January 29, 2017

1953. "The Commentators" by Marya Mannes

The Network Commentators
Edward R. Murrow on the set of See It Now in the 1950s (source)
Article by Marya Mannes in The Reporter, August 4, 1953, pp. 31-32:
CHANNELS: The Commentators

By Marya Mannes

A network is known by the commentators it keeps. To anyone who ranges repeatedly through the spectrum of radio news, the color of each broadcasting system emerges clearly. The key of CBS is reason and reliability, with not one sour note of hysteria, innuendo, or rabble rousing in its stable of commentators. ABC is a crazy quilt, surrounding the stark clarity of Martin Agronsky and Elmer Davis with the purple patches of George Sokolsky, Walter Winchell, Edwin C. Hill, Paul Harvey, and Henry J. Taylor. Though H. R. Baukhage, mellow and wise, continues to talk sense daily from Washington over Mutual, that network's heart is Fulton Lewis, Jr., with Gabriel Heatter as its main artery. NBC is a tapestry of neutral tones bordered conspicuously on the one edge by H. V. Kaltenborn and on the other by Clifton Utley. Despite the unquestioned ability of most of its twenty-odd newscasters, NBC news is strangely lacking in punch, high or low.

This is the broad pattern, studded conspicuously—but not liberally—with the exceptions mentioned and with others unmentioned who manage to preserve their integrity as newscasters on networks which hold that quality in light esteem. There are, after all, some honest reporters on the Chicago Tribune and some tortured writers on the New York Daily News. And if one were to compare radio news coverage with press news coverage, radio could boast of the more equable balance. It is no longer possible in two-thirds of the nation to read both sides of the question; but it is still possible throughout the nation to hear both sides. From Chicago you can listen to Corning J. Hurley, Paul Harvey, and Henry J. Taylor; but you can also hear Clifton Utley speaking brilliantly and fearlessly on NBC. In Baltimore you can hear Gerald Johnson on WAAM: a man of rare insight and equal bravery, who has only recently been heard on a nationwide basis on TV Sunday nights. There are doubtless others, in other places, telling the people of their region the truth as they find it, daily and nightly.

Homage to CBS

To one broadcasting system in particular, however, must go the greater credit in maintaining the inestimable privilege of hearing the whole truth. It is doubtful whether any news organization anywhere (the press included) has a better staff of reporters than CBS. In New York, Edward R. Murrow, Charles Collingwood, Winston Burdett, and Edward P. Morgan cover and interpret the news with high literacy and insight; Robert Trout, Don Hollenbeck, Larry LeSueur, Allan Jackson, and Douglas Edwards are unfailingly restrained and reliable; and Lowell Thomas, beloved of his audience, is CBS's only excursion into heartiness, "color," and cliche. In Washington, Eric Sevareid is CBS's most distinguished ornament, a commentator of rare wisdom, courage, and compassion, who writes better than he speaks; and he is ably supported by Bill Costello, Bill Downs, Griffing Bancroft, and four other mature, shrewd men. The European staff has Howard K. Smith in London, David Schoenbrun in Paris, Richard C. Hottelet in Bonn, Ned Calmer in Rome, and Alexander Kendrick in Vienna. All these—together with Herman, Pierpont, and Cioffi in the East—make the 8 A.M. EDT news roundup by far the most complete world report on any network, and who, in a sense, constitute a vital branch of the Foreign Service of the United States.

As in any organization, the quality of its personnel is a reflection of its head, and to William S. Paley must go much of the credit for assembling a staff of such brilliance. There is another reason too: When CBS hires a man, it is because it trusts him. Once hired, he has virtually complete freedom in his field. No directives are laid down, no guidance exerted. A CBS newscaster is expected to abide by his own conscience and code. If he should violate this conscience, which is strict adherence to fact and to the truth as he is able to see it; if he should use the air as an extension of his own personal prejudices or ambition, or as a spokesman for partisan interests, he would be cut off in five minutes.

The same can scarcely be said of either ABC or Mutual. ABC, in fact, virtually prides itself on having no news policy. It explains the presence of two such opposing moral attitudes as that of Elmer Davis and Walter Winchell by saying that it offers the public all sides of the question in the true spirit of democracy. You have only to listen to most of these commentators for one minute to know which "side" they are on. The voices of Sokolsky, Heatter, Hill tremble, intone, quiver; they are thick with the rhetoric of persuasion. Winchell soars into hysteria. They are a far, shrill cry from the calm twang of Davis, the incisive balance of Agronsky, the restraint and perspective of Erwin Canham—men who address the mind. The others aim at viscera. And the viscera pay off. The absurd, portentous Heatter reaches seven to ten million people weekly. Winchell, in his once-weekly tirade, reaches at least five million.

Another of these visceral commentators, Fulton Lewis, Jr., is distinguished by the fact that he is the only rouser to eschew the familiar techniques, and because of this he is probably the most influential of his kind. He has a calm, easy, pleasant voice that seems at first or even second hearing to be the voice of reason. If you do not know him, you have to stay with him a few minutes before you see what he's up to. It is significant that whereas it would be difficult if not impossible to describe the "line" of commentators like Murrow or Sevareid or Utley, men like Lewis and Sokolsky adhere to a set line of thinking and feeling which can be tabulated with ease.

To Inform or to Inflame?

Pared to the bone, this line is a deliberate destruction of faith in the Administration, in government, in our Allies and the United Nations. At best it is disagreement with the aims of President Eisenhower and the free world; at worst, it is a form of disloyalty practiced openly and with impunity by the very men most active in crying "Treason!" A random day's catch, for instance, can include Sokolsky telling his listeners that "World War II was all evil"—it accomplished nothing—it was an utter waste of blood and resources—what we have now in Russia is worse by far than the Nazi or Fascist threat. Sokolsky has never taken the trouble to speculate as to where we would be now if Germany had conquered all Europe.

Lewis on the same day (as on every day) finds the Korean War a total criminal waste—"Truman's war." Like his colleagues in thought, he tells his audience over and over that the blood of its sons was spilled for nothing. Lewis does not speculate on where we would be had the Communists overrun Korea and thus posed a major threat to Japan. Britain is constantly double-crossing us, letting us down. He takes great pains to find any item, however unsubstantiated, to "document" this. He does not speculate on where we would be without Britain as an ally. He gives the same treatment to the United Nations (a farce), foreign aid (a colossal giveaway), the State Department (still tainted by Communists and intellectuals). Among commentators like Lewis, the only areas of approval are the American Legion, the Chinese Nationalists, investigating committees, and motherhood.

Winchell differs only in the inclusion of more personal gossip and of little jokes, such as referring to James Wechsler as the editor of the "New York Compost—look it up." A combination Messiah, Revere, and Cassandra, he knows all and is impelled by duty to pass it on to Mr. and Mrs. America. Like Senator McCarthy's, his detractors are Commies and fellow travelers, and all criticism and disagreement is an organized smear by subversives. It is hard to imagine what reactions these visceral commentators can arouse in their audience but distrust, anger, and cynicism. They do not inform; they inflame.

This does not mean that the "reasonable" commentators are Pollyannas or that they approve unreservedly of the Administration, our Allies, or our foreign policy. But if any criticism is implied, it emanates from established facts and careful consideration; basically they feel a responsibility toward their audience which would forbid snap conclusions, distortion, or—the favorite device of the rousers—the lifting of words out of context and the deliberate suppression of facts that would weaken their arguments. They present the case as it stands and leave the conclusion to their listeners. They have the integrity, moreover, not to be intimidated by the phobias of the moment, not to cater to the "popular" emotions.

So long as men like these are on the air, reason—which has no Hooper rating—has a chance of prevailing.