Fair Play--A Tribute

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Andy Rooney
Title: “Fair Play: A Tribute”
VTR: 12/10/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Like so many other Americans, for years now I’ve watched, read, listened to my guest today with enormous pleasure, amusement and enlightenment. The closest I’ve come to him at this end of the television screen, however, was side by side in the pages of The New York Times some months back when it reported Commencement Addresses we had each given one spring weekend.

Andy Rooney, the wonderfully wry CBS-60 MINUTES journalist and commentator was quoted as advising students that: “We have more rich people than we need right now… (But) we are very short on people who know how to do anything. So, please don’t set out to make money. Set out to make something…and hope you get rich in the process”.

Well, you can just hear Andy Rooney’s student audience cheering his noble words. And my audience cheered, too, but only, I think, when I quoted a very much related thought from another distinguished CBS newsman, that “Old Friend” I refer to each week at program’s end: Edward R. Murrow, who three decades ago noted of the media’s masters that he “could find nothing in the Bill of Rights…which says they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse”.

Of course, I didn’t invite Mr. Rooney to THE OPEN MIND to rehash old speeches…rather, because a friend has died, a friend to all who respect journalism as a quest for truth, not treasure; for fairness, not fame; a friend so much in the best Murrow broadcast journalist tradition.

Burton Benjamin – “Bud” as he was known – had been Vice President of CBS News, was a brilliant television writer and producer, the Executive Producer of the “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite”, a superb documentarian who won numbers of the medium’s most coveted awards for programs that so well and so fairly documented our times.

But Bud was right when others’ controversial CBS documentary about General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War went sour, and he was asked by CBS to report on its faults, to produce a document ultimately known as “The Benjamin Report”…But was right, as he later wrote: “I told Andy Rooney how I felt about my new eminence. After nearly 30 years at the network, after producing more than four hundred documentaries and eight hundred editions of the CBS Evening News, if I got hit by a truck, the modest obituary would probably carry the headline, ‘Report Author Succumbs’ “.

Well, his obituaries weren’t modest, of course. Bud was too accomplished for that. But he died even as his fascinating Harper and Row book was being published, appropriately to its author’s convictions entitled FAIR PLAY, a study of “How a Television Documentary Went Wrong”.

And the fact is, it isn’t inappropriate to remember Bud for his devotion to FAIR PLAY, for his sense that, given the broadcast journalists’ enormous and ever increasing power in our times, his first responsibility is not to ratings, but to fairness always in dealing with his subject at hand, to fairness always in dealing with his object, too: his audience, ever and more dependent today upon broadcast journalism for what it knows or believes it knows about the world around us.

But, understand that “The Benjamin Report” wasn’t universally acclaimed. Some dismissed Bud as an “old time newsman”, criticized him as so finicky as to have elevated CBS News’ traditional guidelines to “ a canonical level”, claimed “The Benjamin Report’ was “devastating” and “very harmful to CBS News”.

So, let me ask Andy Rooney first how true it is that Bud Benjamin’s personal “fairness doctrine”, his rigid insistence on “fair play” in broadcast news, might well have a “chilling effect” on electronic journalism. Mr. Rooney?

Rooney: Oh, I don’t think you can accuse the truth of being bad for anything, and that’s all that Bud was after. No, I do not think it will have a chilling effect. I’ve seen some suggestions that…I talked to somebody yesterday, I talked to Bill Leonard, President of CBS News, and he said that it would be difficult to do any more tough documentaries after Bud’s book. I don’t think that’s true. I think we’re going through a phase. I don’t think there are many tough documentaries these days, but they’ll emerge again.

Heffner: But if Bill Leonard, of all people, thought so, what truth is there in that? There must be some.

Rooney: Well, there’s truth in the fact that Bill thinks so, but I think he’s wrong. (Laughter) Of course we ill have documentaries again…that’s too broad a conclusion to make. I think that had CBS lost this law suit and four hundred million dollars, that might have had a chilling effect, but after all, they were exonerated. Really. Basically. The suit was dismissed, and they did something that they thought was right, or a lot of people thought was right, and it was wrong in a lot of respects, but they got away with it. No, I don’t think it’s going to have a chilling effect.

Heffner: What about the book, FAIR PLAY, doesn’t it document on page after page things that should not have been done or should not have been done quite that way?

Rooney: It does. I think you first have to say that there isn’t much evidence that the basic premise of the broadcast was wrong. In other words, the basic premise of the broadcast was that inaccurate figures were given by Westmoreland, General Westmoreland, as the leader…our leader in Vietnam to the President of the United States, or to the powers above him, that he, as the phrase goes “cooked the books”, said that there were fewer Vietnamese that he knew there to be. The premise…the idea was that if we knew how strong the Vietnamese were we would have been less able to continue the war, as a political aspect of the thing. But I just don’t think that anybody has said that that premise of the documentary was wrong. Now, neither has anybody said that the way that George Crile, the producer, went about doing it was right. In other words, he did a lot of things that did not live up to standards that CBS…other CBS producers have traditionally applied to their product.

Heffner: What do you think about the idea of a personal kind of “fairness doctrine”, the kind that Bud Benjamin had, and the kind, I gather, that the CBS News Fair Practices Standards provides?

Rooney: What do I think about it? I think absolutely…do you know that I have never read the CBS Standards book? Now this is arrogance on my part, I suppose. I have done a lot of documentaries, people know me for the 60 MINTUES pieces I do, but I’ve done a great many documentaries in my life before I became a public figure, and I know so well what ethical standards in journalism are that I don’t need a CBS Standards book. I know perfectly well what’s right and what’s wrong to do, and I think 99% of the producers at CBS know that. I think 99% of the journalists in America know that. I think that most journalists are more honest than most businessmen in America. Not because they are basically more honest…inherently more honest, I just think that honesty is a hobby with journalists, it’s what they talk about at lunch, it’s what they think about a lot, and so I just think that they have something going in that respect that most businessmen don’t.

Heffner: Well, wait a minute. You say you know what’s in the Standards, and you do so automatically, viscerally, you don’t have to consult them…

Rooney: No, I’m not saying I know what’s in the Standards. I suppose I do, but I know what ethics are. I know what fair play is in making a documentary or in journalism.

Heffner: All right, now what happened that led to Bud’s having to do the Report…

Rooney: George Crile didn’t know, of if he did know, he didn’t adhere to them.

Heffner: Now you’re saying that this is just one of very few…

Rooney: Yes, I certainly do say that. I certainly do.

Heffner: Then what do we do with the people who maintain that by and large fairness isn’t really the rigid rule of thumb for so many news people today? And I’m not talking about, you’ll forgive me, an old timer like you. I’m not talking about an old timer like Bud Benjamin, I’m not talking about he late Edward R. Murrow, either. I’m talking about people new to the media. Are you still quite so sure that they a) not only know, but apply the same standards that Bud wanted us all to repair to?

Rooney: I would think the proportion of honest journalists today is at least as great and possibly greater than it used to be. I traveled with a lot of what you called “old time” journalists during World War II. I know what their standards are, but while it’s popular sometimes to dismiss courses in journalism there are so many good universities teaching courses in journalism, and whether they learn anything specific or not, they become very aware of ethical standards. And so I think the average person, man or woman, going into journalism today is more aware than ever of the standards he or she is expected to adhere to.

Heffner: Do they fit into an operation that today is parallel to or the same as, in terms of standards, the larger setting of television as a business? You were quoted as saying…

Rooney: Not very well. To answer your question before you go any further. Not, it’s difficult. I think t that we have always known, in television…for most of television’s life I have said this before, for most of television’s life, network television news, the American public did not know what a good deal it was getting. Why in the world network news held to these high standards when they were producing so much junk in their entertainment division I don’t know, but they did, and it was a marvelous thing for the United States. But network television news adhered to the high standards that it did.

Heffner: It’s fascinating you say “we didn’t know what a good deal we were getting”.

Rooney: I don’t think the American public did. I mean the American television was appealing to a National Enquirer audience with New York Times standards. It was amazing – one of the most incredible things that ever happened in this country.

Heffner: You mean entertainment as opposed to news television?

Rooney: I’m not talking about the entertainment division at all. I’m just saying that news standards in television were very high.

Heffner: What happened?

Rooney: Well, they’re still high but they are much more aware of the audience than they were. A few things happened ten or fifteen years ago. Some of the local stations started to use tricks…that’s why the anchor people at a big desk are always smiling at each other. Somebody came in and said “you are more attractive to more people if you do this or that”, so that the emphasis on giving people what they ought to know has sifted some to giving them what they want to hear.

Heffner: Now, do you distinguish between that critique of network news of new, television news today, and your statement before that “Look the people in television are honest. The people in television know what’s fair play, and they act accordingly”.

Rooney: I think it’s true. I worry. I worry about the emphasis on the bottom line in television, but I have not personally seen any diminution in standards. I think that if you…in other words when they present a piece that is closer to entertainment than it is news, this doesn’t have much to do with the ethics or fairness doctrine. You’re talking about something different. They are trying to attract a larger audience, but not necessarily is the information any less accurate.

Heffner: In the beginning to, in the introduction to Bud’s book, FAIR PLAY, Walter Cronkite raises questions about whether this is a profession or not. Whether it should be treated as such. What’s your view on that? Whether news gathering on television is a profession.

Rooney: Well, I was always fuzzy about the word “profession”. I don’t…I really can’t answer that question. I always thought of doctors and lawyers as professionals. What does the dictionary say? I don’t even know. I don’t care whether journalists are called professionals…whether it’s called a profession or not, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Heffner: Well, the reason the question comes up is because if it’s a profession, presumably there is a standard. There is a set of ethics, there are professional ethics.

Rooney: Well call it what you like, there are still standards.

Heffner: And adhered to, in your opinion?

Rooney: I absolutely think so. I have known very few bad apples in the news divisions of three networks, and I know all three of them.

Heffner: Does that mean that you would be in favor of, or are in favor of, or opposed to the concept of a “fairness doctrine”, such as we used to have?

Rooney: Well, it’s a long argument. I suppose I am. I was never quite clear about why the leaders, the presidents of the divisions, the news divisions of the networks opposed it as much as they did. I mean most of them did oppose it.

Heffner: Well, they seemed to be saying “We don’t want anyone telling us what is fair”. You don’t seem to care about that because you know you’re going to be fair, and you know you’re going to do what’s right.

Rooney: I know. It was interesting in Bud’s book; I was interested that…how the matter of fairness did not enter into Judge Leval’s decision. He said “It is not of any interest to this court whether the broadcast was fair or not”. Was it truthful? Was it intentionally malicious? That was the concern. But whether it was fair or not, he didn’t think entered in.

Heffner: Do you think that question of fairness should enter in, not into a libel or slander suit, not into the kind of court action that did take place, but into anything in which there…you have to accept some comeuppance for what you do. You violate fairness, this is the penalty.

Rooney: I certainly do, yes. No matter what the judge says, I think a broadcast should be fair. But as long as I’ve quoted Bill Leonard in that one thing where I disagreed with him, I remember he said to me, years ago, I was doing a broadcast and he said, this was ten, fifteen years ago, he said “Don’t you have anybody opposing that view?” He said, “You know it never weakens your premise to have opposing comments made”, and that’s so true.

Heffner: You think it was right, and that was one of the problems with…

Rooney: Oh, absolutely one of the problems.

Heffner: …the Westmoreland documentary.

Rooney: With the documentary, yes.

Heffner: What would have happened…Bud died just as the book was published.

Rooney: The day it was published Bud died.

Heffner: And when I read in the back Advance Praise for FAIR PLAY, one of the words that you used, one of the words used frequently in the comments was “fascinating”, and by gosh, this is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It don‘t think, just because I’ve been involved in broadcasting…

Rooney: Yes.

Heffner: …and was at CBS and know the cast of characters, it just is. What do you think the response to him as an individual would have been had he lived? There was so much criticism on the part of certain people when “The Benjamin Report” came out. What do you think would have been the fate of this book?

Rooney: You know because of each of our personalities, the same things keep happening to all of us over and over again in our lives. You can see things that happened to you when you were 20 or 30 or 40, good or bad, and damned if that same thing doesn’t keep happening again. Bud Benjamin survived every problem he ever had. He was so dead honest and right down the middle that there was nothing that would have happened to him that was bad because of this book. He did this book as well as he was able, and brilliantly, I think. He was absolutely honest and there is no way any ill could have come to him because of it. I…you know, I was noticing your book…you can always tell when I like a book because the first thing I do is tear that cover off, and then I start marking it up, and I have a…make a mess of this book. I k now it’s a good book when I’ve marked it up a lot.

Heffner: You know you said something before…well, wait a minute, I’m going to show you my marks, too.

Rooney: (Laughter)

Heffner: You said before you knew the old timers, but when I wanted to do a program on Bud’s book and I read that first review on that Sunday, which is the day he died, and I asked our Associate Producer, Linda Murray, the next day, to call Bud, not knowing that he had died, I worked on the assumption, and it was born out by some of the things that were said to me as I searched for the right person to be here today…

Rooney: You’re telling me I was your eighth choice, aren’t you?

Heffner: No, no, no. As I searched…

Rooney: (Laughter)

Heffner: …out the right person, and you were the right person because there were others who said, “Look, that’s old hat. That’s the old traditional point of view”, and you say now, “Look, I knew the old timers. I’ve traveled with them. I knew what they did”. You really want to make the point…

Rooney: I can’t imagine who said that. I can’t imagine more than one or two people said that. I know a couple of people who might have said that to you, but there aren’t many people who think that. There’s nothing old had about this. Honesty is old hat? I mean he was just…I think this is a textbook of how not to do a documentary, and there’s nothing old hat about it.

Heffner: Sure, a textbook. You’ve written and I’ve written textbooks, and I know how frequently they‘re honored in the breach rather than in the observance. Look, frequently there have been your counter-parts at this table, people from television, people from the press. Usually the point of view is “There’s no one in here but us chickens”. Bud seemed to know there was great power in the medium and that’s why it had to be exercised responsibly. I wonder whether you take the position “Yes, we determine…we not only set the national agenda, we need people to think what they think about public events”. Or, is it, “Nobody in here but us chickens?”

Rooney: I think that it is probably wrong for anyone in my position, for instance, or in the position of being on the air to think too much about what impact he or she might have because (Laughter) I would be come tongue-tied if I got thinking of the number of people who were watching me at any given time. And I think you have to be awful careful about letting yourself go and being…saying things that are not always as wise as you might be if you considered it for some time before you said it. I don‘t think you can consider your audience. I think you have to say what you think and let the audience fall where it may.

Heffner: Well, it leads me to ask you something about something that has concerned me for a long time. At the end of this program I’ll say “As an old friend used to say: Good night and good luck” because Murrow helped me get into broadcasting, and I thought he was so great. But I wondered as I read Bud Benjamin’s book about the similarity or the parallel between Murrow’s program on McCarthy, something was to be achieved, and the Westmoreland program, and I wondered whether you had any thoughts about that. Gilbert Seedless, after the famous Murrow broadcast, wrote a piece in the Saturday Review in which he said, and he loved Ed Murrow, but he said at the end “I thought I saw the specter of Hitler” and he wasn’t talking about Joe McCarthy. He was talking about the use of this medium to achieve a point that broadcasters feel they must achieve, in this instance knock off the power of Joe McCarthy, and I wonder how you feel about the business of finding an imperative at times to accomplish something with the power that you do have.

Rooney: Well, advocacy almost always finds its opponent, and I think when one of the networks or one of the individuals on a network advocates some position there is almost always someone who advocates another, and while overall and generally the medium may have a great impact on the American public I think there are so many counter-balancing weights that there isn’t much danger of anyone like Ed Murrow or anybody else having any long term, serious impact on the American public. I don’t think that’s a great danger. I think, it’s interesting in…now George Crile when he set out his problem was that this was a crusade with him. He thought that Westmoreland had presented dishonest figures to the President of the United States to accomplish a perfectly honorable end, and Crile set out to prove that this was in fact true and that it was wrong. Now, almost any reporter or producer who sets out to do a broadcast must be suspicious of something when he or she starts it. I mean you have got to think something is wrong or you’re not going to do the piece. So that of course you are, to that extent, biased. When you start out to do a piece you are almost always looking for something that you suspect exists that’s wrong. So that…I don’t know, it is a form of criticism in the broadest term of the word criticism and criticism in the world is what has changed everything. When something is criticized people say…it’s called to their attention, they say “Well, this is either right or wrong” because the critic has brought it to the public’s attention, and to this extent George Crile was a critic of Westmoreland, brought it to the public’s attention, and to that extent it was a public service.

Heffner: Well, of course, as appropriate to what you do, you cut short what I say and you say “advocacy” rather than the long-winded description I gave. But are you suggesting now that journalism is, ipso facto, advocacy?

Rooney: Well truth is advocacy, isn’t it? And to that extent fact and truth are propaganda, I suppose. Propaganda has a pejorative sound but I suppose truth is propaganda if you’re saying that it influences people to think in one way rather than another, then truth is propaganda.

Heffner: What do you think about Bud Benjamin in this question of advocacy? Where do you think he stands?

Rooney: I think Bud’s standards were probably higher than Ed Murrow’s, your hero. I’ll bet Bud would have been critical of some of the things Ed Murrow did.

Heffner: Now, do you think…

Rooney: God forbid that Fred Friendly should hear me say that. (Laughter)

Heffner: I’m not so sure about that, I mean about “God Forbid”. Do you think that Bud was in equal step, that much further ahead or behind or different, from most television news people?

Rooney: Well, I think he was, he was the essence of the best of it. I think he was a good deal more conservative than would be most television producers. He was, to some extent, brighter and recognized the problems that might exist quicker than some of the rest of us might have. He was certainly more conservative. There are things that I have done that Bud probably would not approve of. I did a piece on the…a piece for 60 MINUTES before I was on the air on the American Association of Retired People, and its connection with an insurance company, and they were furious and they complained to everybody, almost had the broadcast stopped before it went on the air because they said that I had not informed them of what my intentions were. Now I had informed them of what my intentions were, I was very suspicious of them, and I did not let then know it when I started. Now I…Bud probably would have insisted that I reveal everything, but I just don’t think you get anything very often that way. I don’t think that a reporter has any obligation to let the subject of his investigation know exactly what he thinks.

Heffner: Andy Rooney, we’re obviously out of time and at the point at which we should have begun, but thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.

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