Fred Friendly

The Power of the Media, Part II

VTR Date: March 31, 1990

Guest: Friendly, Fred


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Fred W. Friendly
Title: “On The Power or The Media”
Part II
VTR: 3/31/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, which this time, like last time, begins in a sense 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 was Edward R. Murrow. And my guest again today is Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s partner, co-producer, collaborator in so many pioneering broadcast news ventures, and now, In retirement, the not very retiring Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Now, Linda Murray, THE OPEN MlND’s intrepid associate producer, moves on today to more literary and much greener pastures. But not before helping me construct a long list of themes to discuss with our guest, for, one by one, our usual questions simply have to prove too puny for this much larger-than-life broadcast journalist.

My first program with Fred Friendly enabled me to make hardly a dent in our list. But I do want to move on now to the significance of a recent review that Fred wrote in the New York Times of Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and The Murderer, most or which appeared first In The New Yorker magazine. And I want my guest to evaluate again Ms. Malcolm’s opening paragraph:

Every journalist, she wrote, who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind or confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness. Gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know.’ The least talented talk about art, the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

And I want to ask my guest, Fred Friendly, was this simply hyperbole? Or is there a touch of truth?

Friendly: Well, there’s a touch of truth in everything. But I think everything you write has to stand the test of truth. Ms. Malcolm, whom I never met, takes a work of a man named Joe McGinnis who wrote a book about a doctor named MacDonald who allegedly killed his wife and two children in an Army camp in North Carolina. And she accuses Mr. McGinnis of involving himself in Mr. MacDonald’s life, convincing Mr. MacDonald that the book was going to be favorable and prove his innocence, when it turned out to prove his guilt, and that he really entrapped the person he was writing about. Ms. Malcolm then projects that against every journalist. Well, that can’t be right. She isn’t talking about Bill Moyers, she isn’t talking about Francis X. Klines of The New York Times who’s doing such good work in Eastern Europe and in Moscow today. She’s not talking about Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times. She’s not talking about the people who used to work with me, for me, at CBS News, and people you knew. She’s talking about one small body of “entrappers.” There are some journalists who are entrappers and she’s projecting that to the average journalist In the United States. That’s rubbish. It’s ridiculous. And or a woman who, she seems very well educated, she knows a lot about psychiatry, she’s known in the psychiatric world but she is projecting the mistakes of one man to every man in journalism. Every man and woman. It’s a false premise, and I wrote a review, as you suggested for the New York Times Book Review, a long review, in which I said what I just said to you, and I believe it now.

Heffner: Fred, if you were giving advice to a friend, to a child, to someone coming out into the world, Into the world of public activities, wouldn’t you leaven your advice just a little bit with “beware of the journalist because he or she has his or her motive” and it is not that that you’ve set forth, it is a different kind of motivation, it is not, it is not necessarily just a search for the truth?


Friendly: Well, there are journalists and there journalists. Just as there are doctors and there are doctors. There are nuclear scientists and nuclear scientists. I think that everybody ought to be aware that some journalists may not wish them well. And may care to entrap them. I always tell all my friends, who are about to be interviewed, “if you want to be safe, say to the person interviewing you, ‘you don’t mind if I tape this, do you?” And put a little tape machine on the desk and say, “then we’ll each have a copy of this.”

Heffner: Yeah. but Fred, why do you say that? Why do you say, “if you want to be safe?”

Friendly: Well, because, then, one of the big complaints against the news media –sometimes justified – is quotes are fabricated. Ms. Malcolm says that she, that McGinnis fabricated quotes. If I reviewed the book that she fabricated quotes, that things that were never quite said that were changed into facts when they weren’t facts — but if you’re worried about that — then have a record of it. I’m sitting here with you, you’re making a tape of it to be broadcast. I don’t need to make a tape of it. I trust you. I look in your eyes and – I’m not going to be paranoid about that, although I think us paranoids have enemies, but I think that what I would tell a journalist today, two of my sons are journalist. Two of six. I would say that your job is to portray a picture of reality in which the citizen can act. That’s a quote of Walter Lippmann’s written when he was 22 years old in a marvelous book called Public Opinion. Picture of reality in which the citizen can act. That, therefore, the reason there’s a First Amendment, first item in the Constitution in the Bill of Rights, is that the Founding Fathers knew that a democracy without a well-informed public was a tragedy or farce. Or both. Madison. I believe that. My Mother, the first woman graduate of the University of Oregon. A woman 4 feet 11 inches tall, I’m 6 foot 2 inches tall, told me only one false thing in her whole life. She said, “son, what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” She was wrong. What we don’t know as a nation and a citizen could kill us. What we don’t know about the environment and the greenhouse effect and arms control and the threat of Japanese production, what we don’t know about potholes the bridges in New York can kill us. We need to have a well-informed America. It’s people and Walter Lippmann, I’m using big names because if I say Eddie Bliss, no one will know who that is. But the reason that Murrows and Lippmanns have a place in history is that they helped democracy work because. they helped make people be better informed. Public health. Three centuries ago there was no such thing as public health. And then Jenner, doctor in London, discovered that smallpox, or some disease was passed around by people drinking out of unsanitary waterpumps. So he cleaned up the water pumps. Now he didn’t just do that for the rich people who could afford it, they had to have something called “public health” so that the poorest of the people of London would be protected from whatever the disease was. That’s the whole philosophy of public heath is in our – that because if anybody gets a bad disease – that’s contagious. I move that to journalism and public information. Everybody’s vote is equal to mine and yours. If I’m informed about these great issues of our time and you’re informed, but 80% of the people don’t read a newspaper or watch a decent television program, that’s an, upsetting thing to democracy because their vote counts the same as mind do. So I want everybody to be informed. And the way to inform people today is in newspapers, and in television and radio.

And if we fail to do that job, either because we’re lazy or we don’t want to spend the money or we think they want to read more about Donald Trump than they do about nuclear arms control, then we put the nation at risk.

Heffner: Do you, Fred, think they want to read more about Donald Trump than nuclear arms control?


Friendly: I think gossip has always been around. I think… people say to me, “Fred, aren’t you an elitist?” Yes. I am guilty of being an elitist. But I would also say that if you let the people just eat junk food, McDonald’s or Roy Rogers, that’s what they’re going to want. It you teach them that nutritional, healthy food is better for you, they’ll eat the better food. I think you can sell junk news, just like you sell junk food, but it’s dangerous to the health of the American democracy, and to the extent that I can do anything about it, I’m going to try to educate at Columbia and other places that I teach journalists capable of explaining complex issues. What do journalists do? They explain complicated issues. You can’t explain something you don’t understand. We need to understand these complicated issues much better. We need to know about Eastern Europe. I hear radio and television reports from Poland, from Czechoslovakia, from Romania and I want to weep because I… they… half of them don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s no sense of history. I was educated in the late 1930s. Much of it on radio when Edward R. Murrow, whom I didn’t know in those days. And Raymond Swing and Bill Schierer, Eric Severeid were broadcasting from London during the Blitz. From Czechoslovakia when Tomas Masaryk was the President. Edward Bennis was there. I remember the Anschluss. I remember the fall of Poland. I remember all those details. And I remember what the Third Reich did to civilization. That’s why I want people who are broadcasting today, and writing for newspapers to explain how World War II came. How the Treaty of Versailles 1919 created Adolph Hitler. How the Third Reich grew out of the discontent of those people. And I don’t hear it because the news is told to me in 40 seconds sound bytes.

Heffner: Fred, you want that because you want the medium to be truly educational.

Friendly: I want the public to be informed.

Heffner: But we don’t even call television that is designed to be educational, ‘educational television’ any longer.

Friendly: Well, you know… the name public television came in 1968. It used to be called educational television when you were the manager of Channel 13. I’m sorry we ever changed it to public television. It was a euphemism, somebody, somebody said “we don’t want to call it educational television because that will turn people off.” Turn them off? There is nothing, including food that’s more important to the American citizen. We ought to trumpet it, “this is the station where you can help get your kid educated, where you can learn more about the world in which you live, about the realities of life in a nuclear age.” We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. My fear about public television is it’s beginning to imitate to commercial television. When I hear that Lawrence Welk has got the highest rated program on public television, when I see, if I have to see one more crocodile or one more alligator fornicating on public television because that’s – public television spends so much of its time and money raising money that they put on the old chestnuts, Jimmy Stewart, whom I like a lot, but not 38 times, to see “It’s A Wonderful Life” because they’re convinced that “A Wonderful Life” will make people send in money that will keep the stations alive.

Heffner: Do you think they’re wrong?

Friendly: I think they’re wrong. I think I would much rather have somebody say to them, “you like what you’re seeing on public television? You watch it? You want it to be there next year? Help us with it.”

Heffner: You know what you say reminds me because you mentioned Walter Lippmann before, and you mentioned that magnificent book Public Opinion.

Friendly: Right.

Heffner: Lippmann in it quotes John Milton, “who ever knew truth put to the worst in a free and open encounter.” But we don’t seem to have free and open encounters.

Friendly: That’s because the investors own television. Television, three are, there are very few, there are no television networks run by broadcasters, run by journalist, run by William S. Paleys, or the Frank Stantons or the Ed Murrows of another age. They’re run by investors. Investment bankers. They don’t know anything about television.

Heffner: Yes. But you know, I remember a couple of years ago, I think it was David Ogilvy who was on this program and we talked for a half-hour, and I began to get mail the following week. People who had watched, and one lady wrote saying “it was so nice to see you two old elderly gentlemen discussing the issues of the world.” And I wonder whether somebody isn’t going to write me and say, “hey, you two old fogies were talking about what might have been or what was back in the ‘30s, but forget it, that’s not 21st century…”

Friendly: I am an old fogy.


Heffner: The two of us are.

Friendly: I talk about what could be. I ask the question John Kennedy… I think Bobby… “some people say ‘why?’ and I say, ‘why not?” I am a child of the radio and television age. I believed at the beginning that this was going to be the saving radiance in the sky. I believe it now and I detest those who with their money have put themselves between an open mind, an open channel, and the educated American. I think that is — what we’ve done to television is one of the worst sins in American history. You can tell me there’s a lot of good stuff on television, and the nightly news is pretty good, but it’s only 22 minutes, and it should be an hour. Some of the football is pretty good except the commercials are over and over and it’s deforming a lot of universities right now. Commercial football, commercial basketball, television was a great and noble dream. Murrow said it and I repeat it and on our last program I’m going to say it again now. Something I think about every night before I go to sleep. This instrument, television, Ed said, can illuminate, can entertain, can inform, yes, it can even inspire. But it only can do that to the end that men and women are determined to use it for that purpose, otherwise it’s just wires and lights and a box. Walk to Times Square, which has been sold out to junk, to dross, to glitter and you’ll see what we are doing to television. Television has become a Midway, a Coney Island, something that almost everybody in it is ashamed of, but it makes money. Not good enough for me.

Heffner: What you say, Fred, leads me to want to take advantage of your attitude and ask you about a pet peeve of mine, what does that lead you to think about television in the courtroom? The one, the perhaps the only institution in American life that hadn’t until the last year or so.

Friendly: Some states have it. It’s not universal yet. I have mixed feelings about that, I’ve got to tell you. I will always in essence be for cameras in the courtroom particularly in the Supreme Court where there’s nobody on trial.

Heffner: That isn’t what I mean, I mean trial…

Friendly: What do you mean “trial?”

Heffner: I mean criminal trials where the consent of the participants is not required.

Friendly: My worry is that they will chop it up into 30 second sound bytes and that somebody on trial for his life will see a 30 second sound byte of some identified person claiming he did it or he didn’t do it. I would exact from the broadcaster a promise that they would give it enough airtime to make it work. And they don’t. And they won’t.

Heffner: When you say you would exact from broadcaster, how do you “exact” from the broadcaster anything when he uses as his shield, quite appropriately in the history of this nation, the First Amendment?

Friendly: Well, all the First Amendment says is “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech and of the press,” it doesn’t say what the courts can do. The courts already say “we’re going to give you a one year trial, and see how it works out, or a two year trial.” And, I think as these trials go on, if they don’t measure up to the opportunity then they’ll lose that. Reminds me of a story in Denver. There was a child molestation case, cameras were in the courtroom. the Judge said, “the names of the children who were molested is on the wall, I expect you not to broadcast that.” The station there photographed the names, and through a series of mistakes it got on the air, the names of the juveniles who had been molested. The judge was furious and he is holding the station in contempt, which means he could impose an enormous fine. Hope he does – hope he teaches them a lesson. But, if people who are going to do that, and I don’t know that they won’t, then they will lose the mandate to be in the courtroom. Of course we ought to be in the courtroom, but we can’t expect to do it in 30-second sound bytes, as we do everything else. You’ve got, if you’re going to be in the courtroom, you’re going to be doing trial, there was a trial in Miami, in the early days of cameras in the courtroom where they were on every night on the public station for 4 or 5 hours. When they did the trial in New Bedford, remember there was a rape…


Heffner: Yes.

Friendly: …in a bar up there in New Bedford. Maybe because they were on trial, the reporters, the television, they did a very good job.

Heffner: Except that there again, Fred, the woman’s name was broadcast, and once it was broadcast, inadvertently, but it was broadcast.

Friendly: I know – the woman’s – rape victim…

Heffner: Yes, the rape victim was broadcast, the name was.

Friendly: There’s an interesting phenomenon going on. I’m sure you’ve read about it, in Des Moines…

Heffner: Yes.

Friendly: Actually, Grinell, Iowa. There was a woman who was raped by a man named Smith and this woman thought it over and said. “I want to go public. The only way, “with a lot of encouragement from the Des Moines Register. “The only way in which the crime against me will understood by people is if I tell the details.” and she told the details in five installments in the Des Moines newspaper about how somebody jumped into her car, forced her to submit to him, every detail is in there, including the details of the recovery of her getting back her sanity, and her life with her husband and how gentle and caring he became. It’s a very moving thing, I’m sure somebody will write a book about it. I’m not absolutely sure that rape should be the one crime where the victim’s name is not used. I don’t think we ought to do it if the woman doesn’t want it to be used, the woman, or, I guess the man, but I think if a man or woman says, “I want to tell my story, I want the world to know what this man did to me”, that’s a healthy thing. And although there are a lot of complications in it, I don’t want to say that every rape victim should do it, I think that the press does many worse things than reveal the names of victims.

Heffner: Fred, you said “somebody will write a book about this” incident…

Friendly: A good book, I hope.

Heffner: But somebody will also do a television program, and when they do it, they’ll create a docu-drama.

Friendly: I hate docu-dramas. If I had one thing that I could purge from television, if I were going to die in 10 seconds and you said to me, “what do you want to get rid of?” I’d said “the docu-drama.” What a docu-drama is, it’s not a documentary, it’s a drama made up, the lines are written by people long after the event, they don’t know any more than Ms. Malcolm knows about the precise language was at that time. There was a docu-drama about Edward R. Murrow in which Edward Hermann played me. I wrote him a note and said, “it was an interesting program, you know how I feel about docu-dramas, but Mr. Hermann, you’re much better looking than I am and you played Fred Friendly as if he were on Valium. Very restrained performance from me.” I don’t like docu-dramas because it makes the viewer, it confuses the viewer. He’s not going to know what is news, what the station does, he doesn’t, he won’t be able to tell reality from make-believe. And once people don’t know what they’re watching, they won’t believe anything.

Heffner: But doesn’t the apology, the excuse, the statement in favor of it run, you quote Lippmann, you want us to be connected with reality, reality in terms of understanding the way the world goes. Well, first you have to get people there to watch, and then you do your best and presumably…

Friendly: But not your worst.

Heffner: Is it always the worst; Fred?

Friendly: I think if you give up standards, for whatever reason, you’re in trouble.

Heffner: No, no, wait a minute. Standards…

Friendly: Yes. That means that what — the question I used to say to every journalist at CBS when we had to do a story, I would raise my eyebrow and I’d say, “how do we know that?” It’s the most magic expression there is in journalism. “Tell me how you know that is true? And if you can’t satisfy me, we’re going to put it on the air.” And then a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of gossip about Donald Trump, about him. There’s a story around now, been printed, about a captain of industry… I will not mention his name, who allegedly was gay. I don’t know how anybody knows that. The man is now dead. Just died. I don’t know why anybody would want to report that. Now the gays will say, “we want it reported because if people know how pervasive what we are is, people will think better of us.” Maybe. But not to involuntarily impose the status of being gay on somebody who has for whatever reason, stayed in the closet all his life. Look, I was a dyslexic child. Some people will say I still am learning disabled. I never talked about it. I don’t think Ed ever knew I was. Ed Murrow ever knew I was dyslexic. 25:00

Friendly: In recent years I’ve sort or come out of my closet… made a speech in Washington about it, but that’s my terms, my dyslexia is my private business. My gayness, if I were gay, would be for me to determine, not for somebody, outside, and I think the most important thing we have to be as journalists is fair. If we’re not fair we shouldn’t exist, and when somebody writes words and puts them in my mouth that I never said, whether it’s a docu-drama, or on a television program or they impose on me being public about my dyslexia or anything else, I don’t think that’s fair.

Heffner: Fred, we’ve got 30 seconds left. You talked about fairness. Do you approve of the Fairness Doctrine? Would you have it re-imposed?

Friendly: A lot of my colleagues don’t like the Fairness Doctrine. They say it, it gets in the way of “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech in the press.” All the Fairness Doctrine says is 1) television/radio will do programs of public importance; 2) they will do some fairly. What’s wrong with that? Nobody’s ever been badly punished for that. I think it’s just something broadcasters like to fence with through their lawyers. I don’t go to sleep at night worrying about losing or having the Fairness Doctrine. I think that’s a matter for the lawyers to debate. What I care about are the principles of the Fairness Doctrine, I didn’t know you needed a law to make it work… you needed a conscience. Last line…David Friendly, now 30 years old, 32, when he was six years old was at a luncheon party at my house and I said in the presence of an Industrialist, “well, it’s a matter of conscience.” And the businessman said to David Friendly, age 4 or 5. “David, do you know what a conscience is?” And David said “yes, a conscience is a little voice inside my head that says ‘go brush your teeth.’”

Heffner: (Laughter) The little voice right now…

Friendly: …still resonates.

Heffner: The end of the program. Fred Friendly, thank you for joining me today. 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, 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.