November 4, 2014

1961. The Great Debate Over Editorialization at CBS News

CBS News' Controversial Policy on Editorializing
Edward R. Murrow in the studio in the early 1950s (source)
CBS' expansion during the 1950s and 1960s brought about a new regime with new policies. Management sought to eliminate "editorialization," or what they believed to be such, among reporters. Bill Downs deemed it "the ever-bleeding anathema" of William S. Paley.

There was, of course, stubborn resistance to the shift, especially in light of the increasing role of sponsors. Ed Murrow resigned in 1961 after years of dramatic clashes with Paley. His growing disillusionment with the industry had finally boiled over. In a 1963 profile of Murrow, Arthur Herzog wrote:
"Murrow was still feuding with broadcasting standards—he once suggested that every sponsor donate one hour out of every 52 to public affairs shows, an idea that was received in stony silence. He had the temerity to criticize the quality of television but whether, without the USIA job, he would have quit, is a matter of debate. Murrow, with his usual tact, says no, but others say yes. 'He'd reached the point of no return,' [John] Gude said. 'He was continually upset by the network's notion that newscasters shouldn't be interpreters.' Others feel that the real source of friction between Murrow and the network brass was that Murrow had gotten too big for corporate vanity to tolerate. 'Anyway,' says Swing, 'Murrow had reached his point of greatest expansion in television. There wasn't enough left for him to do that he hadn't done. If he had stayed where he was he couldn't have kept growing.'"
Downs resigned a year later during a major shakeup. His misgivings were similar to Murrow's, and his legendary temper held him back, along with a sometimes stubborn devotion to matters of journalistic principle.

Even so, it was beyond his control. Management felt he did not look the part on camera—a face for radio—and worse yet, they believed his voice was too gruff, too unpolished in a field now defined by its eloquent TV news anchors. At the same time, other hardened newsmen like Downs' friend Walter Cronkite (who had worked as a war correspondent for United Press during the war) thrived on television—a turn of events that drew Murrow's ire.

The concerns about Downs' voice had held him back since he joined CBS in 1942, and television only compounded them. Doing the news on camera was a starkly different operation from the front line radio reports he'd strung together on short notice for live broadcast during World War II.

He struggled to adjust. In his final years at CBS, he felt taken for granted by management as his young, less experienced colleagues got priority assignments. He was thrown the occasional short-lived hosting gig, but it became clear to him that his career was well into its decline. In Cloud and Olsen's book on the Murrow Boys, Downs is quoted angrily recounting his conflict with CBS:
"At least I can shout to the world this—I'm my own midget. The mistakes will be my mistakes—the failures will have my fiat—the successes, if any or none, will not be subject to people who worry about thick lenses, long noses, or advertising agency or affiliate bias."
His reasons for leaving were not publicized. In a 1967 letter to Fred Friendly he elaborated a bit, writing, "I quit Columbia after 19 years and 7 months in disgust at the midget-minded, rabbit-heartedness of the Salant-Clark regime (which never did decide the difference between analysis and commentary and have yet to recognize good reporting)," and that the major news organizations were "guilty of the same kind of abdication of industry responsibility for the sake of the holy, gawdalmighty, much-bedamned 50¢-dollar. But to document the sins of the competition would mean the opus would probably never be finished."

The insightful text below is from an internal memo sent to journalists by the then-CBS vice president Blair Clark. It defines editorialization as management saw it at the time:
June 22, 1961


The CBS News editorial policy has been stated and restated. We have all read it, lived with it, wrestled with it. This is the first time since I took this job that I have addressed myself directly to it, and I will be brief.

What the policy amounts to is a determination to present the news fairly, and with balance between opposing views. I have used the word "determination." This implies that it is extraordinarily difficult to hew to this line, and it is. But this must be our firm intention. If we abandon it, we lose a large part of our credibility, and thus our power to communicate. There is the further risk of being legally required to "balance" our reports. (I have looked into the risk and it is a real one.) It is a unique feature of broadcast journalism, arising from the inherent limit on outlets.

Any policy is a living thing, not a monument. It requires constant re-examination and interpretation. Furthermore, it must be applied and enforced by fallible mortals, and there will be mistakes of judgment. The judgments are bound to be hairline between what is and what is not editorial, and there will often be differences. But it is my responsibility to decide what is within our policy, and to enforce that decision. This I will do.

There follows an excerpt from the 1954 statement on CBS policy by Mr. Paley. The second and third paragraphs, underlined, are by Howard K. Smith who wrote them after many discussions of the policy this winter and spring.

"In news analysis there is to be elucidation, illumination and explanation of the facts and situations, but without bias or editorialization.

"Some of the features that distinguish editorial from analysis are these: An editorial recommends a course of action, or makes a normative judgment that one thing is more desirable than another, or states a personal preference. An analysis should interpret the meaning of events and seek to answer such basic questions as what has caused the event and what its consequences may be.

"It is recognized that in some cases a well-knit analysis will point towards a conclusion and may resemble an editorial. In cases where this occurs it becomes paramount that special attention be paid by the analyst to his choice of language in order to make clear no editorialization is meant.

"In both news and news analysis, the goal of the news broadcaster or the news analyst must be objectivity. I think we all recognize that human nature is such that no newsman is entirely free from his own personal prejudices, experience, and opinions and that, accordingly, 100 per cent objectivity may not always be possible. But the important factor is that the news broadcaster and the news analyst must have the will and the intent to be objective. That will and that intent, genuinely held and deeply instilled in him, is the best assurance of objectivity. His aim should be to make it possible for the listeners to know the facts and to weigh them carefully so that he can better make up his own mind."

As I have said, I do not expect a restatement of the CBS News policy to solve all our policy problems automatically. Vigorous reporting and examination of the issues will always tend to push against the limits of the policy, and this I expect and encourage. The last thing I want is bland consensus reporting. 
But any news organization must have a policy framework within which it operates. Ours is one that the journalists of the caliber of Ed Murrow, Elmer Davis, Eric Sevareid and Howard K. Smith have been able to live with for years.

I am proceeding with a re-examination of the policy and its application in today's climate.

Meanwhile, I expect everyone in CBS News to abide by the spirit of a policy which has permitted CBS News to be the best in broadcast journalism.

- B.C.