Led by Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly, CBS opened new professional territory for video journalism in 1956 and 1957. Particularly on See It Now, the network televised lengthy interviews with major world leaders. Typical was the conversation between Murrow and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion..
So long as those interviewed supported American foreign policy objectives, there was nothing controversial about the CBS strategy. In fact, as early as September 1954, See It Now aired interviews with French Premier Pierre Mendes-France and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. But when Murrow and his colleagues began to converse in depth with statesmen opposed to American international activities, a new level of sophistication and controversy was achieved in TV. .
This was the case, for example, with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the prime minister of Egypt, who criticized the United States for its support of Israel in the Middle East, of France in North Africa, and in general of "the colonial countries against the countries who want to be free." In the foreign policy created by John Foster Dulles, even neutralist nations were considered unfriendly to American aspirations. Thus, when Murrow interviewed Premier U Nu of Burma, See It Now again demonstrated a new degree of broadcasting courage. And when Face the Nation offered Howard K. Smith, Alexander Kendrick, and Howard Handleman of the International News Service in an in-depth interview with neutralist Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, TV journalism once more set precedents..
|Head of State||CBS Series||Date|
|David Ben-Gurion/Israel||See It Now||March 6, 1956|
|Gamal Abdel Nasser/Egypt||See It Now||March 6, 1956|
People's Republic of China
|See It Now||December 30, 1956|
|U Nu/Burma||See It Now||February 3, 1957|
|Nikita Khrushchev/U.S.S.R.||Face the Nation||June 2, 1957|
|Tito/Yugoslavia||See It Now||June 30, 1957|
|Jawaharlal Nehru/India||Face the Nation||July 7, 1957|
Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Filmed in Moscow and featuring B.J. Cutler of the New York Herald-American and CBS newsmen Daniel Schorr and Stuart Novins, Face the Nation dared to bring to American viewers for their own evaluation the views of the leader of world Communism. This time, there was no live panel of anti-Communists to challenge the ideas put forward by Khrushchev..
Reactions to the Khrushchev interview were quickly forthcoming. Even before the program aired, the commander of the Catholic War Veterans wired CBS urging its cancellation since, as he saw it, the Soviet premier would only mouth uncontested Red propaganda. The American Socialist party demanded equal time to distance itself from Communism. Similar calls for free air time came from political refugees from several nations within the Soviet empire..
In government, too, many felt the Khrushchev interview gave the Communist leader an unfair advantage. Some demanded equal time for President Eisenhower on Russian television. The Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson, suggested a weekly exchange of political views on Soviet and American TV. At his press conference three days after the interview, the president impugned the network's journalistic endeavor, referring to the interview as a stunt, the product of "a commercial firm in this country trying to improve its commercial standing." In one sentence, Eisenhower undermined those who felt the interview was effective journalism, not a money-making gimmick..
In defending the actions of CBS, Variety attacked those in government who were appalled because "Khrushchev came across on television as a human being instead of a monster, which has upset Washington into believing that he may have created a favorable impression among the American audience."84 No defense, however, came from NBC or ABC. Most pointedly, Frank M. Stanton, the president of CBS, justified the program. He cited a Jeffersonian dictum that the citizenry "may be trusted to hear everything true and false and to form a correct judgment between them." Further, he added:.
We were as much aware of our responsibility as we were of our freedom. We were doing our job as journalists. Khrushchev and his views are of great importance to our world and to the world of our children. The less this man—or any man of his importance—remains a myth or a dark legend or a mystery to the American people, the more certain they are to size him up correctly.
As righteously indignant as Stanton and CBS appear to have been, the interview with Khrushchev was not a turning point after which network news-related programming began to approach the Cold War more realistically. If anything, reactions to the program only confirmed the precarious social position occupied by commercial television. Edward R. Murrow later assailed his network bosses for deferring to the U.S. government following that Face the Nation broadcast. Speaking in October 1958 to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Murrow revealed:
When my employer, CBS, through a combination of enterprise and good luck, did an interview with Nikita Khrushchev, the President of the United States uttered a few ill-chosen, uninformed words on the subject, and the network practically apologized. This produced a rarity. Many newspapers defended CBS's right to produce the program and commended it for initiative. But the other networks remained silent.
More than any medium of communication before it, television had the power to inform and persuade mass audiences. Where other media required efforts of reading and concentrated listening, TV was easy to experience. It communicated through an alluring amalgam of pictures, words, music, personalities, body gestures, and captivating ambiance. It entered private homes during times of relaxation, there to spread its well-crafted messages..
Yet, even its journalists were wrapped in the clichéd mindset that typified American popular thought in the Cold War. Reporters clearly identified with the United States. They spoke consistently of "our bloc," "our side," "our power," and "our policy." This was journalism as advocacy. Reporters spoke as partisans, and viewers were hard pressed not to support "our position" on any given issue. Typical of such reportage was the analysis of American foreign policy offered by Winston Burdett on Years of Crisis: 1957, a CBS discussion show aired on December 29, 1957. Explaining the failures of the Eisenhower-Dulles policy in the Middle East that year, Burdett argued:
We went ahead on the premise that we could set up some kind of American protectorate over the Middle East by military means; that we could make anti-Communist allies of the Arab states, and in this way exclude the Russians from the area. We proposed to extend the Cold War to the Arab world. And we ignored both the inherent weakness of the Arab states and the emotional backfire of Arab nationalism.
For those who might have been depressed by "our" poor performance in the Middle East, later in the program Eric Sevareid offered more encouraging words. "This country is by no means a push-over," he told viewers:
We've got the greatest industrial plant in the world, the greatest industrial leaders. We've got a wonderful pool of scientists and engineers if their energies are channeled. We have unlimited money. . . . I think we have a world record of generosity and goodwill toward other parts of the world—and of nonaggression that honest men cannot really doubt. We have a President that people will still most willingly follow.... We have a great deal.
Of course, there were alternative media from which to obtain a broader perspective on the Cold War. But television had captured the national soul and overwhelmed its communications rivals. During the 1950s TV helped drive magazines and daily newspapers out of business. By 1952, Americans were spending more late evening hours with video than radio. A poll in 1959 indicated that in only 11 years television as a popular source of news had moved far ahead of radio and magazines, and was equal to newspapers in terms of audience trust.
As a medium of communication, however, television was often reluctant to communicate critically. Although the FCC ruled in 1949 that stations could offer editorials—if equal time were provided for opposing views—throughout the 1950s the networks wrestled with the idea, usually deciding to waive their right to state opinions. Several factors militated against regularized commentaries in news programming. There were considerations of time, since the evening news lasted only 15 minutes and, as ABC news chief John Daly suggested in 1956, editorials required about four minutes to develop satisfactorily. There were also political and economic realities. Network officials feared editorials might trigger government anger, cause viewers to change channels, or precipitate demands for equal and free time from disgruntled parties. Sponsors, moreover, were not pleased with paying the high fees demanded by TV, only to alienate viewers who disagreed with the position being taken in an editorial.
Further, by the late 1950s television networks were extremely profitable operations, and TV executives were reluctant to do anything controversial for fear of adversely affecting a rising curve of financial success. By 1957, for example, CBS was the largest advertising medium in the world, its programs daily reaching 42 million American homes and its profits after taxes reaching $22.2 million. And if CBS was the top network in commercial television, NBC and ABC were right behind the leader, competing desperately to reach the summit. But success did not translate into better, quality programming; it bred the desire for even greater success. As David Halberstam has described the situation, for network executives making money "brought its own ruthless truth, and pushed aside other forces, other interests in the company."
So it was not enough to succeed, to put on a good program that was sponsored, and make a profit, now there had to be a dominance of the ratings, a super-profit. . . . Nielsen was the new god of television; his truths were not truths, they were commandments; what was rated high was good; what was rated low was bad. There was room for nothing else, no other value systems, no sense of what was right and what was wrong. The stakes were too great, and became greater every year.
During most of the 1950s there were few news commentators on national television. Elmer Davis, the former CBS newsman who headed the Office of War Information during World War II, had a short and unspectacular commentary program on ABC in 1954. Davis was hindered, no doubt, by charges of disloyalty hurled at him that year by the crusading anti-Communist group, Aware, Inc. That organization assailed Davis for his civil liberties positions, and it characterized the distinguished broadcaster as an "anti-anti-Communist . . . who tries to identify anti-Communists at home with 'thought control."
More successful as a TV commentator was Walter Winchell. With a national reputation earned from his newspaper columns and radio commentaries since the 1930s, Winchell came to ABC television in 1952 and remained with his weekly quarter-hour news and gossip commentary until 1955. Winchell was a virulent anti-Communist and supporter of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. It seemed unimportant that he was more likely to be inaccurate than exact in his reports. New Yorker magazine once researched five typical Winchell newspaper columns with a total of 239 items in them. The magazine found him to be only 40.5 percent accurate in what he reported. Nonetheless, Winchell's inimitable style—a forceful staccato delivery punctuated by the sound of a telegrapher's key—now made him a familiar Cold Warrior on early TV. Winchell's program was also sponsored.
There were other editorial broadcasts. In 1956 Howard K. Smith offered his unsponsored commentaries on the CBS weekend news program. ABC News on occasion aired editorials, but they were scarce and noncontroversial.
By virtue of the topics they covered on See It Now, Murrow and Friendly often produced the effects of a controversial editorial. In a time of political fear, they challenged the U.S. Air Force, which was discharging a young lieutenant because his father was believed to have Communist sympathies (The Case of Lieutenant Milo Radulovich, October 20, 1953). They challenged the American Legion, which refused to let a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union meet in the auditorium of the Legion's War Memorial (An Argument in Indianapolis, November 24, 1953). They also challenged Cold War prejudices by airing a conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the developers of the atomic bomb and a Princeton professor of nuclear physics, who had been widely discredited after losing his government security clearance (January 4, 1955).
When See It Now had a sponsor, the weekly program was aired in prime time. By the fall of 1955, however, the show had lost its sponsor and was condemned to monthly appearances on Sunday afternoons—a time derisively called the "cultural ghetto." Having no advertisers meant that many affiliate stations would drop the show in favor of a revenue producing program. At times See It Now was aired on as few as 57 CBS outlets.
With production costs mounting and network executives weary of Murrow's and Friendly's embarrassing frankness and independent-mindedness on and off the air, the network scrapped See It Now in July 1958. Much more under CBS corporate control, a disenchanted Murrow remained at the network—on Person to Person, Small World, and an occasional special or CBS Reports documentary. Murrow resigned from CBS and broadcast journalism in January 1961.
Nevertheless, CBS was the first network to adopt a policy of editorializing on the air. This meant that in well-reasoned summations, particularly in TV documentaries, CBS news personnel would be permitted to draw their own conclusions. The first program to reflect this policy was Where We Stand, an assessment of the relative strength of the American and Soviet military, economic, and educational programs. This 90-minute evaluation was aired January 5, 1958, less than three months after Russian scientists had placed their Sputnik satellite in orbit. The program concluded that in rocketry the United States was obviously trailing the Soviets. In military weaponry the United States still possessed ICBM superiority, and with the Titan missile the Americans had " 'the big baby'—the most terrible weapon yet devised by man." In economics, according to Howard K. Smith, "We still hold a commanding lead, but the very fact that they can challenge us affords us no room for complacency." As for preparing young people for the missile age, Alexander Kendrick left no doubts about the leader here when he spoke of the math and science fundamental to Russian education, and then interviewed three California boys who boasted of their high school class in "coed cooking."
Where We Stand was hailed as "precedential," "a key triumph," and "a major contribution to television journalism."91 CBS was pleased enough with the program to do an update a year later, this time in the wake of the Soviet satellite Lunik, which had escaped the earth's gravitational field and was now in orbit around the sun. Televised on January 4, 1959, this installment of Where We Stand drew similarly distressing conclusions. Again in vital areas of Cold War rivalry the United States was trailing or strongly challenged by the Russians. The conclusions enunciated by narrator Walter Cronkite left no doubt that the United States was facing a crisis: "Decisions need to be made. Policies need to be set. They must be bold, imaginative, made from an open and honest estimate of danger, and a real conviction on the worth of our own goals. Or else we may forfeit the power to choose at all."
By the late 1950s the Cold War had changed. Josef Stalin was dead and the brutality of his regime loosened greatly at home and abroad. At the twentieth congress of the Communist party in 1956, Khrushchev roundly denounced Stalin's police state tactics. The orbiting of Sputnik the following year clearly shocked Western leaders and precipitated popular reappraisal, even imitation, of Communist scientific and educational practices. Diplomatically, there was slight moderation of East-West tensions following the Geneva summit conference in 1955. The Soviet premier visited the United States in late 1959, and Eisenhower was scheduled to visit the Soviet Union the next year. Plans were also made for a second summit meeting of Russian, French, British, and American heads of state to be held in Paris in mid-1960.
Change in East-West relations was even noticeable in the logistics of television journalism. In mid-1955, Irving R. Levine of NBC became the first permanent broadcast correspondent accredited by the Soviet Union. This allowed him to air the first reports from Russia since 1947. Other network newsmen soon followed Levine to Moscow.
On the other hand, there continued to be Cold War crises that reaffirmed the anti-Communist slogans of the time. In the fall of 1956, Soviet military strength crushed a social revolution in Hungary and threatened invasion of a restive Poland. The involvement of native Communists in rebellions in Africa, Latin America, and Asia led many to interpret the anti-colonial revolt within the Third World as a Kremlin-directed phenomenon. And for all his apparent humanity on American TV, Khrushchev still could pound his desk with his shoe during a session of the United Nations, argue petulantly with Vice-President Nixon about the relative merits of American and Russian television, and announce that through competition in peaceful coexistence, "We will bury you."
Such developments justified the predilection of network TV to visualize Communism within a stereotyped, Cold War perspective. The Face of Red China, a CBS documentary on December 28, 1958, spent much of its time revealing propaganda employed by the Maoist regime to brainwash its citizens. It showed those familiar hordes of antlike Chinese workers straining to erect by hand the dams, factories, and blast furnaces of industrializing Communist China. The 20th Century documentary series launched its 1958-59 season with The Red Sell. This was a two-part analysis of Soviet mass persuasion techniques in action—everything from movies showing Americans as drunkards, looters, and degenerates to propagandistic exploitation of the Sputnik achievement.
In Is Cuba Going Red? telecast on CBS on May 3, 1959, Stuart Novins rightly concluded that Communist influence was dominant in the new regime of Fidel Castro. But only four months after Castro had captured Havana, it was premature for Novins to conclude that Cuba was already "a totalitarian dictatorship." Novins also left the impression that a Red invasion of the West Indies and Latin America was imminent when he added that Cuba was "a Communist beachhead in the Caribbean."
Behind the scenes, too, there were familiar Cold War activities. When the State Department asked the networks to downplay coverage of Khrushchev's American visit, only ABC and the Mutual radio network criticized this government attempt to infringe upon press freedom. Later, Edward R. Murrow blasted NBC and CBS publicly for failing "to defend not only their limited independence, but one of the basic principles of a free society."
One of the strongest critiques of television's failure to become an ideal communicator was contained in Controversy on Radio and TV, a report issued in December 1958 by the Department of Communication of New York University. Television, said the study, "with the greatest potential of all mass media to bring to the very living rooms of our nation a basis for political enlightenment, offers nearly none." What was needed, it stated, was "sober, mature, logical commentary," for American viewers were drowning in a flood of uncritical facts issued by "statesmen, reporters, press agents, lobbyists, and other mass communicators." In arguing that "Facts alone are often meaningless since our world is inundated by an ocean of facts," the NYU report concluded that instead of promoting probative discussion, video offered only "a mass of material severely in need of ordering and interpretation by incisive minds which relate them to one of the various perspectives from which this disturbed planet can be viewed."
Significantly, in these last years of the Eisenhower administration there were some documentaries and nonfiction programs that faced the East-West struggle without resort to simplistic slogans. This was the case with John Gunther's High Road and its consideration of "Russia's Next Rulers?" telecast on ABC on September 14, 1959. In describing Nikita Khrushchev, journalist Gunther painted a picture of a man considerably more human than the popular contemporary description of the Soviet leader as "the butcher of the Ukraine." According to Gunther, who admitted having met and drunk with him at an embassy party, Khrushchev was a fascinating character.
He's tough. He's resilient. He's full of bounce and zip. He has quite a pronounced intellectual capacity. He's shrewd. He's obviously possessed of great energy and drive. And he's the only European dictator I ever met who has a sense of humor. He's sharp. He's indiscreet. He's sometimes rude. But it would be a serious mistake to think that he's a buffoon, as some people did 'til quite recently. Probably his dominant quality, next to spry toughness, is a kind of rough peasant's common sense. Like President Eisenhower, Mr. Khrushchev was a poor boy. His father was a coal miner. Eisenhower's father was a locomotive boiler. Khrushchev was self-educated.
Occasionally, too, it was possible to encounter criticism of the American government. The Ruble War was a roundtable discussion among CBS foreign correspondents on the topic of Russian-American trade rivalries. Telecast on July 21, 1958, the program ended with a stern warning to Congress to stop its annual battle over foreign aid and reciprocal trade. "They must become commonplaces—regular, natural things to do," declared Howard K. Smith, "or we may lose the Ruble War." Similarly, The U-2 Affair, an NBC White Paper aired on November 29, 1960, was unfavorable to President Eisenhower for his equivocation—first denying American planes spied on the Soviet Union, then admitting U-2 aircraft regularly surveyed Russia from high altitudes, but refusing to apologize as the Russians wanted—in the wake of the Soviets' shooting down in May 1960 of a piloted American reconnaissance aircraft over Russian territory and then canceling plans for the Paris summit conference.
Controversial news-related programming was the exception, not the rule, in nonfiction TV. And public affairs shows were exceptions to the norm in network video. By the end of the decade—with advertising rates skyrocketing and network profits following suit—this was no time to produce unprofitable current events programming. Apparently it was enough that the networks gave the nation a quarter-hour of news nightly.
As Alexander Kendrick pointed out, during the 1960-61 TV season there were 108 scheduled series on network television. Only six of these were public affairs shows, compared with 23 Westerns, 22 crime dramas, and 23 situation comedies. Within those half-dozen public affairs programs, moreover, the networks had learned how to treat "controversial subjects in a noncontroversial manner."
Nonetheless, in one case network television consistently presented a wide range of controversial viewpoints. At the close of every year CBS and NBC each brought together their foreign correspondents to discuss the events of the past 12 months. Whether it was the CBS program, Years of Crisis, or the yearend NBC roundtable, Projection, for one hour annually viewers encountered provocative analyses by the leading American TV journalists.
In a medium disinclined to allow its employees to offer commentary on camera, these annual roundtables gave indication of how provocative American TV could be. They also revealed that the happy unanimity projected by network correspondents actually masked a variety of opinions, all of which could be persuasively argued, and all of which promoted viewer thinking. In these rare discussion shows, TV was truly a learning experience.
On Projection '59 Pauline Frederick assailed the American policy of refusing recognition of Communist China and its 600 million citizens. She also predicted diminishing importance for Russian and American influence, and the rise of Third World diplomatic prowess. On Years of Crisis: 1955 Bill Downs declared: "We've lost, or appear to be losing, the international title as the greatest revolutionary power in the world; and we seem to be losing it to a revolutionary form of totalitarianism." He wondered, "Maybe the American revolution is over."
With a bluntness that was never a part of regular news and documentary programming, Peter Kalisher attacked the myopia of American policy in the Third World, especially Asia. On Years of Crisis: 1957 he maintained that "We've got to revamp our thinking entirely in regard to about half the world's population, maybe more: the semi-colonial and colonial and former colonial peoples." He continued with specific reference to the People's Republic of China. "We've also got to admit that our China policy is bankrupt.... I think we've got to do what our major allies in Europe and Asia have admitted and recognize the Peking regime for what it is: the unfriendly but existing government of mainland China." He called for aid to mainland China and urged the United States "to get out from behind this wall we're building around China, which is really a wall we're building around ourselves."
Most reporters were moderate, middle-of-the-road thinkers who could criticize both sides in the Cold War but still remain conspicuously pro-American. Here were men such as Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Alexander Kendrick, Wells Hangen, and Frank McGee. More willing to see the Cold War objectively were Daniel Schorr and James Robinson. And strongly anti-Communist in their opinions were Richard C. Hottelet and Cecil Brown.
Stationed in Moscow, Schorr described a dichotomy in Soviet society: the people and the regime. The young people, he argued, were bored with Communism. The Russian people, he asserted, were pressuring the government for normalcy and a mellowing in leadership tactics. He felt that world Communism would be a reality for a long time, but that through trade, tourism, and the exchange of ideas Americans might assist the softening process in the Soviet Union. Schorr's attitudes on East-West militarism also were empathic. On Years of Crisis: 1957, he criticized those who wished to accelerate the arms race because Sputnik had demonstrated Russian supremacy in missile technology. A reactive speedup in the American arms program, said Schorr, militated against negotiating "a better and more real solution than just catching up, and then keeping pace in means of destruction."
From his position as NBC correspondent in Hong Kong, James Robinson offered a realistic understanding of Communist China and Southeast Asia. On Projection '59 he suggested considering the Chinese point of view in world affairs. Robinson argued that leftist guerrilla activities in Laos were not controlled by China, but that the government of North Vietnam was operating on its own to fuel the Laotian insurgency. Chinese tensions with India, he noted, could be seen as emanating from sincere and historic boundary disputes. Referring to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, Robinson noted that "Tibet is and always will be China in Chinese eyes." As for the rivalry between Peking and the Nationalist Chinese government on Formosa, Robinson explained that in the opinion of Communist leaders, this was a civil war and not the business of the United States.
Robinson was also critical of American policy in the Far East. After a decade of nonrecognition of the Peking government, he scolded, "It's nonsense to talk of disarmament and world peace when you exclude this, the biggest country, from world tribunals."
If Schorr was the liberal realist at CBS, Richard C. Hottelet was that network's principal anti-Communist. Hottelet saw the Cold War as a "basic struggle between freedom and unfreedom." Stationed in West Germany and then South America and the United Nations, he described the Soviet Union as a savage colonial master, calling it "this artificial system" and an "invisible police empire." Hottelet was at his most vitriolic on Years of Crisis: 1956, aired only two months after the Hungarian revolution had been crushed and tensions in Poland threatened revolution there. Here he announced that "This year has put an end to Communism as a world revolutionary force." He felt the uprisings in Eastern Europe had administered "perhaps fatal blows" to Communist control and now the "era of obedience is over." To Hottelet the revolutions were "an elemental force, it's the essence of man's history. It's the irrepressible striving for truth and for a better life."
Sensing the collapse of Communism, Hottelet felt the United States had a role to play in the Polish crisis, even to the point of going to war. The American government, he said, must persuade the Russians "to let freedom take its course" in Poland, for if Soviet troops invaded Poland, "it will make Hungary look like a junior prom." That Hottelet's viewpoint was not popular among the CBS correspondents is apparent in the following excerpt from Years of Crisis: 1956.
Hottelet: What are we going to do? Are we going to give the Russians the freedom to do anything they please in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain?
Schorr: What kind of warning do you have in mind, Dick?
Hottelet: A diplomatic warning. It can be discreet. It can be most secret. It need not humiliate.
Smith: It means the threat of fighting, doesn't it?
Hottelet: I think it means, gentlemen, the threat of war, yes. Because I think, we must see that our vital interests are caught up in Central Europe.
Sevareid: Great democracies cannot go to war on the basis of a discreet private diplomatic warning. We have a Constitution.
Hottelet: Fine, but if the government of the United States is not backed up by the people of the United States in a case like this, then I think this position should be clear, too, and we should abdicate the initiative to the Russians which I don't think the people are ready to do once they see the problem in that light.
Smith: I don't think one-tenth of one percent of the Western people would be willing to go to war over something behind the Curtain.
Hottelet: But I think a great deal can be done. We saw that in Berlin. During the Berlin airlift we told the Russians that if they attacked Berlin....
Schorr: But Berlin we had. We've never given a warning about a place which we didn't have.
Hottelet: Well, I don't know, have we divided the world into areas really which are the Soviet's preserve and which are our own?
Schorr: Well, we've drawn lines about what we will defend, and what we are there to defend. But we can't go into Poland to defend it.
Hottelet: No, we're not going into Poland. But I wonder if we should be bound by old lines in a situation now where the whole of Eastern Europe is in flux—where things have changed. There is a Polish problem today that didn't exist two months or three months ago.
Schorr: I think we've found the mad bomber.
Murrow: Dick, are you saying if we are now in fact going to draw a line in the Middle East and say that aggression there by Russia in any form means war, that we ought also to do the same thing in Poland and say that if there is overt aggression by the Soviet Union against Poland that this would mean war? Is that the essence of what you're suggesting?
Hottelet: I think so. I think we cannot afford to abandon 26 million Poles.
Matching Hottelet in his intense distaste for Communism was Cecil Brown of NBC. An honored and experienced broadcast journalist who emerged on network radio in the 1930s, Brown was unyielding in his hatred of Communist China. On Projection '60, when his colleague James Robinson again urged an appreciation of the Chinese point of view, Brown bristled. "I'm shocked by your remarks," he said, "it seems to me you're applying upside-down logic to every concept of what's happening in China. There's no mystery about what Red China is trying to do: it's trying to destroy every non-Communist country in Asia." Brown accused Robinson of putting "the stamp of virtue on banditry and murder."
"The Brown buzz saw," as Edwin Newman described him, was the NBC correspondent in Tokyo. A year earlier, on Projection `59, Brown was even more explicit in explaining his detestation of the Peking government. "There is an actual war going on in Southeast Asia," he proclaimed. This, he explained, was the essence of "the massive Red Chinese drive to absorb all of Asia—from Japan to Indonesia, and from Formosa all the way across to India." But Brown offered a remedy. "There is time for us to save Asia from the Communist dragon," he declared, "but not much time."
When others were critical of American non-recognition of the Peking government, Brown warned against changing this policy. In his view, "If we recognize Red China, Formosa disappears." Recognition, he felt, would compel other Asian states to recognize the Maoist regime. This in turn would allow the Chinese to station military, economic, and political missions in those countries, thereby giving China a fifth column with which to overthrow neighboring governments. This was classic "domino theory" applied to the Far East. "Therefore," Brown concluded, "if we recognize Communist China, we are in effect kissing off Southeast Asia, and I don't want that to happen."
While TV failed to develop an independent, interpretative posture in American society, it did bombard viewers with images and words that were strongly politicized. All those situation comedies in the 1950s that showed happy white families living in clean suburban homes, all those quiz programs giving huge sums of money to brainy waitresses, cobblers, jockeys, and schoolteachers, all those private eyes and policemen forever capturing criminals—these were all part of a mass mythology that soothed and reassured the citizenry by showing the rewards of working within the system. In shows ranging from Leave It to Beaver to The $64,000 Question to Dragnet there was political content. That content suggested that the American way of life was the best on the planet, that dreams could be fulfilled by average folk, that the institutions guarding American society would protect its struggling, law-abiding citizens, and that a happy ending was inevitable.
If programming preached conformity, it also insulated viewers from the real world. World news was condensed to a few headlines each evening. There was no frequency and little depth in documentary programming. The great international issues over which the nation would go to war in the 1960s were never analyzed accurately on television in the 1950s. Where were the realistic studies of international relations? Why did television never probe the Russian or Chinese perspectives in the Cold War? Why were there no profound analyses of the anti-colonial movement? Why did TV find fault so easily with Communist states, but seldom with pro-American dictatorships and with the United States?
For their part, American audiences seldom expressed great interest in learning the fullness of reality from television. Never in the first 28 years of television did a public affairs program rank among the leading network shows. Americans desired television for escape and relaxation, and TV responded to that want.
For all its shortcomings, however, TV was immensely important. It was the mass communications experience most shared in the United States and, increasingly, in the world. It was so significant that Pope Pius XII in 1958 named St. Clare the patron saint of television.
With the demise of the DuMont network by the mid-1950s, TV in the United States was controlled essentially by an oligopoly of networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—that saw video principally as a business. Through their ownership of key stations, and by providing programming to most American outlets, these corporations were wealthy and powerful. They also had a vested interest in keeping the nation entertained with TV, and happy with the socioeconomic system in which they flourished. Further, because advertising costs were exorbitant, only the wealthiest American corporations could afford to advertise regularly on network TV. What emerged from the confluence of such factors was an image of the United States and rest of the world that was pleasing to viewers who wanted nonthreatening programming, and acceptable to influential political and economic interests that eschewed public controversy.
Such an arrangement was not necessarily pernicious. Despite the interlocking arrangements among government, the military, the communications industry, and the corporate capitalistic world, most Americans would probably have chosen their television arrangement over the government-controlled TV systems in most other countries. Still, without a commitment to support independent investigation and interpretation or to allow uncomfortable truths to be widely disseminated, corporate American TV could be as manipulative as any system with direct government control.
In essence this was the thrust of President Eisenhower's admonition to the nation in his farewell address. On January 17, 1961, on live television, the outgoing chief executive warned that the Cold War had brought forth in the United States a threatening amalgamation of military and industrial interests. "In the councils of government," Ike declared, "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
The president did not demand the abolition of this complex. Instead, he argued for its importance in a world of international crises‑—as long as it was kept in harmony with the laws and freedom basic to the republic. Eisenhower said of American society and the challenge of its military-industrial establishment:
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
From within the broadcasting industry, Edward R. Murrow offered advice similar to that of President Eisenhower. As early as May 1957, Murrow admitted publicly that "The money that pays for television and radio comes from a relatively small number of corporations." This, he felt, guaranteed that "The thinking of the executives in these corporations will have a profound effect upon what happens in television and radio," to the point where these corporate officials "could possibly decide the course of our civilization." Murrow urged corporate America to face the social responsibility inherent in such power by financing public affairs programs with independent points of view, and by sustaining news-related shows, even those with low national ratings.
Two years later Murrow went even further in his critique. He condemned commercial television for creating a medium of "decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live." While the country was "in mortal danger" in this age of East-West struggle, Murrow complained, TV blithely went about seeking bigger profits and avoiding the responsibility to inform fully and accurately. Instead of "this endless outpouring of tranquilizers," Murrow pleaded for video that would provoke thought and stimulate the search for answers.
Significantly, Murrow did not attack the validity of the American corporate structure. When he left CBS in disillusionment, he joined the Kennedy administration as director of the nation's chief bureau of foreign propaganda, the United States Information Agency. Murrow seemed to realize that all political societies must have some type of organizational system. And the best society in which to live was the one that made life most comfortable—consistent with social justice and responsibility in foreign and domestic affairs. Yet, should Americans think that they already had the best of all possible systems, Murrow in 1958 offered a frank assessment.
We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. 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.
There was a legacy left Americans by more than a decade of television journalism. For the most part, viewers had grown used to seeing the world superficially, simplistically, and nationalistically. Although few might have recognized it, news and public affairs programming was shaped by military, corporate, and government influences that generally robbed TV journalism of its professional imperative to inform in depth. Relying on such a medium for so much of their understanding of world affairs, the American people were acting neither wisely nor safely.
Importantly, too, this legacy was enhanced by what viewers encountered on TV when not watching news, documentaries, and discussion programs. The entertainment shows that dominated viewing patterns were also conduits for the nourishing of a popular Cold War ideology. Perhaps more effectively than in news programming, the blending of broadcasting and Cold War politics was even better achieved in entertainment television.