Chapter One: In the Beginning
Stanton and Paley Invent CBS News
It is a marvelous and frightening instrument, broadcasting, as part of this marvelous and frightening century. But ordinary men must use it as ordinary men have made this century what it is. Bad men can use it to their advantage, but in free societies, only for a time -- and a shorter time, I think, than in previous eras.
The camera's unblinking eye sees through character faster than the printed word.
Eric Sevareid on his retirement, November 28, 1977
Face the Nation was Frank Stanton's idea. Stanton always knew what he wanted -- and what CBS seemed to need. CBS News had more or less invented radio news during World War II, and Edward R. Murrow's See It Now programs had set the standard for television documentaries. What CBS did not have in 1954, and what Stanton felt it needed, was something to compete with NBC's Meet the Press, a live interview program that had the habit of generating the news that wound up as headlines in newspapers on Monday morning.
Stanton had been known as the boy wonder of broadcasting. He was an obscure, 27-year-old psychology professor at Ohio State University when CBS founder William S. Paley discovered him in 1935. Ten years later, when Paley named him president of the network, some outside the industry would occasionally mistake him for an intern because of his youthful good looks. But that was a mistake only outsiders made. Insiders knew him as Paley's right-hand man, though a polar opposite of Paley.
Stanton was a workaholic before the term was coined. Unlike the flamboyant Paley, who traveled with the jet set of his day and spent much of the year at his homes around the world, Stanton usually worked seven days a week; he socialized with few people and never with Paley. He did not particularly like the CBS chairman. But together, it was Paley, the charming showman and salesman, and Stanton, the cold, cerebral loner, who built the broadcasting giant that became known as the Tiffany network.
It was Paley's network, but those on the inside knew it was Stanton -- as much as Paley -- who had made it what it was. Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes creator, told me about one night when he was being given one of the many awards that he received throughout his illustrious career.
"I looked down from the head table and saw Stanton in the audience," Hewitt said. "And I told the guy sitting next to me, 'Frank Stanton should be getting this award -- he should get every broadcasting award because he is the patron saint of this industry. He had more to do with making it what it became than any other individual."
To be sure, he was the patron saint of Face the Nation. CBS had never been able to put together the kind of forum where key newsmakers could be interviewed on the news of the week. A year earlier, Murrow had begun Person to Person, a program in which he sat in a New York studio, chain-smoking cigarettes, and "interviewed" celebrities in their homes that could be seen before him on a huge screen.
Person to Person was a fairly remarkable technical achievement for its day. Bulky television cameras could not be easily moved, and banks of lights had to be installed in various rooms of the celebrity homes. The broadcasts had to be carefully rehearsed as the celebrities walked on cue from room to room. Along the way, they introduced Murrow to various family members and pointed out interesting pieces of furniture.
During one program, the duke and duchess of Windsor played jacks on a coffee table. They tossed the ball, and Murrow chuckled, perhaps because he knew that anything beyond jacks would have been an intellectual challenge for the couple or, more likely, because he owned a piece of the show. It was a far cry from Murrow's serious journalism, but as a reward to some of his loyal longtime staffers, he arranged for them to share in the profits, a deal that allowed them to make far more than their CBS News salaries.
Person to Person had become a hit with viewers, but it was not what Stanton had in mind when he scheduled a lunch with Paley in early 1954 to talk about a new program to compete with Meet the Press on Sunday afternoons.
That it was Stanton who would see the need for that kind of program was not surprising. By 1954, Stanton had become the leading advocate for news among the CBS hierarchy. It was Paley who had built the entertainment side of CBS, Stanton who had kept the books and, more important, kept the company out of trouble with the government in what was then a carefully regulated industry. It was Stanton who had seen to it that CBS complied with government- mandated obligations to perform certain public service in return for use of the public airwaves.
When Stanton came to Paley's attention in 1935, few, including Paley, would have guessed that Stanton would be given so much responsibility. What had caught Paley's attention was young Professor Stanton's Ph.D. dissertation. It carried a daunting title, "A Critique of Present Methods and a New Plan for Studying Radio Listening Behavior." The title might have discouraged the average reader, but Paley was no ordinary reader. He understood exactly what Stanton was exploring: why people react positively to some radio programs and negatively to others. Paley had already built a successful radio network with seed money from his father's cigar factory. If Stanton could show him how to get more people to listen, that was news he could use.
Years before he hired Stanton, Paley had concluded that radio was the next great advertising medium. He had watched cigar sales at his father's factory increase from 400,000 a day to more than a million a day when his father advertised on an early radio show. If you could do that with cigars, Paley decided, then it could be done with other products. Rather than sell cigars, Paley wanted to create a place that sold advertising to the people who made the cigars and other products. Paley had begun with 12 struggling radio stations. By 1935, his network had grown to 97 stations and had introduced America to such talents as Bing Crosby and Kate Smith. His stations carried programs from as far away as the South Pole when the explorer Admiral Byrd had beamed back progress reports on his expedition to Paley's network. By then, Paley's network had more listeners than either the Red or Blue networks, which NBC owned, and it was a robust business, turning a profit that year of $2,810,079, more than either of the NBC outlets.
Paley wanted Stanton to help him understand who was listening to the radio, what they liked and what they didn't and, most important, what kinds of programs would draw more people to listen. And then there was that new medium, television -- radio with pictures. Paley wanted to know what its potential was. Stanton, he believed, could help him determine that.
CBS had begun experimental TV broadcasts in 1931 and by the end of the year was broadcasting seven hours of programming a day.
Nothing if not a salesman, when Paley made up his mind to go after Stanton, he pulled out all the stops. He sent a telegram to the young professor that began, "I don't know of any other organization where your background and experience would count so heavily in your favor or where your talents would find so enthusiastic a reception."
Three days later, Stanton accepted Paley's offer, drove to New York in his Model A Ford and settled in as the number three man in a three-man audience research office. His salary was $55 a week.
Stanton's responsibilities grew quickly. In ten years, he had become CBS president, and by 1954, when he began to think about creating the program that became Face the Nation, he had become the respected voice who spoke for an entire industry.
Within CBS, he had become the executive who supervised the news division, set its standards and looked out for it.
Some five decades later as Face the Nation was approaching its Golden Anniversary, I asked Stanton what caused him to create such a program.
He was 95 years old when we talked, long since retired from the company he had run for 25 years, and at times he had difficulty speaking.
But he was direct and to the point, and he needed no notes to jog his memory. Nor did he mince words.
"We were suffering on that front," he told me. "We needed a broadcast where newsmakers could be questioned in a live setting. NBC had one and we didn't. I thought we had the responsibility to provide one."
Meet the Press, which was broadcast on NBC, was actually owned by Lawrence Spivak, who had created it as a vehicle to promote his magazine The American Mercury. Sunday after Sunday, what public officials said on Meet the Press wound up in the next day's newspapers.
"We had tried several approaches, but we had never reached their level, and I wanted to do something about that," Stanton remembered.
For sure, some of the early efforts on CBS had been less than successful. Walter Cronkite had joined CBS in 1950 and was host for one of the earliest shows, and when Spivak learned that Cronkite planned to interview a U.S. senator, he called in a rage and threatened to sue him for "stealing our format." Cronkite argued that no one had a monopoly on interviewing U.S. senators and went ahead with the broadcast, but he was unnerved by Spivak's call.
"It was the first time anyone ever threatened to sue me personally," Cronkite told me. "I couldn't believe he had a case, but it shook me up to the point that when I signed off the broadcast, I said, 'Thanks for joining us on Meet the Press.' "
Stanton told me that when he met with Paley over lunch to talk about creating a program like Meet the Press, he was surprised to find that Paley shared his enthusiasm for such an interview broadcast. Paley differed only on approach.
"I proposed that we do it in-house, but he wanted to farm it out to an independent producer, as NBC had done in the beginning," Stanton said. "He liked those headlines that Meet the Press generated, but he didn't like those phone calls that he sometimes got from government officials who were upset by something that our news department had done."
(Paley once told Murrow that complaints he received about one of Murrow's broadcasts had given him a stomachache.)
"He thought letting an outside group do the broadcast gave us a safety margin," Stanton said. "If an outside group did something embarrassing, you could get rid of them, but I argued that if we did it ourselves, it would add to the credibility of the news organization we were trying to build, and in the end he agreed with me and was proud of what Face the Nation eventually became."
Such questions seem almost quaint today, but they were hardly unusual in those days when even those who were shaping network television were still groping with what it actually was and how it should be used.
Television plays such a dominant role in American life that even those of us who have been a part of it forget just how young the industry really is. Consider this: As the decade of the 1950s opened, just four years before the first Face the Nation Broadcast there were 3 million American homes with televisions. Ten years later, 45 million homes had at least one television set.
The 1950s were the formative years for television news. Programming practices and patterns that are still in use today -- running similar programs such as soap operas in continuous blocks (a Stanton innovation), political coverage, evening news broadcasts, and the concept of prime time -- were all developed in the 1950s. Well into the 1950s, broadcasters were still pondering basic questions about television's responsibilities as a news service: Was an industry whose stations were licensed by the government really on equal ground with newspapers? Did it have the full rights and privileges accorded by the First Amendment as the newspapers did? Or was it more akin to the movie newsreels, which featured amalgams of carefully scripted speeches and staged events such as the Easter Parade? A monthly film short called Monkeys ARE the Craziest People remains my personal favorite from that era.
Even by the early 1950s, the rules and standards that today's journalists take for granted while conducting interviews were still being worked out. Cronkite remembered that politicians sometimes arrived at his Washington studio demanding to know in advance what questions would be asked.
"Early in his career, Lyndon Johnson actually brought along a list of questions he wanted to be asked when he showed up for one interview," Cronkite said. "When I told him we couldn't do that, he left the set and went into the hall to leave. It was just minutes before we were going on the air, and I thought we were going to have an interview show and no one to interview but I talked him into coming back. He agreed to go on, but we didn't get much but 'yeps' and 'nos' from him that day."
By the middle of the decade, standards had evolved to the point that CBS canceled what would have been a major scoop -- a scheduled interview with Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov -- because the Soviet official demanded to see questions in advance.
With Paley's approval, Face the Nation was launched in the fall of 1954. Ted Koop, the Washington Bureau chief, was the first moderator; six men and one woman, Lesley Stahl, have followed him. Despite numerous attempts to change it over the years, Face the Nation has remained essentially the program that Stanton envisioned -- a forum where key newsmakers are interviewed about the big story of the week.
Keeping that format intact has not always been easy. From the first broadcast, some worried that the program would be too much "inside baseball" -- Washington insiders talking to Washington insiders about topics that would be of little interest to those outside Washington. It is a concern that has continued through the years.
At one point during my tenure, a since departed CBS News executive suggested the program needed more spice and suggested relocating it in Los Angeles so it could focus on entertainment news, an idea that was wisely dropped.
In another attempt to broaden the program's appeal, a rock star named Boy George was interviewed, the first and last time, as far as we know, that a cross-dresser appeared on the broadcast.
When Ed Murrow's producer, Fred Friendly, was briefly given responsibility for the program in 1961, he dropped the interview format and converted it into a weekly debate on various current issues. CBS News correspondent Howard K. Smith was named moderator, and each week, two informed public officials were chosen to stand behind podiums and debate topics such as: Is big government good or bad?
The program was moved from Sunday afternoons to prime time. Not surprisingly, given the choice between a Friday night debate on the merits of big government and entertainment programming, ratings plummeted. The program became a financial disaster and was soon canceled. It did not air again until a Sunday morning in 1963 when it returned to its original format and Martin Agronsky was named moderator.
What each generation of producers discovered was that what viewers want from the broadcast is the serious, no-frills interview format that Stanton envisioned.
For all the attempts to change it, Face the Nation survived to become television's second oldest program. Meet the Press, the NBC program that Face the Nation had been created to compete against, is the oldest.
From the Red Scares of the 1950s to the collapse of communism in the 1980s and the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, from Vietnam and Watergate to 9-11, key newsmakers from Joe McCarthy to Monica Lewinsky's lawyer have come to Face the Nation to argue their side of the story of the day.
By September 2004, 4,862 newsmakers -- every man who has served as president and vice president since Eisenhower, scores of princes and potentates, senators and members of Congress -- have appeared on Face the Nation's 2,450 broadcasts.
When Nikita Khrushchev was interviewed on Face the Nation, he became the first Communist leader ever to be interviewed on television. The week after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, he arrived for a Face the Nation interview in a Havana ballroom accompanied by 200 armed men -- but he told his interviewers not to worry because "we are men of love."
The most frequent guest by far has been Bob Dole, the former senator and Republican presidential candidate, who has appeared 63 times. Another Republican senator, Arizona's John McCain, ranks second. Former House Budget Committee chairman and one-time Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and Delaware senator Joe Biden, once a presidential candidate and long one of Capitol Hill's key foreign policy experts, have been the most frequent Democratic Party guests.
Despite some breathtakingly close calls, Face the Nation's producers have always managed to get something on the air.
The late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once disappeared shortly before a broadcast. It turned out he had just gone outside to catch a breath of air before the program. Producers found him just minutes before the broadcast aired.
A Russian embassy official in Washington once cancelled several hours before the broadcast because of a bad cold, but when Jeanne Edmunds, a producer at the time, told him to "at least find a substitute with a Russian accent," he arranged to get a Russian journalist to show up in his place.
During the Vietnam War, producer Prentiss Childs and correspondent Marvin Kalb traveled all the way to Saigon to interview the man then serving as president of South Vietnam, only to discover on the day of their arrival that he had been deposed. A guest was found in Washington to replace him.
The only program that ever began without the featured guest was September 6, 1970, when George Meany, the aging president of the AFL-CIO, who was the only guest that Sunday, misunderstood what time the broadcast was to begin and showed up 15 minutes late.
George Herman, who was the moderator, had prepared a 30-minute broadcast on the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson for just such emergencies, and the tape was pulled off the shelf and run. In those days, Face the Nation was taped a half-hour before it was broadcast in Washington, and when it came time for the program to air in Washington, Herman interviewed Meany live.
Meany never did seem to comprehend what he had done. Herman was the union shop steward for the CBS News people who belonged to AFTRA, the broadcasting guild, and as he tried to make small talk before the delayed interview, he teased Meany for "letting down a fellow union man."
"Well, yours is not much of a union," Meany responded.
Such are the hazards of producing a live broadcast on Sunday morning, when offices are closed and officials and their aides are hard to reach and the possibility increases that newsmakers' alarm clocks may not go off.
We also go into every broadcast knowing that if the news changes suddenly, we'll have to rearrange our best-laid plans and start over to give our viewers as much information about the breaking news as we can. When Princess Diana died, we junked everything at 8:00 A.M. that we had planned for that day's broadcast and did an entirely different program when Face the Nation aired two and a half hours later.
Frankly, that's what makes the job challenging and, when we do a good job, rewarding. But it's also why Ellen Wadley, a longtime CBS producer in the 1960s and 1970s, spoke for all of us when someone asked her to describe her main responsibilities at Face the Nation.
"Mostly," she said, "we knock on wood."
Copyright © 2004 by CBS Worldwide Inc.