Fred Friendly

The Power of the Media, Part I

VTR Date: March 31, 1990

Guest: Friendly, Fred

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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Fred Friendly
Title: “On The Power Of The Media” Part I
VTR: 3/31/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Which in a sense begins today very much where it ends each week when I sign off with, ‘‘as an old friend used to say, ‘good night and good luck.” For that old friend — who nearly 40 years ago helped me into broadcasting, as he had so many others — was Edward R. Murrow, and my guest today is Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s partner, co-producer, collaborator in so many pioneering broadcast news ventures.

Though network television eventually seemed not to have room, on the air or off, for Ed Murrow’s outspoken sense of what the medium could or should aspire to, Fred Friendly went on at CBS to become President of its News Division. But then he, too, moved off the reservation, though quickly channeling his enormous energies instead into teaching, foundation work, and then public television ventures that continue so brilliantly to this very moment.

Appropriately enough, Fred W. Friendly became Edward R. Murrow Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism Emeritus when he retired. Though as he told me the other day, the Professor clearly has “flunked” retirement, for “Ferocious Fred”, as we knew him in my CBS days, is no doubt now just as demanding, cajoling, insisting, pushing and pulling — and always achieving — in the cause of broadcast journalism excellence as he always was. As you’ll see, Fred W. Friendly is not very retiring.

Fred, I appreciate you’re joining me here today, and I know that you frequently quote Justice Potter Stewart as saying that the trouble with broadcasters is that they focus on what they have right to do, rather than what the right thing to do is.

Friendly: It’s an interesting… the circumstances under which he said that…

Heffner: Tell me.

Friendly: Dick, we were at Independence Hall, doing the Constitution television series, and at a point he stopped and he said to me, “Fred, the trouble with your profession — journalism –is that you fellows are all mixed up about the difference between what you have a right to do under the Constitution, under the First Amendment, and the right thing to do”. And, of course, he’s absolutely right about that because a court can’t stop us from publishing something, doesn’t make it right to reveal it if it invades somebody’s privacy, or if it’s going to hurt somebody terribly, or if it’s not true, or if it’s gossip, or if it’s irrelevant and just in the name of gossip . Potter was absolutely right.

Heffner: Justice Stewart, was he as correct or looking back at what he had to say, true, as true, truer today than then?

Friendly: Well, you know, Potter… Justice Stewart had his up and downs like each of us. I think what he always used to say was he would be remembered and it would be on his tombstone… it isn’t… for the line which he said in an opinion, “I can’t define vulgarism, or obscenity… obscenity, but I know it when I see it.” And, of course, that is true that no court has ever been able to define those things. Well Justice Stewart was a remarkable man. You know one reason he was so interested in helping us with our television series on the Constitution was that when he was at Yale, 40 years ago, he was Editor of the Yale Daily News, so although he went on to become a great lawyer and a great Justice, his heart was still in journalism.

Heffner: But you know, I want to pursue you on the question of what has happened to journalism, but say, broadcast journalism in particular… since the moment that Potter Stewart said that to you.

5:00

Friendly: Well, of course, he only said that about five years ago. If you take it back to when your friend and my colleague, Murrow was around… television now makes so much money… commercial television… doing it’s worst, it can’t afford to do its best. It’s an irony that anybody can make more money doing its worst, than doing its best. That’s because airtime has become so expensive that you can sell commercials for a million dollars a minute and $150,000 for a half a minute. At Super Bowl time more than even that. The networks today, and I left much of my youth and much of my heart in one network… the networks would rather have a lousy program with high ratings than a great program, such as Murrow did, with low ratings. There’s something wrong with that.

Heffner: What do you mean “there’s nothing wrong with that?”

Friendly: I said, I said “there is something…

Heffner: …there’s something wrong with that…

Friendly: …there’s something…

Heffner: And yet, Fred, when Broadcasting Magazine a few years ago at the occasion of CBS’ first 60 years, spent a lot of time with Friendly, you said then what you’ve just said…” the tragedy is that it makes so much money doing its worst, that it can’t afford to do its best”, talking about CBS and you could have said the same thing about…

Friendly: NBC and ABC and the stations. Here’s a station… a story I love to tell, Dick, a station in Boston went on the air 30 years ago for about a half a million dollars. Eventually that station lost its license and some do-gooders, Harvard professors, MIT professors, applied for that license and got it. And they ran a pretty good station. Then somebody came along, the people who run Channel 5 here in New York and they bought that station for $350 million dollars and two years later another company, the Hearst Corporation, bought that company for $530 million dollars. Now what were they buying? They were buying a license… and a license which gives you exclusivity on one of the seven channels in a city like New York, or one of five in Boston… gives you the only bullhorn, or one of the few bullhorns in town. First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech under the press.” But if you give one power the only bullhorn, or one of five or seven bullhorns, you have abridged freedom of the press, ‘cause you can’t broadcast on that station without their permission, nor can anyone. So it… the First Amendment and television have nothing to do with each other because television by its very nature gives some people this enormous power and almost no one else that power to access.

Heffner: Fred, it’s not an entirely unfair question for me to ask, and you may answer it just like that… does this represent a shifting of your own point of view about First Amendment, about licensing, etc.?

Friendly: Oh… my… I carry with me as I guess you know, a copy of the Constitution and the First Amendment. It’s a great teaching tool. I tell my students at Columbia, Potter Stewart’s line about the difference between what you have a right to do and the right thing to do. But, think of the Columbia campus during the riots in 1966, when I first went there, there on the steps of Law Library, over one or two protest groups were the loudspeaker system, a bullhorn, and no one else had the bullhorn. So they could shout “Down with Columbia” or “Down with Lyndon Johnson”, or “Down with the he new gym” which was being built. And they could control the situation, even with the police there. Equate that to a nation where only a few people had that bullhorn, and no one else has those equal rights. So I don’t know how the First Amendment really gets applied to broadcasting… although the spirit of the First Amendment… I would want to prevail. My point, when I say difference between right and what you have a right to do from Potter Stewart, is that law can’t prevent you from doing anything in this country, under our First Amendment. Law can’t prevent you from writing that such-and-such a person is a homosexual… Oliver Sempel is a good example, I’ll talk about him in a minute, if you want me to. But a person’s own conscience and ethical sense of responsibility would say “just because somebody wants you to publish that Oliver Sempel or some famous conductor is homosexual, doesn’t mean that that’s right for me to do”, and you have to have an ethical code… there’s now a new word in the English language calling “outing”. Do you know what “outing” is?

10:00

Heffner: No, please tell me.

Friendly: It’s something organized by the gay and lesbian groups, it says that they will find out every gay in the country, whether he’s a Justice, or whether he’s a broadcaster, whether he’s a football coach, and they will reveal his name, without his permission. The reason is that if they can reveal that enough people are gays, the stigma may disappear. Now I’m very sympathetic to gays, but, as Justice Brandeis said, a hundred years ago, this year, “the most sacred right we have is a right of privacy, the right to be left alone,” and if somebody says “I don’t want you to report that I’m a gay,” even though somebody gives you that name, I think the journalist has a greater responsibility to say, “I’m not going to print that because it’s irrelevant, it’s not my secret, it’s that person’s secret.” But we’re now going through a period where gossip and rumor are all blurred and fudged and protected by the First Amendment, and it is true that some of our greatest First Amendment cases have involved not very nice people, but it also involves very responsible and decent people and they can’t let their responsibility go down the drain because “the court said it’s all right.” The courts are not the adjudicators of what’s good journalism, we are… in our guts, in our heart, in our mind.

Heffner: But tell me, tell me, Fred, about what I detect is an odyssey on your part… a movement in the direction of what it is that you were saying now… a movement, not away from First Amendment concerns certainly, but toward the responsibilities upon which the original First Amendment concerns were built, or assumed.

Friendly: And your question is “how come”?

Heffner: The question is “how come? “ What led Fred Friendly to move?

Friendly: There are 75 reasons… and each one is a year of my life.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Friendly: I’m… you know… I’m so old, Dick, that I can remember not only when there was no television, but when there was no radio here in New York, and I’ve seen radio grow, and I’ve seen television grow, like a giant, and I believe that television will determine what kind of people we are; does already. It’s the greatest distraction ever made. Kids today watch six, seven hours of television a day… that’s more time than they spend in school, more time than they spend sleeping, most of them. They don’t learn to read because they say, “why do I have to read, television reads to me,” it’s a great distraction, it’s changing America. And if we don’t get some responsibility in there, it’s going to change America in a very negative way.

Heffner: But you’re not the kind of person who simply says, “if we don’t get some responsibility in there…,” I know you well enough, Fred, to know that you have an agenda. What is it?

Friendly: Well my agenda is certainly not to get the government involved. I mean the government is involved the wrong way because the court says “there can be no prior restraints, no gagging, no gag orders,” and the broadcasters and the newspapermen take that and…newsmen and women take that and say, “you see, nobody can stop us.” Nobody can stop you, but that doesn’t mean you have to put crap on the air. The government’s going to stay out of it, as they should, as the Founding Fathers wanted them to, as Murrow wanted them to stay out, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t elevate this blessed miracle to be an education tool in this country. The biggest problem this country has today is our education system… you don’t need me to tell you that… you know that 40% to 50% of the children in some big cities drop out… you don’t need me to tell you that people can’t learn to read today. Television could help with this… what did Ed say in his last, great speech… he said “this instrument, television, can entertain, can illuminate, yes it can even inspire, but it can only do that to the ends that men and women are determined to use it for that purpose. Otherwise it’s just lights and wires in a box.”

Heffner: Do you…

Friendly: And I’m going to go on saying that as Ed would have if he’d lived.

Heffner: Do you think it can do otherwise because you… after saying “the tragedy is that it makes so much money doing its worst that it can’t afford to do it’s best,” you then went on to say… “I know that I will not be considered a realist and that I have to understand that in 1987…,” the year of this report, “Wall Street reigned supreme. I just don’t believe it has to be that way.”

15:00

Friendly: All right.

Heffner: …expressing your optimism…

Friendly: I didn’t then and I don’t now. I think that Wall Street… and when I say “Wall Street” I mean investment bankers are a disease in this country. I did a seminar the other day at the Bar Association of the City of New York with lawyers… about takeovers and lawyers… but we had some investment bankers there, too… some journalists.

Heffner: You hit them both, I trust.

Friendly: Well, I just asked the questions… but what emerged, Dick, is the basic fact that these deals for takeovers of billion dollar corporations are engineered by investment bankers. They target the company that can be taken over, they may go out and find somebody with some money to say, “hey, you could take over this company,” and then they make it happen and they get their fees which are sometimes fifty, eighty, hundred million dollars only if the deal takes place. So what we’ve come to with this great capitalistic society that I think is the best form of government in the world…

…government isn’t capitalistic, but our way of life is… where we play a game of money. It’s not money because you can make a better product… it’s not money because you’re smarter than somebody… its money making money. And the money-makers, the money-changers, if you want to go back to the Bible, make these deals and one company that’s smaller than another company gets taken over by those companies… because the investment bankers and the lawyers and eventually the corporate executives have this enormous appetite to grow and to grow and to grow. That’s now ending because junk bonds have done them all in. We may be seeing the end of the hostile takeover, but it’s done irreparable damage here. The change in management at CBS began when Senator Helms and then Ted Turner said they were going to takeover CBS. They scared them so that a decent man, Larry Tisch, entered the arena and collected enough stock and stockholders’ proxies to take over the company. Nothing wrong with that, Mr. Tisch is a friend of mine, a long time friend of mine, he doesn’t know anything about the broadcast business. I don’t know anything about his business, the cigarette business and the insurance business and the banking. I would not presume to run a bank, nor certainly not a cigarette company. But these people are the people who are running NBC, which is General Electric, and Mr. Tisch. They don’t know anything about broadcasting. Why should they? And why does anybody think that everybody can run anything. I mean somebody now wants to take over United Airlines. They don’t know anything about flying an airplane. I would fly in an airplane run by a guy who runs it who didn’t know anything about aviation.

Heffner: Yeah, but Fred, you know I occasionally get people writing in who say, “look, we know you’re a pussycat…” I… we know you don’t push your guests, but why didn’t you push that person?”… I don’t want to get that letter…

Friendly: Push me.

Heffner: …this time… I’m going to push you and…

Friendly: There’s no question you can’t ask me.

Heffner: …and talk about the question… the optimism that you express here. “There’s no reason why it couldn’t be different, differently” If you were talking about broadcasting within the context of a “for profit” system. Now, we talk about Larry Tisch…

Friendly: Nice man, by the way.

Heffner: I’ve met him once or twice, great man. But the fact of the matter is that he brings the ethic of the marketplace to bear upon something… an industry, I hate to call it that…

Heffner: …a form of information or education that you don’t want to see subject to the profit motive, if I understand you correctly.

Friendly: Anymore than I would want our schools and colleges to be.

Heffner: All right, then…

Friendly: I wouldn’t want Berkeley… where you went… University of California… run on a profit basis. I can remember Paley saying to me in the presence of others, 25 years ago, said “if news ever becomes a profit center, we’ll be in trouble.”

Heffner: Is news a profit center?

Friendly: It is. And they are in trouble. But you see there was — I certainly had my quarrels with William S. Paley and with Frank Stanton, but as I look back to when… in the early years… the forties, the fifties, before my time… in the thirties… there was a nobility… a nobility of purpose and they knew that they owed something back because they had this great franchise. There was something then called “a sustaining program.” Sustaining program meant without sponsors.

Heffner: Like mine.

20:00

Friendly: Like yours. There is no such thing as a sustaining program. Everything on the air has to make money. The documentary which Murrow and I helped to pioneer… there are very few documentaries left because it doesn’t have a rating compared to the sitcom, it doesn’t have a rating compared to the sports, so there’s no place for it. In Paley’s better days that nobility said, “we gotta do this ‘cause we owe something back to the system.” Now why don’t we demand more? We, the people. Why don’t we say, “this situation in which you see this parade of mediocre dross night after night after night, one program after another — separated by one commercial after another… is unacceptable. Just like the homeless. I was in India in the war, I was in Calcutta. I saw tens of thousands of homeless people lying in the street, sleeping on a blanket, with their children and little girls coming up and saying to Sgt. Friendly and others, “you want to jig-jig with my sister,?” and I can… 20 annas, which was just a few cents… and I can remember thinking to myself, “my God, people live on the streets like this, it’s unacceptable. I know that this will never happen in my country.” I was 21 years old then. Here I am in the springtime of my senility and I see homeless in New York at Columbia University. Begging. In St. Louis… begging. In California, Los Angeles…begging. I would like to think that a President like Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman would say, “this situation is unacceptable” and the American people would say, “it’s unacceptable,” and I’ve always believed that they would eventually say that about television. I think television has so changed the American people, they don’t have it in them to say, “unacceptable.”

Heffner: But, Fred, isn’t that the point? That we frequently say it is unacceptable, about the homeless, about television, etc., but we are not willing to do anything?

Friendly: But we accept it, that’s right… because we’re greedy, all of us.

Heffner: So where does your… where do you come off to say, for in that caveat, when you talk about our capitalistic system and you say, “the greatest system in the world…”

Friendly: Yes.

Heffner: …and everyone seems to need to say…

Friendly: Less worse than any other.

Heffner: Well, that’s saying something a little bit different, but we are talking about a profit motive…

Friendly: But the profit…

Heffner: Driven.

Friendly: But the profit motive…

Heffner: …society.

Friendly: …does not have to be on everything. It isn’t on our great universities, it’s not on our high schools, it’s not on our… let’s leave it at that. Our universities. Why do we let this happen? Why do we let an instrument of limited access, television… why do we let that get into the hands of profiteers?

Heffner: Because we didn’t listen, my God, to Herbert Hoover, who was shocked at the thought of advertising in a university and this is a university…

Friendly: Well, Herbert Hoover said it would be terrible if we let this great instrument get out of hand, but we have. Now, you ask me, and it’s a proper question, what do I do about it? Well, I resigned by job at CBS in 1966. I helped the Ford Foundation make almost a billion dollars worth of grants to public television. There’d be no public television without the Ford Foundation. And here in the last few years of my life, I do some programs on the Constitution and ethics and drugs that go on television. I do the best I can. I can’t change it all by myself, you would expect me to.

Heffner: Fred, I’m hard pressed to figure out whether I admire Friendly more for what he did in the old days in commercial television, or for what he’s doing now. Either way, you win. But then…

Friendly: I thought you were going to say, “either way I lose…”

Heffner: (Laughter).

Friendly: …I lost.

Heffner: Why do you say, “I just don’t believe it has to be that way” when the evidence is so clear before us that within the context of what you describe as commercial television today, you say, “it goes down the drain.”

Friendly: Well, I’m very worried about it, but I still… I’m an optimist… I never believed that the Cold War was necessary. I did not believe the Russians were coming here, and maybe I’m a naive fool, but history has certainly taught us that they weren’t coming here. I don’t think the Russians need to feel that we were going to Vladiuostok, that we were going Leningrad, or Kiev, or to Estonia, Lithuania… I think the Cold War, which has dramatized the last 30 years, 40 years…. we’ve lived in a Cold War atmosphere, we’ve spent 20-30% of our gross national product on arms. Now suddenly the Cold War is over. President Reagan says it’s over. What’s going to take the place of that? What are we going to spend our wealth on? Are we going to now… we going to take those dividends from Defense and we going to spend it on education? Are we going to spend it on getting rid of the homeless? Helping the homeless? Or are we going to spend it on greed and more takeovers?

25:00

Heffner: What’s your bet?

Friendly: I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know… I’ve been better in my life at asking questions than answering them. I have a motto I say at all our seminars… I say… that are broadcast… my job is not to make up anybody’s mind, but to make the agony of decision – make it so intense that you can escape only by thinking. I want you and your viewers to think about this awesome dilemma and what are we going to do about the magic of television, which has turned into something that we should be ashamed of.

Heffner: But, Fred, did you ever think that maybe we are literally estopping real change by continuing to say “it’s got to be better.” When you described the very dynamics of an institution, commercial television, in terms that really have to lead us to believe that it can’t really… be bad.

Friendly: It’s a harvest. Television is a harvest of greed. Period.

Heffner: And as far as you’re concerned “a harvest of shame” too.

Friendly: Well, we did a program about that, about migrants, but… and I was paraphrasing that. Look, Ed, you know, people want to re-write what Ed said. I know that Ed virtually gave up on commercial television. I haven’t. I lived longer than Ed. And I still believe that one way public television… a combination of… I think cable may change things a little bit. I’m not sure there’ll be network news departments eight or ten years from now. I think CNN and those places will change it. My fear there is that the CNNs will start making so much money that they’ll go the way the networks went.

Heffner: Our greed. Now, Fred…

Friendly: Yes?

Heffner: You’ve got to do something for me. You’ve got to agree to sit there. We’ll end this program and then begin another one. Okay?

Friendly: Whatever you say.

Heffner: Thanks for joining me today, Fred W. Friendly. 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 provocative guest and his ideas, 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 that other 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 Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.