Fred Friendly: a big man and a giant of TV newscasting

When Fred Friendly’s widow, Ruth, attended the premiere of Good Night, and Good Luck — in which George Clooney played her husband — she said "George isn’t bad to look at. But Fred was louder."

And bigger. Fred Friendly was a big man in every sense of the word. His huge hands waved like windmills, his voice boomed and, unforgettably, big ideas crackled from his (probably massive) brain as it worked day and night with the intensity of a power station turbine. The poet Carl Sandburg famously described him as entering a room as though he’d just flung himself from a foam fleck’d horse.

And he stood over American broadcast journalism like a colossus for five decades. He was alongside Ed Murrow during the McCarthy-exposing programmes shown in the film, but also for many other triumphs of journalism.

Somebody should dig out and show the great 1950s CBS Reports hour-long documentaries, especially Harvest of Shame, exposing the awful conditions of the Mexican fruit-pickers in California.

And he was afraid of no one. There must be another Hollywood film in the backroom discussions when he and Murrow put together a programme in the late ’50s on the revelations that smoking caused lung cancer. Kent cigarettes sponsored Murrow’s TV series and the tobacco industry paid TV networks millions to let Ronald Reagan say how much he enjoyed Chesterfields.

Fred must have been at his bulldozer best. And what an irony for the chainsmoking Murrow, who eventually died of tobacco-related disease.

Clooney’s film shows some of the constant tension with William S. Paley, who owned CBS and had running battles with Friendly internally, while defending him stoutly to the outside world. It was a relationship that was always heading for the OK Corral. In 1964, Fred had become President of News at CBS, then the biggest and most influential TV channel. He advanced and nurtured many talents, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather among them.

But by 1966 the US was in turmoil about its involvement in Vietnam. Fred interrupted afternoon TV to run live coverage of the Senate hearings on the war, to the intense annoyance of President Johnson. Paley was getting daily calls from the White House and, after a few days, pulled the programme to run an episode of I Love Lucy. Fred claimed it was the 153rd time the episode had been shown, which seems unlikely, but you were on shaky ground arguing facts with him.

And that could have been that for any lesser person than Fred. Yet perhaps his most lasting achievements were yet to begin. Back on his foam fleck’d horse, he set off to battle on meatier topics, such as the need for a non-commercial TV channel in the US, as well as campaigning for journalists to responsibly use the freedom of speech they were given by the US Constitution’s First Amendment. He carried a copy of the constitution in his pocket every day of his life. Just in case, I suppose.

The commercials-free Public Broadcasting Service was set up. Fred’s role in its success was both strategic, as a lobbyist — when those big hands took your elbow, your heart and mind had no choice but to follow — and practical, as one of its biggest providers of cash. He had approached the giant Ford Foundation for money to support the fledgling channel. They agreed, adding "you decide who gets what". So in the late ’60s Fred suddenly had a budget of $10m a year (about $100m now) to give to programme makers. Naturally he used the cash to kick-start some great journalism and film-making. But it wasn’t all for hacks. Next time you see a Muppet Show, be thankful Fred steered some towards a new kids’ programme called Sesame Street too.

In 1966 he also took on a role as a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York, where I met him first in 1972.

I suppose he had always been a teacher in every job he had. He didn’t give lectures in the traditional sense, he just exuded information, ideas and suggestions.

That might be in the corridor, in the editing suite or in the end-of-week appraisal of the students’ weekly TV show. On those occasions we would be looking for comments on our own little film segments or whatever. But he didn’t see small things; he taught us to look at the big picture, at what the whole programme told you.

He also ran a weekly seminar on the First Amendment, where we sat round a huge circular table and a succession of leading American luminaries came along to be questioned by us and Fred.

He had a likeable, fresh-faced young law lecturer called Benno Schmidt sit in each week to tackle constitutional questions.

The last time I saw Benno he was President of Yale, in charge of 9,000 staff and with an annual budget of $900m. Talent had a way of gravitating to Fred.

He stayed until 1979 and shaped several generations of fine American journalists. Friendly’s pupils can be found throughout the US broadcast and print media. Even after his death in 1998, Fred’s presence can be felt.

During the height of the recent Danish cartoons row I spotted this: "Gianni Riotta, deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, said it reminded him of his days studying at Columbia University. He recalled Fred telling the class, ‘Shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre is not freedom of expression, it’s being stupid.’"

Fred had several aphorisms he drummed into us, of which the runaway favourite was from a New Yorker cartoon he had hanging on his wall. It showed a naked couple on a desert island. The woman has her back to the man and is saying angrily, "I’ll know, that’s who’ll know." The message was blunt. Every time you think of cutting a corner, inventing a quote or, dare I say it, tipping shares you own, a voice in your head should be telling you that you’ll know, that’s who.

So he was a truly big man, but by no means distant or superior. Two personal memories. At the end of a day in late November I was in his outer office when he was leaving. "Doing anything special tonight?" he asked. It turned out it was Thanksgiving Day, an event that had passed me by until then. An hour later my wife, two-year-old daughter and I were in his Scarsdale home, head bowed, holding hands with his whole family round their table as he intoned a prayer before the traditional turkey dinner.

The following year, when I was leaving to return to the UK, he handed me a telegram he had sent to Paul Fox, then head of BBC1, telling him, more or less, that the heavens would fall and democracies would collapse if I wasn’t employed at once.

It wasn’t Fred’s fault Mr Fox had left the BBC the week before I got there.

Alasdair Buchan is publisher of Mature Marketing

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