime, is apparently gearing up for an assault on CBS's news supremacy, particularly over at ABC, where the big news recently has been the accession of sports [division president] Roone Arledge to news division president. It was suspected by some that Mr. Arledge might try to ply his knowledge of entertainment in the newsroom, but Mr. Salant doesn't believe that for a moment. "The greatest fear I have is that we'll underestimate him." Is CBS News preparing a counteroffensive? Mr. Salant says he is considering some news series and concepts, but declines to share them within earshot of the competition. One thing is for sure, however. Mr. Salant will not allow CBS's news presentation to stray from the "completely square" approach. "Our purpose is not to please, but to inform," he asserts.
From his early days at CBS, with See It Now, Mr. Williams recalls the reaction Fred Friendly got to his request for actual sound with Korean war film: "Nobody shoots war footage with sound." Today, however, Mr. Williams talks about Morley Safer having done "a whole (60 Minutes) program from Israel." Mr. Hewitt has seen the same technological changes but claims that today there's an excessive "preoccupation with hardware." And when Mr. Hewitt says "I don't care about anything" except getting the news out, it seems clear that—in terms of going back to basics—not all that much has changed in the halls of CBS News.