Albion Monitor /Commentary

RIP Fred Friendly: Journalism's Champion

by Randolph T. Holhut

It pained Friendly to watch the steady decline of broadcast journalism and the trashing of the standards he helped to set
(AR) -- Fred W. Friendly, one of the people who helped set the standards for broadcast journalism, died on March 3 at the age of 82.

He hasn't been in good health over the last few years, and a series of strokes finally killed him. I'd like to think the cause of death was his watching the medium he helped shape descend into a morass of tawdry triviality.

In his 1967 memoir of his years at CBS, "Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control," Friendly observed that "because television can make so much money doing its worst, it often cannot afford to do its best."

And that was three decades ago, back when all three tv networks still did documentaries in prime time, when they still broadcast gavel-to-gavel coverage of the political conventions, when they still had overseas news bureaus, back when the nightly news made at least an attempt at being a program of record and covered the world as well as possible given the 22 minutes (after commercials) allotted each weeknight. In retrospect, it seems like a golden age.

Friendly always lamented that the networks never took the time to do longer newscasts. "It's impossible for intelligent people to watch much of it," he once said. He believed television news was in danger "of being twisted into an electronic carnival, in which show-biz wizardry and values obscure the line between entertainment and news."

You can watch the local tv news in just about any city in America and see that Friendly's prediction has already come true. And the network news operations are no better. Style has trumped substance and fluff has overtaken hard news.

It pained Friendly to watch the steady decline of broadcast journalism and the trashing of the standards he helped to set. He won 10 Peabody Awards -- broadcast journalism's Pulitzer Prize -- and helped to create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after he resigned from his job as president of CBS News. He had the moral authority to be the stern critic of television that he was in the last three decades of his life.

Together with Edward R. Murrow, they were responsible for some of broadcast journalism's most distinguished programming. Friendly was the producer of Murrow's prime-time documentary series "See It Now." Together, they brought passion, conviction, and a willingness to ask the tough questions to a new medium.

Their 1954 broadcast that examined Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt for communists helped pave the way for his eventual downfall. When "See It Now" evolved into "CBS Reports," Friendly further refined the art of the television documentary with such programs as "Harvest of Shame," "Biography of a Bookie Joint," and "The Population Explosion."

He took over as president of CBS News in 1964, just as the pressures of the marketplace started making themselves felt. The days of highbrow programming like "See It Now," "Omnibus," and "Playhouse 90" were gone. Television was now a money maker, and broadcast news was a drain on profits.

CBS founder and chairman Bill Paley liked to have it both ways. He liked the prestige that came with having one of the greatest newsgathering operations in the world. But he also loved the fact that CBS led the prime time ratings too, and didn't like the controversy that Friendly's documentaries frequently created.

Friendly wasn't an easy man to work for. To some of his CBS colleagues, he was known as "the Big Moose" or "the Brilliant Monster." Those names referred to his huge physical size and his penchant for pushing himself and his subordinates to do the impossible, no matter what it took to do it. In his book, "The Powers That Be," David Halberstam described Friendly as "a man who always came equipped with his own precipice from which to jump."

Thus, it was inevitable that there would come a showdown between the driven and headstrong Friendly and CBS upper management. The final straw came on Feb. 10, 1966, when CBS elected to show an "I Love Lucy" rerun while their bitter rivals at NBC went live with coverage of a Senate hearing on American involvement in Vietnam. Friendly resigned five days later.

Commercial television had matured to the point where there was no longer room for someone like Friendly who always put the news first. Fortunately, public broadcasting and academia welcomed him with open arms.

Friendly taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he was as tough and uncompromising in the classroom as he was in the editing room. He was the Ford Foundation's adviser on communications for 14 years, and created the Columbia University Seminars on Media and Society. In the series broadcast by PBS between 1984 and 1992, Friendly gathered together a panel of experts, presented them with an impossibly difficult hypothetical question, and then watched with delight as his guests struggled to come up with the right answer.

With Friendly gone, we've lost a strong and vigorous advocate for the tradition of journalistic integrity and responsibility -- a tradition that he had a hand in creating.

Another Farewell
I would be remiss if I didn't note the passing of Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, author and teacher who died March 2 at the age of 95.

Commager was the author of such definitive works as "The Growth of the American Republic" (with Samuel Eliot Morrison), "The American Mind," and "The Empire of Reason." His one-volume "Pocket History of the United States," co-authored with Allen Nevins, is the best one-volume history of our nation around, and a book I use frequently as a standard reference.

Commager was also a Jeffersonian, someone who believed in reason and the ideals of the Enlightenment and wasn't afraid to fight for them. He was one of the first academics to take on Joe McCarthy, and became an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He, too, will be missed.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 16, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page