Sally Bedell Smith
Industrial Giants … or Robber Barons
VTR Date: November 4, 1990
Guest: Smith, Sally Bedell
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sally Bedell Smith
Title: Industrial Giant … or Robber Baron
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. This program is being recorded early in November, 1990, only days after the death of William S. Paley, founder and Chairman of CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and the subject of an enormously intriguing, long-in-the-writing, but just now published Simon and Schuster biography entitled IN ALL HIS GLORY, written by my guest today, Sally Bedell Smith, formerly a staff writer at TV GUIDE, a reporter and researcher at TIME magazine, and a culture and news reporter at THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Indeed, the TIMES itself has written about Mr. Paley, that “he is to American broadcasting as Carnegie was to steel, Ford to automobiles, Luce to publishing, and Ruth to baseball”. And surely the greatest television newsman, Edward R. Murrow, who both had been given and then essentially deprived of – his star broadcasting franchise by the CBS Chairman, was very much thinking about his mentor when in anger and despair at what he saw was becoming of commercial television by the late 1950’s, bitterly noted about the mediums masters, that he could find “nothing in the Bill of Rights … which says they must increase their net profits each year least the Republic collapse”.
Well, in the past historians have debated – always inclusively of course, about other “legendary tycoons”, as Ms. Smith characterizes William S. Paley … about whether to see them as essentially “robber barons” or as ”industrial giants”. And so I would ask my guest – in reference to Mr. Paley – more rather than less, to check off one or the other … or, neither, of the above. Ms. Smith?
SMITH: Well, he was first off a man of enormous contradictions. He was at once public and mysterious. And he was a man of … he was extraordinarily smooth in his role as a corporate titan, and his role as a social “lion”, yet underneath he was insecure and had enormous anxieties. He as known for his overwhelming charm and magnetism, and yet he could be cold and ruthless and … particularly with some of those executives that you mentioned. Edward R. Murrow, the star newsman and Frank Stanton, who was for 30years his second in command. Even people like Jack Benny, whom he, he adored … in the end they were all sort of expendable.
HEFFNER: Now, where, does that put him in that, that jump from robber baron to industrial giant? In your mind, in your own thinking. I know there’s ambivalence, I know you can say “both of the above”.
SMITH: Well I think he had some of the sensibility of the robber baron. He saw broadcasting, radio broadcasting first and foremost in the early days as a great commercial medium, as a great means to sell products to the American public. He was extremely pragmatic about it. I wouldn’t call him an idealist as Edward R. Murrow certainly was. He knew how to make that network work to take what had already been forged and do it better. He was great at corporate strategy in those early days. CBS was a smaller and weaker network up against David Sarnoff’s powerful network of NBC stations, and Bill Paley was excellent at seeing what others had done and doing it better. He was very, very good at taking advantage.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting that you say that because over the past week, in so many of the “remember William S. Paley” broadcasts that one has seen and the tributes that one has read, one would be led to believe that essentially he was an innovator and the excellence of CBS stemmed largely from the mind of the one man.
SMITH: Well, I don’t think he was … “visionary” is also a word that was used … has been batted around a lot about him. And I consider Sarnoff to be more of a visionary in the … maybe in the strict constructionist sense. If you think of somebody who imagines the possibility of something that doesn’t yet exist, he certainly “imagined” the possibility of radio. He “imagined” the possibility of television and it’s application as a mass medium. Bill Paley saw an existing struggling network and he, he figured out, from a tactical standpoint what to do. He could … he had to see something to know what to do with it. He had to see a star in a nightclub, and he really could see that. He had a great instinct for spotting talent … he was walking the deck of an ocean liner on his way to Europe and he heard Bing Crosby, for the first time, and radioed back to his second in command, Sign him up”. And so he did have this, this capacity to see what was there and do it better. Which, which was a considerable talent. And he also understood the importance of image in a medium that eventually that was built on images. And he hired … very early on he hired the man who became known as the “Father of Public Relations”, Edward Bernaise to help guide him in developing an image for CBS that later became, of course, known as the “Tiffany-network”. And he understood what to say to government regulators to keep them at bay … how to go before Congress and emphasize the commitment to public affairs, when in reality public affairs programming was really quite a small percentage of the things that were appearing on CBS radio at the time. And he … and he did, to his great credit, understand the value of a news organization in building the prestige for his network which in the end, of course helped enhance his own prestige. So, all these things … I don’t know whether they would be put in the category of an “innovator”, but he was practical and he was shrewd, he was a great hand-to-hand fighter in those early days.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “hand-to-hand…”
SMITH: Well, he just … he… one of the revelations, as I was going along doing my research, was coming up… coming on a whole cache of memoranda back from the ‘30s that NBC executives wrote to each other, just furious, frustrated because every time they were about to do something, sometimes even in concert with CBS, Bill Paley would jump the gun and take the credit for the network. The classic case was in 1935 when he made a big announcement about how CBS was going to throw off the air advertisements that had to do with “bodily functions” and things that were just, sort of, not quite up to snuff as far as taste went. And NBC had been quietly getting these ads off the air for some tie and they’d been talking about how they were going to announce it. Well, CBS just jumped the gun and there was this flurry of memoranda, you know, hand-wringing afterwards, “how could he do this? We were the ones who were doing it, and surely history will judge that we were there first”. And of course, history didn’t judge that at all. History gave … this was the first big advance that Bill Paley made in being considered as a statement of broadcasting. So he was exceedingly smart when it came to those kinds of things.
HEFFNER: As a reporter, when you come to the conclusion that Mr. Paley was so extraordinarily adept at understanding the influence …
HEFFNER: … the meaning …
HEFFNER: … the power of imagery … how … what is your own feeling about that? Presumably you deal with facts. Presumably you deal with reality. And now you’re talking about Mr. Paley’s genius at the movement around of images. Would that leave you feeling negatively about Paley?
SMITH: Well it … no, I don’t think I felt negatively about him. I just found it to be an intriguing new facet of his character that I hadn’t known before. Obviously, the ability to manipulate includes the presence of a fairly compliant press which, which was certainly the case for a long time when it came to coverage of radio and television, with a few exceptions. Things as they were put forth were pretty much accepted. There was a classic and very poignant case in the dismissal of Ed Clauber who was one Bill Paley’s chief aides in the early days. He had two men who really were very different and each in his own way helped to teach Bill Paley about broadcasting. And Clauber was the sort,, was the sort of no-nonsense, straight-ahead, very, very tough character who helped to shape CBS News, and he was extremely loyal to Bill Paley. He used to walk him home every night because that was something Bill Paley demanded, and he would stop at his doorstep at Beekman Place and Bill Paley would walk inside and Clauber would, sort of, go home and then take command of the phones all evening. And after all of this… he, he was … he was a hair short, though, he always told Bill Paley what he thought and after a while that became a source of irritation and in the end, Bill Paley dismissed him. All the time, the story went out that Ed Clauber had retired for one reason or another. Well, it turns out he was … he left most unwillingly and was extremely sad. He went into …Frank Stanton went to visit him, as he was clearing out his office and he said, “I’ve given my life to Bill Paley and he never invited me once across the threshold”, and he had tears in his eyes. So, you know, that was a … that was a classic case where, where you had to go back and kind of reconstruct the events to find out what really happened.
HEFFNER: Because you couldn’t find out from the press.
SMITH: The clippings at the time, the accounts at the time reflected the story that CBS put out.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s just as true, or almost as true today?
SMITH: Well, perhaps a little less true. I think … more than a little … you know, I think there’s a more skeptical attitude on the part of the press all across the board, including people who cover the medium of television. And whereas I think it does happen sometimes, and there were certain things in the events of the pass five years that I was able to dig out that weren’t evident at the time, but I think those, those were mostly the result of people not having enough time to really dig into. The people under the press of daily deadline just can’t go back and debrief all the people who were involved in something.
HEFFNER: You know I keep hearing from the journalists who sit in that chair that this has to do with time, the press of time. How did you feel when you became a historian, because that’s what you’ve become, in relation to your journalistic profession. Which is more satisfying?
SMITH: Well, I must say I just reveled in, in the ability to, to dig as deeply as I possibly could, whether it was going through archives or going back and back and back to people , I found that that was, that was the key difference. That as a reporter, somebody like Frank Stanton, who had always been very open to the press, during his years as President of CBS and afterwards, many people had gone to him, and when they were doing books about CBS and checked, checked in with him maybe once, maybe twice, but to … I knew he was close, close enough to the situation, was honest enough, and if I kept asking him questions and I hit upon the right questions, that he would answer them honestly. And it took many, many trips back to his office to get him to open up about certain things that were sometimes painful for him, but that he felt compelled to answer honestly. So it was … it is the luxury of time, and the ability to persist and to try and press that button that will unlock the memory, and once they start … the memories start to unlock, they think about more and more things, and it just is … it’s sort of … it just continues.
HEFFNER: Do you think …
HEFFNER: Do you think that the time a biographer, a historian has leads to a greater degree of … well, of course it leads to greater accuracy, does it lead to greater honesty? And I think of that because, well, I guess several times, again at this table, I’ve raised the question of knowing that the American press can’t be bought … raised the question of whether it can’t be sold, however … sold a bill of goods. Because, as I read In All His Glory, and I told you before that it’s so intriguing, so fascinating that I literally couldn’t put it down, and that’s something to say about a book that’s as many hundreds of ages as this. I saw the truth … the first time … emerged … the truth at least as I knew it because I was there just a couple of years, but I was there, and it seemed to me that all that time, what was reported was in the press and been a bill of goods. Now you, you talk about imagery, and there’s this wonderful paragraph that you write … “The legend that Paley had a large hand in developing ‘I Love Lucy’ and other CBS television shows …” and you say, “the legend”…
HEFFNER: … was the handiwork of CBS masterful public relations machine, the press gobbled up everything the CBS flaks threw its way” and so on. You’re not very kind to the people who picked up what was thrown at them and printed it as truth, and therefore I wonder, when you read the press from now on, don’t you know, mustn’t you know that what you read has to be largely a product of handouts, of image making, and mustn’t you perforce be less satisfied with what you read in the daily press?
SMITH: Well, I think one reads it with a greater degree of skepticism. You learn what a trial balloon is. (Laughter) You learn … you can … I mean the more you read it, the more you know about it, the more you can see the hand maneuvering behind it, and I don’t know what … what exactly that adds up to except skepticism. One of the things that a wonderful source of mine, Irene Selznick, who wouldn’t talk to me for a good two years because she told me that she didn’t want to do my job for me, and that I had to come back to her with the contradictions, and she’d help explain them. And she did, she was well worth the wait, she was very wise and very astute, and she knew Bill Paley longer than anybody. And had a great deal of affection for him, but like so many people who knew him well, was ambivalent about him. And she said, when I last talked to her a few weeks before she died, she said, “I …”, in recounting or remembering the number of conversations we had, she said, “I could tell at the end that you were beginning to know who was telling the truth and who wasn’t”. And if you talk to enough people long enough the truth will inevitably emerge. She said, “Bill Paley was a man who was able to control many things and got his own way in virtually every facet of his life”. And she said it was time that the curtains were lifted. Which I thought was a very telling ting for someone who knew him so well to say, and … and I think it just is a question of persistence and time. And one of the functions in going back to people repeatedly is to constantly gauge the veracity of which they’re saying. To try and figure out who’s grinding an ax, or who’s giving you a pretty straight-forward account of events as this person knew them.
HEFFNER: Turning for a moment to Janet Malcolm’s articles in The New Yorker about reporters …
HEFFNER: And their not so innocent victims …because we’re all there with an ax to grind, trying to convince the reporter of our particular point of view …
SMITH: Of course.
HEFFNER: … I still have to ask, enthralled by In All His Glory, recommend it to everybody and I’ll read it again … so what? That’s not a hostile question. But ..
SMITH: Why this book?
HEFFNER: … well, not why the book … but when the book was finished, aside from the tales of his womanizing, aside from the tales of his appetites, there has to be something that you come away with that has to do with things that are much more important, that have to do with this nation at large. What were they?
SMITH: Well, I think you have to start with the fact that this is a man who had an enormous role in a medium that has shaped America to a degree that, that we can’t even begin to understand. I mean the decisions that he made along the way made a difference. He, for pragmatic reasons, decided to establish a news division, which led to the creation of somebody like Edward R. Murrow. Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London were, were … certainly played a role in shaping American opinion, perhaps moving us a little bit away from the isolationism that, that had been … the isolationism that most people had been feeling. And his …you know, his broadcasts were compelling and vivid and had a role … that was a crucial difference. There was a choice … there were choices that Bill Paley made along the way about the direction that his network was going to take.
HEFFNER: What do you think the most important choices were?
SMITH: Well, I think that was certainly one. He could have gone the way of the Hollywood moguls and done, sort of, horrible little newsreels, but he did invest in something that was, that was significant. It had … you know, it had a very utilitarian purpose …Congress liked it, except when it went a little bit too far against the Administration and that’s when he would get into, get into conflict with various news commentators. But another choice that he made, and it was a really clear one, was right after the War, and his then second in command, Paul Keston, came up with a strategy for completely transforming CBS into a true “Tiffany” network … something that would rely primarily on high-brow programming, and would appeal … not a mass audience, but quite a rarified audience, a highly educated audience, and this, this was his vision for combating NBC which in the pre-War years had been able through its sheer strength to steal programs … you know, CBS would develop a ;program, it would inevitably go back over to NBC, because it just would have a wider audience. Bill Paley rejected Paul Keston’s vision of a kind of “tonier” version than CBS and went for mass audience programming because that’s where he saw the biggest influence and the most power and the greatest opportunity for glory, if you will.
HEFFNER: Now you, you …
SMITH: So that was it, that was a key decision, and he … along with that he figured out, very cunningly, a way of making that work, and that was to gain control of the programs and the stars. And he, and he went about doing that by stealing NBC’s best. That was a brilliant strategic stroke, and it, and it set the stage for what CBS was going to be like, predominantly in the post-War years. It also meant diminishing their quality, the quality of dramatic productions and also, diminishing the news division.
HEFFNER: If Paul …
HEFFNER: … If Paul Keston’s vision …
SMITH: Besides …
HEFFNER: … had been accepted by and embraced by William S. Paley, do you think this nation would be far different today? Different in any major …
HEFFNER: … way …
SMITH: It’s awfully hard to say but I think it, it … it might have been. It’s … I think it was a noble experiment that was worth trying.
HEFFNER: That’s what Herbert Hoover said about Prohibition.
HEFFNER: “We tried it and it didn’t work”.
SMITH: Well, maybe.
HEFFNER: But, you know, you refer to General Sarnoff’s high-minded ideas on public service …
HEFFNER: … and when I read that, in … In All His Glory I had the feeling you were say “Sarnoff, yes … Paley, not so much”.
SMITH: Well, with, with Sarnoff in the beginning it was very high-minded. Now, I don’t know what his motivations were, I mean he would steal down to the studio and while away his hours by listening to the NBC symphony and he walked out of the room when Amos ’n Andy came on. He did not have a visceral attachment to those kinds of mass audience programs that Bill Paley had. And (????) on the other hand, when NBC had a chance to get Amos ‘n Andy, they took him… they the … they took the show, and it was really the beginning of that whole surge in light comedy which, which was very much a part of the program schedules of CBS and NBC in those early years.
HEFFNER: They used to say about Theodore Roosevelt that he had the “psychology of the mutt”. And I gather that’s what Mr. Paley had.
SMITH: Well it was … again it was part of the fascinating whole series of contradictions. He, he was an aesthete and he loved the best in painting, he loved to be surrounded by exquisite objects, and certainly exquisite wives. He even … you know, he was meticulous about the kind of fountain pen he would use. On the other hand, he had this very, sort of earthy side. He would … he loved to eat and he approached a meal with this kind of animal avidity and, and he … so he had this kind of peculiar combination of rarified tastes on the other hand, and a great appreciation that gave him this connection to things that would appeal to a mass audience.
HEFFNER: That’s why I raised the question before as to whether you feel his genius as an industrial giant. His genius at organization and at squeezing what there was to squeeze out of that industry.
HEFFNER: Had he been geared more toward what I gathered was Sarnoff’s public service orientation, whatever went on NBC, whether broadcasting wouldn’t be different today?
SMITH: Well, yes. That, that may be. I mean Sarnoff, if necessity, had to change that … particularly given the kinds of shows CBS was putting on. But what Bill Paley always realized was that, that he had to have a sprinkling of top-quality public affairs shows, top-quality drama shows. They diminished in time, but he knew … he knew how to translate prestige into profits and to be able to achieve this delicate balance of having his network regarded as the Tiffany … with a Tiffany image, but yet to have the bulk of its programming really falling quite short of that.
HEFFNER: Was it fair to me to indicate at the beginning in my introduction that yes, of course, he put Ed Murrow on the air …
HEFFNER: … and he also …
SMITH: Took him off.
HEFFNER: … took him off.
SMITH: He did, yeah. And Ed Murrow left CBS quite a bitter man. He, as you know, that he lashed back at Bill Paley in a, in a devastating speech that I think really marked the end of their friendship, where he called … he said that unless the people who ran television did something, that it would just end up lights and wires in a box. And that he felt that it had … that there had been a violation of the general potential of television to teach and to enlighten and Bill Paley took that as a, as a personal affront of great magnitude. He said, “I felt as if he was directing that speech right at me”, and he didn’t ever bring it up though, he just sort of dealt withed Murrow in his own way, he was quietly demoted and when he left he was very, very … I think you know, bitter, according to people who saw him at the time.
HEFFNER: Sally Bedell Smith, thank you so much for joining me today, discussing this absolutely terrific, smashing book, In All His Glory. Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you.
HEFFNER: 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 extraordinary guest and extraordinary topic, please write THE OPEN MIND,
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