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Hall of Fame
November 20, 2017

Fred Friendly: Hall of Fame Tribute

Rip Rense

Fred W. Friendly is a minor history of television news in and of himself. The idea of putting this man in a television Hall of Fame is rather like inducting Babe Ruth into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's the highest possible honor, but perhaps no honor seems quite high enough.

Friendly's place in broadcast history will ultimately be assured by three things: for having fought, with his great friend and colleague Edward R. Murrow, for integrity in television news programming; for having helped found the Public Broadcasting System, and for the 600-plus seminars on media, law, society, and the Constitution he and wife Ruth have conducted since 1972. His professional life — which includes the Edward R. Murrow professorship of journalism at Columbia University since 1966 — has been dedicated to the responsible presentation of information, and elucidating the democracy that allows for it.

Or, to put it less grandly, it is fair to say that Friendly stands for just about everything that today's so-called tabloid TV does not.

"The problem with broadcast journalism is that it makes so much money doing its worst," said Friendly, speaking from his lakeside summer home near Tanglewood, Massachusetts. "It can't afford to do its best. I really believe that. It’s not very good anymore. I can't imagine how Murrow and I ever earned a living working in television."

It was typical Friendly candor — blunt, accurate, and goading the consciences of today's ratings-driven TV news producers. At 79, the one-time head of CBS News is as adamant as ever about the pursuit of responsible broadcast journalism. As he is so fond of saying, “There's a great Murrow quote which I like — that television can be important, can illuminate and can even educate and inspire if men and women are willing to have it so. Otherwise, it's just lights and wires in a box.”

The New York-raised Friendly first encountered the lights and wires in his home town of Providence, Rhode Island.

"My name, when I came into this world, was Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer," he said. “I got a job in Providence at a radio station, WEAN, when I was 21 years old, and the manager said as he hired me, ‘What did you say your name was?’ I told him, and he said, ‘Nobody on this station is named Wachenheimer. From now on, you're Fred W. Friendly!’”

He had gotten the job through persistence, and finally, by pitching a program of his own design:

"It was called Footprints on the Sands of Time," a touch of broadcaster's inflection still in his deep voice. “That's from a Longfellow poem which says, ‘lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime/and departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.’ It was a five-minute biography of a great man or a great woman, whether it be Charles Steinmetz, or George Gershwin, or Toscanini, or Lou Gehrig (a childhood idol he watched swat home runs on the Columbia University campus). And I did that for five years. I got paid $20 a week.”

While a double sawbuck-a-week wasn't bad in 1937, Friendly soon found that the thousand-plus Footprints episodes were more lucrative than he'd ever imagined.

“I got drafted. It was the beginning of World War II. Before I went overseas, a fellow from Decca Records asked if I still did those programs, Footprints on the Sands of Time, and I said I did, and he said, ‘How'd you like to sell 'em to us?’ And I said, ‘How much are you going to pay me?’ And he said, ‘How about $25?’ And I asked, ‘For all of them?’ I had a thousand. And he said, ‘No, $25 each.’ Well, that was 1941 or so, so here I was going overseas thinking I'm going to get killed, suddenly with $25,000!”

Friendly's Army career was a similar tale of rather humble beginnings building to spectacular culmination. His communication skills were tapped only in, er, rudimentary fashion at first. Ruth Friendly joined the conversation, and picked up the story: “His first day in the Army was at Fort Devins in Massachusetts, and he was put on KP. There were 1,500 people moving through the line an hour, getting liver and onions. Fred's job was to put the onions on top of the liver. And everyone said ‘no cabbage,’ and Fred had to explain, ‘it's not cabbage, it's onions’ 1,500 times an hour! 

“That night Fred told someone that he had done radio, and he quickly ended up in the signal corps teaching people who worked for the telephone company how to climb telephone poles. And they discovered that he was a great teacher. Then he began lecturing. Today, I still have people come up to me and say there would be 10,000 GIs on a hill, and there was Fred Friendly, standing there, lecturing them.”

It's hardly an exaggeration. In what foreshadowed a later career in academia, Friendly did indeed address thousands of GIs at a time. The subject of the lectures? A bit more crucial than how to climb a pole — something along the lines of "why we are fighting this war." Friendly, as per the philosophy of Generals Stillwell and Eisenhower, had been called upon to explain to the troops exactly why they were risking their lives.

"I must have lectured to half a million men," Friendly recalled. "Stillwell's idea and Eisenhower's idea was that the American soldier had to know what the war was all about. It's still a good idea."

Perhaps his most satisfying, but decidedly poignant lecture, came toward the war's end. “I was sent up to a prison camp — a Japanese camp — and they had not seen newspapers or anything for five years. I went there to report about them for radio, but it turned out differently. We had to wait three weeks before we could leave, so I ended up every night telling them what had happened in the five years of World War II. I would tell them who won the World Series — it was the St. Louis Browns — and that the Russians were our allies now. They couldn't believe that.”

Although financially set, Friendly returned to the States less than triumphantly. An established broadcaster and heralded military communicator, he nonetheless wound up pounding the pavement in New York City for a job — for two full years. It was the most exasperating time of his career. “Every time that I would go to CBS or NBC to ask about a job, they said, ‘We'll let you know’ … and I would wait and never get a job. To make the time go by, I'd go to see movies. But I was always embarrassed about coming out of a movie theater in the daytime. I thought there was something sacrilegious about that. I would hold my hat over my head, coming out of there knowing that I was doing nothing.

It's a bit hard to imagine today — a human being actually ashamed to attend a movie in the daylight just because he or she was not working. The afternoon moviegoing was finally stopped in 1948 by a job hosting an NBC radio quiz show called Who Said That? — somewhat more satisfying than saying "It's not cabbage, it's onions," but not what the young Army veteran had in mind. Fate soon intervened in the form of agent J.G. Gude, who introduced Fred to his client, Edward R. Murrow, in order that they might work together on an album of speeches by Roosevelt, Churchill, MacArthur, et al. It became one of the top-selling non-musical recordings of the year, and the Murrow-Friendly partnership began.

The album project led to the successful radio news program Hear It Now, which led to, beginning in 1951, the innovative CBS television program See It Now. In time, and most spectacularly with "help" from the Commie-ferreting senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, See It Now would earn a critical place in television history. Murrow's report of McCarthy's activities on March 8, 1954, coproduced by Friendly, marked one of the most dramatic times a TV newsman deliberately editorialized on the air. An excerpt from Friendly's 1967 book, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, explains:

Ed and I knew that we had no scoop, no exclusively new material on the senator. The only hope for such a program was that by capturing the pure essence of McCarthyism and comparing his accusations with the record, we might create an atmosphere that would justify a strong editorial by Ed at the conclusion of the broadcast … Ed's conclusion, the product of six or seven rewrites, was tight and forceful. There was no doubt in his mind that this ending crossed the line into editorial comment, but we both knew that line had to be crossed again. To do a half-hour on so volatile and important matter and then end with a balanced “on the other hand” summation would be to dilute and destroy the effect of the broadcast.

The impact of the broadcast was immense, and seriously damaged McCarthy, although Friendly wrote that "to say the … broadcast … was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy's power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy, Republican, Wisconsin, singlehandedly gave birth to McCarthyism. …”

The partnership with Murrow ended in 1958, when, as Friendly wrote, the courageous reporter — and thorn-in-the-side to some of his bosses — walked "into an eased exile from a profession he had helped to invent." In 1964, Friendly ascended to the presidency of CBS News. On Feb.15, 1966, he resigned. The problem? Just a little disagreement over programming. Seems Friendly wanted to air live testimony on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Seems CBS wanted to run reruns of Lucy and The Real McCoys. More profitable.

“I said, ‘we're going to put the Vietnam hearings on television.’ I was president, it was my job to say that," Friendly said. “We were going to do the Vietnam hearings — Senator Fullbright and others. After four days of airing them, Mr. William Paley and Frank Stanton, CBS chairman of board and president, said, ‘You can't put the hearings on anymore, it's costing too much money.’ I said, ‘I have to put them on the air — it's my job to make that decision.’ And they said, ‘Well, you just work here. You're not supposed to make decisions like that.’ And I said, ‘Well, they're going to be on the air tomorrow.’ And with that, I ran into a stone wall. And I had to leave CBS.”

It was the end of part-one of Friendly's career. Part two began in 1966 with his effort to help establish what is now called the Public Broadcasting System. The rich array of PBS programming largely taken for granted today did not have an easy birth. Friendly, appointed by Ford Foundation President McGeorge Bundy to serve as his advisor on telecommunications, worked doggedly with Bundy and the Carnegie Communication to lobby for essential elements of a public broadcasting network: long-term funding, and use of a satellite to unite the various "educational television" channels across the nation. Programs such as Great Performances, American Playhouse, and the MacNeil-Lehrer Report debuted and survived, in large part, because of Friendly.

As National Education Television, as it was first known, tenuously took root in the late '60s and early '70s, Friendly remained a staunch guide — continuing to secure funding and even to protect NET from political factions.

"A lot of people call Fred the 'father of public television,' said Ruth. "That's a little extreme, but he was steadfast throughout; he just never let it go. And he had in McGeorge Bundy someone who would say, ‘Do it.’"

Part three of Friendly's career can be marked by his accepting a professorship of journalism at Columbia University, where he started a summer program for minority students, and, in 1971, effecting the first of the seminars on Media and the Law, which later gave way to the more free-ranging and better-known Media and Society seminars.

"Most people left the networks, and that was that," said Ruth. “Fred just started again, and created a whole new thing. He’s done about 600 of those [seminars], and about 85 of them were on television — mostly PBS, but some on CBS. It's a funny story how it all started. I remember, around 1980, when Robin Fleming, head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, called Fred one night. We were sitting in the kitchen. He said, ‘Are you still doing those [Media and Law] seminars?  Do you think you could teach the American people the Constitution?’ 

“And Fred said, without a blink, ‘Well, if you gave me about $2.5 million, if I could get Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to be on it. And if we can do it in Independence Hall.’ I said, ‘You'll never get Independence Hall.’ Well, they funded it — Annenberg and the CPB — and Fred convinced Potter Stewart, and he convinced Hobie Kaywood, who was head of Independence Hall.”

The seminars have been hailed as perhaps the most widely instructive examinations of democracy in U.S. history. As Media and Society panelist and Columbia journalism professor Anthony Lewis has said, "I don't think anyone has done more to bring the Constitution to life in the minds of Americans than Fred Friendly."

Today Friendly takes things a bit easier. He still teaches occasionally at Columbia, but spends much of his time at home reading, watching television (mostly PBS and CNN) with a critical eye, listening to the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, following the Knicks, and taking pride in his six children (three from his prior marriage, three from his wife's prior marriage). Ruth and Fred happily tick off their kids' titles: lawyer John Mark; composer Michael "Entertainment Tonight Theme" Mark; Andy Friendly, who does programming for CNBC; Lisa Friendly, a technical writer for Sun Micro Systems; David Friendly, president of his own movie firm, David Productions; Richard Mark, deputy commissioner of investigations for the City of New York.

How does Fred W. Friendly look back on his career? What kind of footprints has he left on the sands of time?

"Well, I guess I have to say the best part of my life," he said, after a moment, “is my life with Murrow. And I guess I still have to say, in spite of my unhappy years at CBS, my best years were my years at CBS. Although what I did on public television in the last 10 to 15 years has been very fulfilling to me. And I think Ed would have approved.”

Perhaps the ultimate compliment.

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Fred Friendly's induction in 1994.

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