Stockton Helfrich, Merrill Panitt, Harriet Van Horne

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, The Open Mind

VTR Date: May 8, 1981

Harriet Van Horne, Merrill Panitt, Stockton Helfrich, and Richard Heffner.


GUESTS: Stockton Helfrich
Harriet Van Horne
Merrill Panitt
AIR DATE: 5/8/1981

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I’ve said those words hundreds of times now, for this program celebrates our twenty-fifth anniversary. THE OPEN MIND is actually a quarter-century old, and I have invited back as my guests today, the very same people who joined me in celebrating our first anniversary so many, many years ago. I’ll introduce them in a moment. But first, a retrospective glance. THE OPEN MIND began in May 1956, at a moment and in an age of comparative innocence. As an undergraduate at Columbia College, I had always been impressed with the admonition Barnard’s Dean Virginia Guildersleeve was reported to have offered her students: “Keep an open mind, young ladies, but not so open that your brains fall out”. So, OPEN MIND it was and is, with topics and guests that over the years have maintained their own kind of consistency. Indeed, one becomes rather drenched in nostalgia, reading transcripts and looking at and listening to recordings of old programs. Like an early one with Martin Luther King, when I had literally to introduce Dr. King to my broadcast audience. They might not have known who he was at that time. On the subject of race, there were so many other guests too, over the years: Malcolm X, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Ralph Bunch, Father John LeFarge. The law provided OPEN MIND themes many times as well. Whether we were talking about lawyers and unpopular causes, or the drawbacks of the jury system, or changing our divorce laws. And given the nature of our mass media today, it’s rather amusing to recall how much fuss was caused in the Fifties when we pioneered by doing an OPEN MIND series on homosexuality. The New York Times cheered us for what it called “Breaking trail”. But others wanted the station’s license revoked for our temerity in touching on that particular taboo. Anyway, that’s when I first had Margaret Meade and Max Lerner on THE OPEN MIND together. But only after Dr. Meade got me to make Max promise that he wouldn’t call her “Maggie” on the air. Perhaps our most interesting show came on November 17, 1957. It was live. When Isaac Stern and Lionel Trilling joined Dr. Nathan Klein to discuss psychiatry and the creative mind. But there have been so many other memorable OPEN MINDs over these 25 years since someone once called, “The program with the hole in the head”, first went on the air. And great guests, too. Carlos Romulo, Norman Cousins, Paul Lazarsfeld, Elmo Roper, Gregory Zilborg, Theodore Reik, Gilbert Seldes, James Conant, William Benton, Murry Manes, Milton Friedman, William Safhire, Dean Rusk, Kenneth Galbraith, Ted Kennedy, B.F. Skinner, Barry Goldwater, Chet Huntley, Dr. Frederic Wertham, Dr. Spock, and on and on and on. Hopefully, there will be many more to come. Perhaps THE OPEN MIND will even be here a quarter-century from now. But that rather sobering thought brings us back to the here and now. On our first anniversary program in 1957, we explored whether there actually was room on the air for an OPEN MIND. And I’d like to pose that same question today…pose it, indeed, to the very same people. First, Harriet Van Horne, then television critic and communist with The New York Post, now with Newsday and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate; Stockton Helfrich, then NBC censor, later head of the NAB Broadcast Code, now basking in retirement; And Merrill Panitt, then managing editor and now editorial director of TV Guide. Welcome back.

VAN HORNE: Thank you.

HELFRICH: Thank you, Dick.

PANITT: Nice to be here.

HEFFNER: And I’ll make a deal.

PANITT: Loved your monologue.

HEFFNER: Now, now, now. We’ll make it into not just a monologue, not even a dialogue, but much more. And I will, as I promised you before, invite you all back for 25 years hence. But, if you take some exceptions to monologues, Merrill, let me ask you: We talked about his 24 years ago now, on the first anniversary. Is there room for an OPEN MIND today, different than there was in that quarter-century ago? Did things change that much?

PANITT: It’s perfectly obvious that things have changed. Homosexuality is no longer something to be commented on. That is, homosexuality described on the air won’t bring you any kudos from The New York Times anymore. You can talk about any subject, I think, and get away with it, and treat it seriously and treat it intelligently on the air. So I think, we even have, ABC has gone to the, gone the final step, I think, they’re even permitting big business to answer back – at one o’clock in the morning – but they’re permitting big business to take what they call “aditorials”. “Aditorials”; that means that you can buy a minute and you can say anything you want to on the public policies.

HEFFNER: Does this mean that anything goes on the air, Harriet Van Horne? Do you think so, as contrasted with that quarter-century ago?

VAN HORNE: Well, of course, we have cable now. And believe me, anything goes on cable. I’m shocked. I keep saying I’m no prude. By today’s standards, I dare say, I am a prude. And some of the things that turn up on, oh, Channel C, D, E, F, whatever it is…

PANITT: I think it’s J.

VAN HORNE: J? Well, nudity, obscenity. And apparently all you do is show up with five dollars and they give you half an hour.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s the public access channel.


HEFFNER: But suppose we talk for a moment about the kinds of programs that you did and now do write about mostly. The kinds of things you would comment on, the broadcast materials.

VAN HORNE: Oh, well, I think there’s…You say, “Is the room for an OPEN MIND?” There’s a crying need, certainly. It seems to me that television had an intellectual level somewhat higher 25 years ago. You had “The Elder Wise Man”. Do you remember that? And Edwin Newman’s show. Those wonderful interviews. They seem to have vanished. And “Omnibus”. Now there’s an example of the decline of television. I think it is predicated on a decline in public taste. But if you have seen the revived “Omnibus” it is tacky, it is condescending. And do you remember the old “Omnibus”? Do you remember Peter Ustinov doing Boswell’s “Life of Dr. Johnson”? I mean, that sort of thing would never get on the air today. I think it reflects the terrible decline in public education, the fact that people are graduated with a diploma from high school and they can barely read, “See Jane run”.

HEFFNER: You mean the golden years were really the golden years?

VAN HORNE: Well, I’ve always been suspicious of that “golden years” business. Does anybody really have more than one golden year in his life? Or does any institution? But I do think there is a decline in taste. Can you imagine “Dallas” 25 years ago? In the book business, there’s a kind of novel they used to call a “bodice ripper”. Well, I tell you, the bodice ripping that will – well, you don’t need to rip it anymore. Nobody wears a bodice, I suppose. But there’s been a tremendous falling away of prudery which is probably good. There’s been a decline in taste, which I think is very bad.

HEFFNER: Stockton, you were the NBC censor – You don’t mind being called that – at that time. I don’t ever remember once your calling me…

HELFRICH: It was right for its time, but I wouldn’t think it would be that important now.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, it was right for its time?

HELFRICH: Well, at that time there was a great deal of preoccupation with the public image of either the station or the network. And basically, our role was to be common sense-“y” to the degree we could, about whatever was being offered. So that, if you’re talking about “Omnibus” or anything of that sort, basically there wasn’t a heck of a lot for us to do because it was an innate good judgment in whoever was putting it on.

HEFFNER: No blue pencil?

HELFRICH: On some shows, yes.

VAN HORNE: Racial stereotypes.

HELFRICH: A great deal of preoccupation…Right. We were very concerned with the whole business of racial stereotyping, so we did a lot about it. Good censorship, if you will. I however, would go a little bit apart, I think, from Harriet’s approach which, to some degree, I find a little bit elitist. I think, if we look at what is now on as contrasted with some of the things which were then not permitted on, I think it’s rather good that we have an “Archie Bunker”, that we have a “Hawkeye” in “MASH”, or that we have a “Barney Miller”. To me, these are exceptionally good shows that are very popular…

VAN HORNE: Oh, I agree.

HELFRICH: …and to me, are very, very instructive in many ways on important issues of our times.

HEFFNER: But Harriet seems to be concerned about public taste. That taste, perhaps, is lower, and standards of what go on the air, therefore…

VAN HORNE: Are lower.

HEFFNER: …looser.

HELFRICH: I would say that things are a little more schlock as to what is very, very popular. That’s true.

HEFFNER: Good or bad?

HELFRICH: Well, again, I’m not down the nose towards what other people like. I am there somewhere. I hope I have changed a little bit from what I was like before. I was a little bit more eclectic and whatnot in my own taste. But I think that…I have a great confidence in public preferences, and have a hunch that they’re beginning to demand a little more, even though they might not be getting a lot of it yet.

HEFFNER: Merrill, you have that same confidence?

PANITT: Well, I’m a little ambivalent. I think “Dukes of Hazzard” is an example of the public taste, and I think it’s number two among all shows.

HELFRICH: Fast cars, racing cars.

PANITT: I must disagree with Miss Van Horne. “Omnibus” was an exception, even in those days. And I believe it was on Sunday afternoon, wasn’t it?

VAN HORNE: Yes. Yes, it was.

PANITT: We have good shows on Sunday afternoon now, too. As for the ordinary shows, I think the one thing we did have then that was more exciting than what we have now, was live drama on the air.

VAN HORNE: Oh, yes, yes.

PANITT: There were a great number of live dramatic shows on the air.

VAN HORNE: The quality’s gone, too.

PANITT: The shows that came in between were about the same as what we have now. We didn’t have girls jiggling quite as much then. But the standard was about the same, I think.

HEFFNER: Well, let me turn to a moment to the question of girls jiggling. Since you identified Channel E, or J, before…

PANITT: J, yes.


PANITT: I don’t watch it either, but I know it was J.

HEFFNER: Nobody watches it, but there it is.

PANITT: That’s right. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Look, is this, Stockton seems to feel this isn’t so bad. He always did have that way, way, way, way open mind. Just about anything went. Then weren’t we worried more about political censorship? Weren’t we worried about taboos that had to do with public attitudes toward certain issues…


HEFFNER: …than such things as homosexuality and lesbianism, etcetera?

HELFRICH: And abortion you couldn’t mention.

HEFFNER: Stockton, did people mention abortion?

HELFRICH: It was gone about with euphemism and whatnot. Quite true. In those days – and we’re talking of at least two decades ago – I was looking back through some of my own circulated mimeographed reports to other departments at NBC and found, to my own amazement and some chagrin, we were terribly preoccupied with anatomical references. A reference to the breast or somebody’s crotch or whatever. We seemed to be very concerned, even on a “Fred Allen Show”, that there not be anything which was a little too gamey. And I find I, myself, am a little embarrassed looking back that we were preoccupied with those things, because in themselves there is nothing basically that corruptive about talking about them, in my opinion now. But in those days, as head of the department involved with that sort of thing, it was obviously what our management expected of us, and what many of the stations in the network were worried about, for regional differences or attitudes or whatever. So we worried about it, responding, in other words, to what we thought was expected of us. But that began to change, as you well know, within about ten years. There began to be an opening up of subject areas. And certainly in the early days of that opening up, a restraint in the handling was not, I don’t think there was any pandering to the morbid and the preoccupied with sex. That began to come in some type shows which both Harriet and, I think, Merrill have referenced.

HEFFNER: Harriet, you were going to comment on that.

VAN HORNE: Yes. My husband did one of the first documentaries about abortion, called “Abortion and the Law”. And I think it was in ’61 or ’62. And thinking back upon that show, it seems to me now how very decent the two sides were, how little hysteria. The Catholic clergy that appeared were very temperate and very decent, and there was none of the vociferous feeling that you find now in the whole abortion question. Nobody seemed to be filled with hate. It was an honest debate involving, or course, matters of faith and so on. But the dialogue was on a much higher level. If you did a documentary on abortion today, it would be filled with venom and spleen and hysteria. People no longer are as sane about the feelings they hold. Everybody is a little too passionate. And perhaps this has caused the level of dialogue on TV to be lowered somewhat. You’re running a salon here, you know. Your discussion. You have salon conversation. On other programs, they have free-for-alls.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s…I understand what you’re saying, Harriet. And I wondered about that. The question I’ve been asking myself recently is whether there really is room for an OPEN MIND in terms of the people who participate. Current company excepted, of course. Because it seems to me that back when the program began the people weren’t as aware of the power of the medium. And they came on and you’d see people thinking. You’d ask a question and someone would say, “Hmmm!” or when he’d hear or she’d hear someone else’s answer. That’ true, isn’t it? You’d see people change their minds. And THE OPEN MIND.

VAN HORNE: Mutual respect.

HEFFNER: Right. Today, I wonder if you feel too that there is such a great awareness of the wonderful instrument for propaganda, teaching, manipulation (call it what you will) that television is that few people are willing to come on without pushing a particular point of view? In that way, it seems to me we’re not worried about censors like Stockton Helfrich was; we’re worried about the self-censorship that doesn’t permit people to engage in that kind of discussion that David was able to in his documentary, or that we so frequently are here.

HELFRICH: The medium used to be a cool medium, and I think it’s heated up.

VAN HORNE: Yes. Yes. Also, there are all those single-issue pressure groups, the ones who have decimated the Democrats and Congress and so on. They’re very alert to what is on television. I have yet to see an evening news program that has given both sides of the abortion issue or the matter of teaching evolution in the schools. They seem to lean over to give the hard right, the religious right, you know, the advantage. As if to say, “Oh, we don’t want the pickets and 50,000 letters and something nasty read into The Congressional Record”, which is what happens.

PANITT: Because the hard right is the more articulate of the two.

VAN HORNE: The hard right is organized like the Prussian Army.

HEFFNER: Well, now, wait a minute. You say “organized”, and I had Richard Viguerie here the other day for a program, and he’s the king of the rights fundraisers.

VAN HORNE: Oh, yes, the mailers, yes.

HEFFNER: The direct mailers. And he said, “Look, we learned from the left. We learned our lessons very well”.

VAN HORNE: The left has forgotten them.

HEFFNER: Maybe that’s true. It certainly doesn’t appear. I’ve had people call recently and say, “Why so many white people from the right?” Maybe because we had so many people from the left.

PANITT: Well, we can get into a political argument. It may be that the liberals have no longer – and you say, “left” – no longer have the issues that they once did.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

PANITT: They have gained many of the things they wanted.

HEFFNER: You mean they won their battle?

PANITT: They’re now in the process of losing them.

VAN HORNE: They certainly are.

PANITT: But there tends to be a loosening of organization then when there’s nothing to hold people together.

HELFRICH: But, on the other hand, Merrill, your TV Guide carried a very interesting article lately on the resistance of the broadcast media to the pressures of The Moral Majority, who apparently are one of the new special interest groupings that Harriet references. Now, in the days when I was most active in this field, there were all sorts of pressures from special interest groups at all times, from one side or the other of the spectrum. And I won’t go into any specific issue, but it was just so. With always someone who wanted to appear before one of the code boards and give a great big pitch for responding to their particular point of view. I get the impression from the article – which I thought was a very well written one – in one of the most recent issues of TV Guide, that the broadcasters and the advertisers, who are feeling great economic pressure not to sponsor this, that or the other so-called “liberal” show. And I put liberal in quotes. I’m not sure what it means except apparently what
The Moral Majority doesn’t believe in.

PANITT: Sex and violence.

HELFRICH: And apparently the advertisers are beginning to be aware that if they succumb to this particular type of pressure as though it were the be-all-end-all, that they are in for a great deal of trouble as to simple freedom of expression, let alone anything really complex. So I wouldn’t throw in the sponge too quickly on all of this. That everything has changed and things are pretty hopeless. I’m an optimist at heart, and I honestly believe that public need is going to, in one way or another, support what is best in broadcasting. It’s going to take a lot of public support.

PANITT: Well, one fervently hopes so. Yet there was an article in Advertising Age a few weeks ago which pointed out that he shows that were absolutely safe were going for more money that those that might have a little controversy.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

VAN HORNE: Which shows?

PANITT: Well, the shows that had a little bit of sex in them were not pulling in as many advertisers, and therefore were not getting the amount of money that they used to get for commercials. At least that was the indication before the season opened.

HEFFNER: As a response to this pressure?

PANITT: As a response to the right. The advertisers, after all, are not in business to offend people. I’m not defending, certainly any submission to the demands of The Moral Majority or Reverend or any of those people. But it is true that if an advertiser has his choice of the show that is absolutely safe and one that might offend a few people, he probably will opt for the one that is absolutely safe.

VAN HORNE: Provided it’s got a rating.

PANITT: Provided it’s got a rating, yes. Yes. Of course so.

HEFFNER: And if it doesn’t?

VAN HORNE: And it’s the dirty shows that get the ratings. So there you are.

PANITT: Well, there are some clean ones.

VAN HORNE: “Dallas”, “Soap”, all those shows do very well.

HEFFNER: Harriet, you’re distressed by shows that go over a certain line. I gather that’s your message.

VAN HORNE: Well, except that I think everybody’s a censor. Turn it off. I am much more distressed by the Reverend Wildom and the reverend Falwell. I think what they’re doing is pernicious. I think it’s evil. And the Reverend Falwell has said, “You know, when we get the drama cleaned up, we’re going to start on the news”. And he was asked what’s wrong with the news. And he said, “Well, it should have a humanist point of view”. Well, I went straight to my Oxford Dictionary and looked up “humanist”, put aside the definition that one believes in the humanity of Christ. The definition that would follow: A humanist is a student of human nature, one who cares about human nature. Well, what newsman would not, therefore, be proud to be called a humanist? Now, I think we must resist the Reverend Wildom, who is such a hypocrite. His mailings are strewn with the four-letter words that he claims he has heard on television. And where other people might use little dots, no, he spells them out.

HEFFNER: But you’ve heard those words on television too, I gather, and you’re not particularly pleased by that.

VAN HORNE: Well, no. Except that I would never suggest censorship.

HEFFNER: What would you suggest?

VAN HORNE: I think that enough responsible individuals ought to protest. And I certainly have done so in the paper. I think “Dallas” is vulgar. Just plain vulgar. I object to bad grammar, bad manners, ladies dresses being ripped off, fast cars, killing people. “Dukes of Hazzard”. Yes. I object to those things. But you know, The Moral Majority is hypocritical in another sense. They claim that 15 million of them hate television, “Dallas” and so on. Do you think those shows could get a rating if 15 million viewers suddenly said, “Won’t watch “Dallas”. Dirty show”. They were all tuned in the night that J.R. discovered who shot him, and so on. I mean, there’s such hypocrisy in this group. And once you start permitting a boycott…Well, do you remember in the 1950s? Do you remember Red Channels and Aware, Inc. and the blacklist? This is where boycotts end.

HEFFNER: That’s why I was always so grateful to you, Stockton, because when we first went on the air we were just at the tail end of that period…

HELFRICH: It certainly was.

HEFFNER: …and you never lowered the boom on us, even when we touched on outrageous subjects with outrageous people.

HELFRICH: I think there’s this…Glad we didn’t. The networks now, the network heads, have come out against The Moral Majority and the Reverent – Wilding, is it?

VAN HORNE: Wildom. W-I-L-D-O-M.

HELFRICH: I didn’t know how it was pronounced. And they have made very strong statements, the presidents of the three networks. Now, they did not make very strong statements against Red Channels.

VAN HORNE: That’s true.

HELFRICH: And so I think we’ve progressed that far, at least.

HEFFNER: Why do you think…What accounts for the difference? Dollars or sense?

VAN HORNE: They’ve learned.

HELFRICH: I think they learned a lesson from Red Channels, exactly.


PANITT: Well, and Ed Murrow took care of the then…on that famous broadcast…

HELFRICH: …when Ed Murrow was here.

VAN HORNE: Oh, yes.

PANITT: …which helped to expose what a total phony and rather dangerous man he really was.

HEFFNER: Stockton, do you think that that’s broadcasting a…to pick up the political cudgels and do in, as you’ve suggested Ed did in Joe McCarthy?

HELFRICH: That’s one of…

PANITT: Those are not political cudgels; they’re moral cudgels.

HELFRICH: But it’s a medium that is turned to by so much of the public that it seems to me a responsibility of broadcasting to take up those issues. I don’t see how they can avoid it.

VAN HORN: I don’t think you should begin with the idea: We shall do somebody in. I think you should begin with the idea: Let us show the truth. And it was the truth about Joe McCarthy that destroyed him.

HEFFNER: It was certainly your truth, Stockton’s, Merrill’s and mine, and Edward R. Murrow’s, but…

VAN HORNE: God’s truth, if I may be extreme for a moment.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s what Dr. Falwell says, too. There are always those who have God’s truth on their sides.

PANITT: Well, she’s prettier than Falwell. She certainly would get through to…

HEFFNER: Okay. Fair enough.

HELFRICH: But I think Falwell certainly should be heard. And I think the opposition should be heard. And I think intelligent people should make their own decisions.

HEFFNER: Do you think that when you said before that the networks have taken a different…and when I asked about dollars or sense, I wondered if rather that was a function of their concern about their economic…

PANITT: Well, obviously they would not enjoy having he advertisers boycott it, but they could very easily turn out pop shows that were not at all controversial. They would not permit “Barney Miller” or “Hawkeye” or anyone else to treat a social issue. Those things could happen.

HEFFNER: But the social issues.

PANITT: And they could turn out shows.

VAN HORNE: Social issues are few and far between on those shows. “Archie Bunker” did something on alcoholism. Well, that was fine. But that’s not brave. We’re all against people destroying themselves with alcohol.

PANITT: But Harriet, doing it in a very popular format is extremely important.

HELFRICH: And remember that Norman Lear has also treated abortion…

VAN HORNE: Oh yes, he’s been very brave.

HELFRICH: …menopause, every other thing that we would mention.

VAN HORNE: Yes. Impotence. Absolutely. Everything.

HEFFNER: But when those items or those issues have been treated, they have been treated within the context of humor. And, in a sense, one-sidedly.

PANITT: Yes, yes, that’s…


HEFFNER: …better of it…

VAN HORNE: Maybe it was time our side got…that everybody should listen…decision. Let me tell you something. There are, I…There are about…they have been brainwashing people. The one statement…that Mr. Falwell never quotes…every day is, “The simple believeth every word”. Book of Proverbs. I tell you the simple people who are lost and lonely and…ripe for a fascist leader. And we’re getting a dress rehearsal at this with Reverend Falwell.

HEFFNER: I can’t think of a better place to bring our program to an end than with Proverbs. Thank you both for joining us today on this 25th anniversary.

VAN HORNE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And, Merrill, I will invite you back for 25 years from now.

VAN HORNE: You can wheel us in.


HEFFNER: Okay. We’ll wheel you in. Thanks so much, Harriet Van Horne, Stockton Helfrich, and Merrill Panitt. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. But before I sign off on this 25th anniversary program, I’d also like to thank Lev Pope, the president of WPIX, and Richard Hughes, the station’s senior vice president, for consistently believing that somehow, somewhere, room should be made on the air for an OPEN MIND, and for keeping it there. Meanwhile, I hope that you will join us again. And, as an old friend used to say, Good night, and good luck”.