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Fred W. Friendly discusses his book "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control" and his career, part 1

BROADCAST: 1968 | DURATION: 00:25:22


Fred W. Friendly discusses his book "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control" and his career. Fred W. Friendly discusses television and mass media. (Part 1 of 2)


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Studs Terkel "Due to circumstances beyond our control" is a phrase, naturally, we hear too often, drearily, it would seem, due to circumstances beyond our control as familiar to listeners of radio, viewers of TV, and very often it means something that may be important to us as far as insight, truth, our life, and in fact, our sanity, may be off. Fred W. Friendly's a remarkable man in mass communications known, I'm sure, to most of the listeners. His recent book "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control" deals with what you might say is his life and his credo. And recently, of course, most recently, he's known for having resigned as news director of CBS for an act on the part of the network and not telecasting the hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So how did this come about? We think of you and your associations with Ed Murrow of course.

Fred W. Friendly Well, this-- it's an oversimplification, Studs, to say I left just because of that. I worked at CBS for 16-17 years and I stayed because I felt I could affect changes and do what I knew how to do, be a journalist and an editor, better there. In 1966 because of the Vietnam hearings and certain changes in the command at CBS, which took decision making out of the journalists' hands and put it into the hands of those who were really more concerned with dollar editing, I decided that I couldn't do it under those circumstances. I had been given the job with the promise that I would always report to the Chairman, Mr. Paley, and to the president, Dr. Stanton, and that changed precisely at the time that I was denied the prerogative as the head of CBS News to carry the Vietnam hearings and I wrote in my letter of resignation that, as I sat in my office looking at the monitors of NBC with the hearings on our closed circuit monitor-- because we were doing the pickup that day from Washington-- but not on the air, where we had a fifth rerun of "I Love Lucy", and ABC with some entertainment on, that I felt like saying underneath the picture "due to circumstances beyond our control, the broadcast originally scheduled for this time will not be seen."

Studs Terkel What Fred Friendly is talking about is more than one particular network or one event. You're talking about a credo, aren't you really? About the responsibility of mass media particularly television.

Fred W. Friendly Well I think that's right. I think that television is an instrument that the nation has given to certain privileged broadcasters to operate in the public interest. We can't give it to everybody. You and I could start a newspaper in Chicago here tomorrow if we had enough money to do it. We could start a newspaper tomorrow. We couldn't start another radio or television station. Therefore to the licensee goes the grant and the promise that he will operate in the public interest, necessity, and convenience, which I think includes not only diversification and excellence, but giving the American people the information they need to be well-informed.

Studs Terkel That comes back to the question that President Hoover once raised, surprisingly enough, remember in Newt Minow's book. He said the air, referring to radio back in those days, belonged to the public.

Fred W. Friendly Of course it does. Anything like that, that we have in such short supply, belongs to all the American people. Now we can't all operate it or we'd have chaos, so we accept applications, the FCC, from various people, who originally didn't apply for bonanzas that were going to make them a lot of money. In Providence, where I grew up, Providence, Rhode Island, the local department store asked for a station thinking that they would say "This is WJAR, the outlet company, Providence" or "This is such and such [Jackie Kahn?]," who had a theater there, and that they'd get free promotion that way. They never dreamed in their wildest dreams that someday the television station would make more money than the department store.

Studs Terkel So we come back to the nature of the medium itself and the public and responsibility.

Fred W. Friendly Have we given away, as I said in my book, something that we had no right to give away? Supposing somebody came back and said "Why'd you give away all those places that schools could be for to build gas stations or theaters? What did you mean by giving away all of Chicago to private interests and not saving something out for parks?" We'd be very culpable. What I think we've done, and we have to take the blame, I more than anybody because I had a chance to shape policy in the business and I'm just as much of a citizen as the next fellow, we gave away over the last 40 years radio franchises and television franchises that we had no right to give away. Its almost as though every single acre of Chicago had been given away with no land left for Grant Park, for schools, for colleges, for freeways, for airports. Who would be to blame? The people who had those things or the people who gave it away?

Studs Terkel It comes back to the question this question of what is public service? What is in the public interest? It always comes back to that. We know what's a powerful sales medium but there's something else involved here and that's responsibility.

Fred W. Friendly You asked the question what is in the public interest. I'd be very glad to leave that to the consciences of the people who run television stations.

Studs Terkel But it has been left to their conscience.

Fred W. Friendly Well, if-- I'm talking-- I think there is a slight drop between a person's conscience and how they exercise it. Now there never was a doubt in my mind, and I don't think in the minds of those I worked with, what was right. The question was what was right economically too and it's the balancing of those two things in an economy where every company has got to make more money every year. Now it's all right for the hotdog company or General Motors to make more money every year. They haven't been given any exclusive grant. But it does seem to me that when you do accept this grant from the FCC that you are saying, in return for doing public service and for being given this great opportunity to make millions of dollars, we will operate it in the public interest. And I don't think--certainly putting a movie that's been on five or eight times on against a great overriding public event--nobody needs any lectures about which is in the public interest or not.

Studs Terkel You're referring, of course, to the Fulbright committee hearings [unintelligible].

Fred W. Friendly Yes, but there are other things like that and nobody needs a lecture, certainly not from me, the people I worked for know more about broadcasting and more about journalism than I did.

Studs Terkel But I know the phrase that you've come across so often, and so depressingly often, a phrase used by a celebrated network executive: "we give the public what it wants." Now we come to one of the cliches of our day, isn't it?

Fred W. Friendly Look you give the public what it wants within certain parameters.

Studs Terkel But, the question is don't we condition, from years of banalities and vague petites, conditioning the public's wants?

Fred W. Friendly You give, you create appetites. If you-- I really believe, and I used to have, as I said before, a set of monitors in my office, and I left them on, which may have been a great mistake. There is only one service. If I didn't know that one was one network and one another network, I'd think they were all the same. You're not giving them any choice when you put three situation comedies on there tonight that have been on before, that's not giving people a choice or giving them what they want. That's giving them three kinds of Crackerjack and saying which kind of Crackerjack, but where's the protein? Where's the vitamins?

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of a piece written by a mutual friend of ours, W.H. Ferry, "Ping" Ferry, a piece written for Hutchins group on the coast.

Fred W. Friendly On mass comm.

Studs Terkel On mass comm as teacher, as guru. In short, this, I assume this is your credo, that sometimes you have to go ahead of what seems to be a want or what the public is conditioned to want and say "Here is something we think is important."

Fred W. Friendly Well you do. You see that's done now in commercials. A year ago there were almost no halitosis commercials on television, almost none. They discovered television. They're on and when they're on in primetime They cost 50, 60, $70,000 a minute. They have discovered that you can condition the need and the desire for people to clean up their breath and that life and death and sex and love and future and success and how to succeed all depends on whether your breath smells good or not. And now I assume from the amount of money they're spending on radio and television that they have created an enormous appetite for this and it's a big, million dollar industry. You can do that with anything.

Studs Terkel Then this appetite or this want can be created. You've actually come to a question of either demeaning man or ennobling man. We have to come, hey you know I use moral phrases.

Fred W. Friendly I want to do both, I want it demean them a little, I want to ennoble them a little.

Studs Terkel I have to come to Fred W.Friendly then and his--well several, I'll ask him more about your friendship with Ed Murrow, but your project now. Now you are involved--you have a specific job now.

Fred W. Friendly Well I have-- I'm a professor, the Edward R. Murrow professor--I'm proud to say, of Columbia School of Journalism. I'm also a consultant to Mr. McGeorge Bundy at the Ford Foundation. Ford Foundation is the largest provider of funds so far for educational television. We have proposed to the FCC that some of the satellite funds that will be used on a satellite system, which will give everybody better communications, be siphoned off to help fund public television. So I split my life between the Ford Foundation job and Columbia University. I spend a little more time at Columbia. I'm enjoying them both.

Studs Terkel I suppose the phrase itself "educational TV" is a kiss of death phrase. "Educational" as we-- seems to have-- if perhaps some other way--

Fred W. Friendly Well I think that's only because up until now educational television has been the poor brother. There hasn't been enough resources, both human resources and equipment, and so you'll naturally think of it in those terms. I don't think it matters what you call it if it's good. It's going to be called public television. I hope it'll just be called "television." That's what it is. It'll be another kind of television. Nobody in England--they have commercial television and they have the BBC. Nobody calls the BBC "educational television" or "non-commercial television." It's just "the BBC." As soon as this has a name, "Public television" or "US1" or whatever it's called, that's what it'll be called by. It'll be called by-- most people call it by the channel it is in their city.

Studs Terkel There's a question of labels are really meaningless.

Fred W. Friendly I don't think that matters. I think it matters whether it's any good or not.

Studs Terkel We come now to Fred W. Friendly-- his book by the way is "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control." You've probably seen it reviewed if you haven't read and it's certainly worth reading from the standpoint of our own-- how we feel and how powers feel about the mass media, how you got this way as an independent man in the field of mass communications. I suppose the name of Murrow figures a great deal in your thoughts.

Fred W. Friendly Of course it did. I don't want to-- I don't want to blame any of my unreasonableness on it. We had for more than 10 years a great partnership-- a word he defined. I was really the junior partner and we had in the "See It Now" days and then "CBS Reports," which he did many of those programs, not all of them, enough air time to experiment and make our mistakes and do a few good shows, including the McCarthy broadcast, "Harvest of Shame," Radulovich. As I look back on it we were pretty unreasonable fellows and I can see the company's point. They'd say "well they're unreasonable." We were unreasonable, but that's the only way we got anything done. It's an overstatement to say, but I do think the world's work gets done by unreasonable people. And then when I started to get reasonable, I started to be less effective. That's a dreadful thing and an indictment of myself and the system. Now Ed was not that unreasonable and he certainly had much better manners than I had and he had a grace under pressure and not under pressure that few other men have ever had. He was a brave man and a courageous man and I wouldn't try to take to myself too much of any of those things, but certainly much of what was right about Murrow has rubbed off on me. Not enough.

Studs Terkel And I think there's this phrase "unreasonableness," as you say, the great need, as we know in history, Thoreau was unreasonable and the various men who indeed have helped us have a dream are unreasonable. Murrow-- I think of specific show and come back to television-- You mentioned the McCarthy probe, this took obviously a great deal of courage. Was that program, in a sense, that said "the emperor has no clothes" a courageous thing to do? Since here's the power of TV, isn't it?

Fred W. Friendly Yes.

Studs Terkel To alter a mores of a people.

Fred W. Friendly It was not only the power of television, it was the power of a brave man. I think, had I done that broadcast independently, had I not been working with Ed, it wouldn't have had that effect. First, I probably wouldn't have gotten that on the air. Second, if I had, I probably would have been eaten up. At the time of the broadcast, with the example of Murrow's grace and power, stature, I braced myself and talked to my wife and my children about how we would be under attack and I'd be insulted and criticized and everything and he never mentioned my name-- used to break my heart that McCarthy and his backers would never take off on me. Only on Ed. And that's--and he took it--and that's what made Murrow what he was and what was important about that broadcast-- because at least 60 percent of the people to talk about it today never saw it. I can tell from the way they talk about it. I won't embarrass you by asking whether you saw it or not because most people didn't see it or only saw part of it. But what they remembered and what the press remembered was that one man with credentials had stood up and said what he believed about McCarthy and I think people now retrospectively give the technique of the broadcast, the editing, the fact that we let McCarthy hang himself, show himself, much more credit than was the case. I believe that Murrow's last three minutes, which he wrote every word of-- I think I changed two words as an editor. It was undiluted Murrow. It was the fact that he did it and it was the fact that people read about a guy, who they remember from the Battle of Britain and from Korea and who was a brave man, had taken on McCarthy and I think it was the act of his doing it and on television much more than what the broadcast itself was.

Studs Terkel What it seems you're saying to me, Fred W. Friendly-- I'm his guest at the moment and the studio's mutual friend of ours, "Red" Quinlan, WFLD-- what you're saying to me and to the listeners is that two things are involved here. A man doing something that so many people were thinking about, were afraid to say, plus the power of a medium both together here in which it's almost a parable, it would seem, for now, a metaphor for now that they're calling for a television man, an executive, taking a stand at a target that may be quite overwhelming, and yet it might open an avenue for open expression on a subject that might be quite controversial indeed. You know the whole subject of dissent itself, I suppose, the fact that--

Fred W. Friendly Murrow had a great assenter when it was necessary, dissenter, and it was the contagion of his courage that-- what Murrow was was he made everybody around him in a newsroom or in a bomb shelter in London really better than they were. I've seen seen it, many people, I certainly saw it myself, that you kind of lived up to what you thought he thought you were going to do. Now I think when you apply that chemistry to this electronic medium, radio and television, that great quantities of listeners and viewers did the same thing, that the same effect that Murrow had on all of us at CBS-- and Sevareid has written about it and Bill Downs, who is now at ABC, and Howard Smith and Ed Morgan and everybody has written about that effect in Murrow-- but I think it also had that effect on people who never were in the same room with him, who just felt that this was a a man--Einstein, who never met Murrow until after the McCarthy broadcasts, wrote him a note saying "you are a courageous man." And I think that a lot of people borrowed courage from this man--not the courage to stand up and get shot at. That's kind of an easy courage. You know, something of a hero is not only-- I wouldn't want to take away from brave men in battle-- but all the battles are not in Korea and Corregidor and Vietnam. Some of the toughest, loneliest battles are those where a guy says "on this land I will stand," this emotion, this intellectual land. And I think that was the lesson of Murrow and television and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

Studs Terkel And so we come to some 12-13 years later or so, perhaps 14 years later, Fred W. Friendly took his stand when it came to giving up what was obviously a cushy job with a top network because of a certain opinion you had about what is in the public interest.

Fred W. Friendly I wouldn't want to make that comparison too strong because first, it's self self-serving. We are all guilty of that. What I gave up most--and it was a pleasant, cushy job--was giving, I gave up something I loved. Those were the happiest, most fulfilling years of my life. I had no choice. Plain truth is that if I'd stayed under those circumstances-- and I don't think they ever thought I would stay-- I would have been a flop at my job, a flop before my colleagues and my children, and I would have really been denouncing everything that I'd like to think I stood for. Some people, some people I care a great deal about, criticized me for leaving. Should've stayed and fought. I think if I'd stayed and fought, those same people would have felt that for all the speeches I'd made, when the pressure was on me I buckled. I used to say to some of my superiors as I worked my way through up at CBS-- I can remember saying to other presidents when they said "what can I do?" I'd say "well, quit! Walk out. Don't you know this is your opportunity to say that." How could I, and you must understand, Studs, that the higher you get, whether it's in an army or on a big company-- Mr. Quinlan will understand this-- that the higher you get, the more courage it takes. It's quite easy to be courageous when you're an associate producer. It's a little harder when you're a producer, a little harder when you're vice president. When you're high up in a company it takes a great deal of courage and I'd say to these people "well the only thing you can do is quit. Walk out and tell them you won't do this." And most often they wouldn't do that and I was very critical of them. Now suddenly I was there and all the pressures and drama that I had seen and been critical of them were now on me. And the issue was there and the battle lines were drawn and the company said this and I said that and there I was all alone and I had a few days to make a decision. How could I do anything other than what I did? It really didn't take any courage at all.

Studs Terkel Well, but except a certain moment came and a decision was made. It may have been an accretion of all these experiences in your life. Aside from your friendship with Murrow, your own life itself, I suppose, is a factor here too. Your various--

Fred W. Friendly My daughter, who was then thir--12 said to me it took more guts than brains. She was right. She denies having said it now that she's 14.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of the limitation. We haven't time now. By the way, the book is "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control" and it's indeed available.

Fred W. Friendly That's a short title. I wanted to call it "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, the Broadcast Originally Scheduled For This Time Will Not Be Seen," but they said they couldn't get it on a book.

Studs Terkel That's beyond [unintelligible]. You'd have to have a slash. So perhaps one last-- we think of today, 1967, the medium-- I see a headline in the papers, "woman sees her son wounded in Vietnam on television." We come to the strain. I'm not talking about Marshall McLuhan now in the medium.

Fred W. Friendly He had a line you know. Marshall McLuhan said, and there's nothing to kid about, he said if the war in Vietnam goes on, the government may have to shut it off because what is happening is that we are seeing the naked and the dead. Instead of four years later in a book, we're seeing it with our dinner in Chicago and New York, other places every night. And that is-- war, it was never to be seen, never meant to be seen this way. We've always seen a slightly glamorized war. I was in World War Two. Perhaps you were, you know that the picture that the people at home saw was a censored, kind of cleaned up, G.I. Joe kind of war and that the dreadful things that all armies, ours and other sides, have to go through were very carefully mellowed, quotation marks, so that man's inhumanity to man as takes place in war was never seen. Now we see it all. Sometimes we see ours more than the enemy's because there aren't any first class journalists with cameras on the other side. We see that and it's quite hard to take and it gives this democracy a problem it's never had before.

Studs Terkel Now here we come to perhaps the key question of our moment. That is a problem we've never had before. It can go two ways. People are seeing this horrendous event, a phenomenon involving their own and these distant strangers, the enemy. You know at the--and so it also can blunt our feelings too, as we've become accustomed to it, maybe life itself will become of less value to us. This is a question now in our minds. Some photographs--

Fred W. Friendly Some people have written about that. I'm not sure I quite understand all of it as the brutalization of people who see that much. That is a problem. I think what really is behind all this and I see this in my, I hear this from my students, comes back to Chicago, Stagg Field, 1942. When that bomb went off, that controlled reaction took place, and the Fermis and the Szilards the Comptons said "things will never be the same again." That's what everybody said after Hiroshima. That's 25 years ago. They were right. War did become unthinkable, but our actions haven't caught up with what we know. So we go on because we don't really know any other way to do it. We go on pursuing combat, which is the only way great nations can enforce their will, 25 years after an event that everybody seemed to agree made war unusable as a national instrument. Now, partly because we haven't found another way to do it, partly because the equipment always runs ahead of us including the television.

Studs Terkel Now, can't we use that very [pause in recording]. Now the last question for Fred Friendly, before he sees friend "Red" here in the studios and leaves for Madison, they come to mass media and particularly one medium, TV. Can't this be the means, by means of open discussion, free, untrammeled open discussion on this very subject.

Fred W. Friendly Yes.

Studs Terkel Let us say Vietnam both ways--can't this become the eyeopener discussing the very thing we're talking about now?

Fred W. Friendly I think that's what part of the public television movement in this country, which is now before the Congress as you know and which they've been hearings on, is for: to provide enough air time to do what needs to be done. I believe, I suppose, almost too much in journalism, but I think journalism and public affairs can do a great deal to make America understand itself. I'm not sure that you can do very much about Vietnam right now.

Studs Terkel Except for open discussion.

Fred W. Friendly Well I know, but it seems to me that what we ought to be talking about is what we're going to do in Vietnam after there's some kind of an [enclave?] thing, what we're going to do in Southeast Asia in 1970. What would we do if there was another Tonkin Gulf or Vietnam escalation thing in 1970 now that we've had this lesson? Because I'm not absolutely sure that we've learned any lesson out of this so far other than that it's awful, but that's not enough of a lesson. The lesson, unless [end of recording].