Where is Fred Friendly, now that we really need him?

Well, it’s 2015, which means the media is rapidly ramping up for a presidential election that is still more than a year away. It’s early yet, but so far there is little to suggest that the coverage of this election is going to be much of an improvement over the last, and a few hints that it’s going to be worse. The prevalence of press-release reporting and stage managed “debates” has been this year further trivialized by reliance on tweets in lieu of content. It’s reached the point that, in on-line news pieces, they are simply cut and pasted into the bodies of stories.

The biggest interest so far has been generated by the candidacy of reality show star and business tycoon Donald Trump, and it has come in many flavors. Although Trump’s biggest headlines have been generated by his outrageous pronouncements, there was another story that flared briefly around the expulsion of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos from one of his press conferences.

Univision is embroiled in legal issues with Trump over the cancellation of the Miss USA broadcast because of his incendiary statements about Mexican immigrants. Ramos, who had unsuccessfully sought an interview with Trump, refused to be quiet when Trump rudely cut off his question at the August 26th press conference. After telling Ramos to “go back to Univision,” Trump had his security guards remove him from the room (Ramos was readmitted a while later following the protests of two other journalists, MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt and ABC’s Tony Llamas).

It was surprising to learn over the next few days that many of Ramos’ reporter colleagues supported… Donald Trump! One would have thought instead that they would have rallied around their ejected comrade, but like many things so far in this Trump candidacy, the chips have fallen where least expected.

Ramos was accused by his colleagues of rudeness, of bias, of blurring the distinction between “journalist” and “activist,” of violating the inviolable boundary of “objectivity” that journalists are supposed to observe at all times. But this illusion of objectivity is a fairly recent development in journalism, a consequence of the corporatization of the modern newsroom. George Orwell is said to have written that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” But whether Orwell ever actually said that or not, it goes to the crux of the matter.

Contrary to what many believe, “objectivity” has never been the traditional industry lodestone that it is made out to be. Rather, through the years journalism has always been a crusading profession, one about which it was often said that its role was “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” From the earliest broadsheets of colonial days, newspapers passionately espoused their causes: for or against independence, ratifying the Constitution, debating abolition, protesting or supporting wars with Mexico or Spain, muckraking in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, investigating Watergate, and eviscerating every candidate in every election ever. Objectivity rarely entered into it.

But while print journalism came from a long tradition of, well, bias, TV news evolved very differently. From its earliest infancy, television was aware of the massive power dormant in the flickering tubes starting to appear in living rooms across the country. While struggling to define the rules and standards of what would become a major voice in the formation of public opinion, the early adapters of this medium realized that they could not use their new medium as an electronic pulpit from which to preach.

During those early days, men of legendary stature grappled with these questions. At CBS, the effort was led by the newly-minted team of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. During World War II, it was Murrow’s voice that American’s most associated with the broadcasts from London during the darkest days of the Blitz. Friendly had been a correspondent in the China-Burma-India theater, and had seen the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from an observation plane just days after the bombings. In 1950, CBS recruited Friendly away from NBC radio to form a permanent partnership with Murrow, with whom he had already produced a highly successful documentary LP.

And so, as radio waves merged with newsreel cameras to become television, Friendly and Murrow merged to become two of the most powerful voices in the resulting medium. Murrow already had some pretty strong ideas about how it should work. “We want you (the audience) to know,” he said, “that we are aware of the electronic wonder entrusted to our fingers. As human beings, we hope we are up to it; as reporters, we hope that we never abuse it.” Together, they created some of the most notable, important – and controversial – broadcasts of television journalism ever, programs whose ramifications still echo today.

Perhaps best remembered and most often evoked is the 1954 series of programs that investigated and exposed the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy. It can be reasonably argued that these broadcasts (together with McCarthy’s own equal time response) played a significant role in the downfall of the junior senator from Wisconsin. It was the first time that a national broadcasting company had directly engaged in an ongoing controversy. In fact, there had been growing criticism of television’s seeming reluctance to tackle any of the serious issues of the day. Friendly and Murrow debated with the entire production team the appropriateness of taking a stand in their broadcast, of expressing an opinion, and they decided that the balanced “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach was just not suitable. Sometimes, they decided, the editorial line had to be crossed. Both of them knew that with their broadcasts, the paradigm would shift. According to Friendly’s memoir Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control…,Murrow said just prior to going on air with the first program, “I don’t know whether we’ll get away with this one or not, and things will never be the same around here after tonight.”

It is important to note that these productions, and other equally controversial broadcasts, were entirely the decision of Friendly and Murrow. Nobody in higher management at CBS ever greenlighted the topics, vetted the scripts, or screened the programs prior to broadcast. The unspoken response may have been “Great show. Sorry you did it,” but at no time was there any effort from above to influence the program content.

As broadcast time became more valuable, however, the equation shifted, and pressure built for the team to stir up fewer hornets’ nests, do fewer specials, pre-empt fewer commercial (read: money making) programs. Murrow resisted as long as he could, declaring that he knew of “nothing in the Bill of Rights that says they (the networks) must increase profits lest the nation collapse.” But his differences with management became increasingly acrimonious, and in 1960 he left CBS to become head of the USIA under President Kennedy. Friendly hung in, becoming president of CBS News in 1965, continuing to fight the battle for access to the airwaves to tell the stories he thought the public needed to hear.

Fred Friendly, via Wikimedia Commons

Fred Friendly, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1966, he lost the fight. In the middle of a crucial Senate hearing about the rapidly escalating war in Vietnam, the network switched from live coverage of the hearings to a rerun of “I Love Lucy.” Friendly resigned in protest. He went on to work with the Ford Foundation, consulting on the creation of public television, and later created what came to be known as the Friendly Seminars. These were a series of programs in which panels of reporters and policy makers would role play hypothetical scenarios.

Possibly his most significant post-CBS contribution was the role he played at the Columbia University School of Journalism. There he imbued a new generation with the ideas and ideals that he and Murrow created in the early days. Eventually, those students graduated and took into their own careers the rigorous standards they had been taught. One-time Friendly protege Dan Rather wrote of these students as “…swarming like some kind of journalistic fire ants. They challenged, criticized, pointed out mistakes, reminded us of our principles and duties.”

(These words of Rather’s are ironic. Had he applied the same standards to his own 2004 story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service, the “mistakes” may have been caught, the story correctly reported, and the second Bush term banished to the realm of counterfactual history. The devil was in the details, and Fred Friendly would have made sure the questionable documents were properly vetted, rather than running for the “gotcha!”)

Which brings us back to 2015 and the current campaign, with its different generation of journalists. The Battle of the Buck over the independence of television news has been lost. With the acquisition of the major networks by larger companies with no tradition in broadcast journalism, the bottom line has become top priority. Ownership of media outlets, print and broadcast is approaching monopolistic proportions, and news departments are no longer thought of as a kind of public service loss-leader. Instead they are expected to carry their own weight as profit centers as much as any sitcom or game show. Not only does this affect what qualifies as “news,” but it also affects the quality of the reporting. The failure of American journalists to critically assess the claims coming out of the White House in 2003 has led to a disastrous series of wars and actions in the Middle East whose implications are to this day still unraveling. In the newsroom of Fred Friendly, I think it is fair to say that such uncritical reportage would never have been tolerated.

Corporate ownership of the news means ownership by an organization interested in profit above all, of making the maximum amount of money by putting its products before the maximum number of people while offending none. To a great extent that means taking no stand that can be interpreted as being critical of anybody in power. Express no opinion. Be “objective.” “Become,” in the words of Columbia Journalism Review deputy editor Brent Cunningham, “passive recipients rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers.” Ironically, the Society of Professional Journalists in 1996 dropped “objectivity” from their code.

Fred Friendly died in 1996. Although he lived long enough to see the huge effect that digital technologies, satellites, cable, and the gathering of news outlets into fewer and more powerful corporate hands had on journalism, those with respect for his memory are perhaps grateful that he has been spared what has happened since. In his memoirs, he asked the question: had the Army/McCarthy hearings taken place in 1966, would any network have covered it?

In 2015, we need not even ask the question.

Ira Meistrich is an independent television producer and writer with an eclectic background in documentaries and in military history. Ira has worked for the news divisions of all major networks, and in more than 28 countries over the course of his career. His films and documentaries have achieved critical success worldwide.

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