When Excellence Produced Excellence
The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News
By Roger Mudd
400 pages; $27.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
On March 30, 1964, CBS News began an ambitious project that seems quaint by today's bump-and-run standards.
A young correspondent named Roger Mudd was delegated to cover every moment of what turned into a slow-grinding, 67-day debate-filibuster leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The immersion coverage was masterminded by CBS News President Fred Friendly, who predicted this would be "one of the most important running news stories of the decade." A typical day found Mudd offering a scene-setter for 8 a.m. radio, a TV piece at 10, hourly radio and TV updates, a major report for Walter Cronkite's "Evening News," followed by an evening radio wrap-up and a final segment for network affiliates at 11 p.m.
Such extraordinary attention — even though little except procedural shifts and speechifying was happening much of the time — helps explain why Mudd recalls his stint in the CBS Washington Bureau from 1961 to 1980 as "the glory years of television news."
Never mind that for Mudd they ended badly; he quit in a fury after being beaten out by longtime rival Dan Rather to succeed Cronkite as anchor. Even so, Mudd claims, he "never truly ceased being a CBS man. It was, indeed, the place to be."
After all these decades, Mudd and his CBS contemporaries still have a hall of fame feel. What he calls the "front row" included himself and Rather (who evolved from youthful colleagues whose families socialized to bitter rivals, then finally to reconciling graybeards), plus Daniel Schorr, Marvin Kalb and George Herman. A "back row," battling for airtime, included the likes of Robert Pierpoint, Lesley Stahl, David Schoumacher, Bernard Shaw and Bob Schieffer.
Mudd tells their stories with affection and a surprising dose of snarky gossip. Bureau Chief David Schoenbrun had "an outsized ego, a deep suspicion of any rival..and an unfailing belief that his presence in the story was more important than the story itself." Schieffer was resented for "toadying" to management. Harry Reasoner was seen to "whip out..a bottle of booze and take a long pull just before the camera's red lights came on." Commentator Eric Sevareid "walked through the bureau like a god — aloof, speaking to almost no one."
Mudd also levels the artless smear "affirmative-action baby" in his chapter on Shaw, Stahl and Connie Chung joining the mainly white male bureau.
Interestingly, Mudd is almost equally tough on himself. "I was never easy," he acknowledges, noting his "aloofness that many interpreted as arrogance."
Mudd also was outspoken, both behind and in front of the cameras. The day Richard Nixon resigned, Mudd blasted him for not accepting full blame for Watergate, even as his colleagues offered conciliatory comments.
"I was convinced," Mudd writes bluntly, "that Cronkite, Sevareid and Rather had indeed gone in the tank for management" by not appearing to gloat over Nixon's fall.
Much of "The Place to Be" has that snippy, competitive-newsroom feel, but it also fully reflects the passion and pride that drive excellent journalists. Mudd details his role in such still-remembered programs as the Emmy-winning "Selling of the Pentagon" and the 1979 documentary on Sen. Edward Kennedy that included Kennedy's fumbling, ambition-deflating answer to Mudd's simple question, "Why do you want to be president?"
An even more striking Kennedy story, however, involves not Edward but Robert, and underlines why the so-called glory days must be evaluated in context.
Starting in 1963, Mudd and his wife, E.J., became friends of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, visiting regularly at their Hickory Hill estate and finding their names linked in the social columns.
Despite these connections, Mudd was assigned to do an hour-long program on RFK's candidacy for president. He traveled with Kennedy, interviewed him at home and away, and spoke with friends and rivals for the June 1967 program.
While the program was still being edited, the Mudds gave a fancy dinner party at their home for the Kennedys, featuring political and media luminaries.
The night the documentary aired, the Kennedys and Mudds "watched the network feed at the CBS bureau and then went off to dinner at the Jockey Club," with mutual friend Andy Williams joining them, "in the back seat, singing 'Moon River' upon Ethel's demand."
These are surreal scenes, replete with both the exalted sense of occasion once accorded network documentaries and the blurry ethics of bygone days.
Despite such ambiguities, Mudd proudly recalls a time when "excellence produced excellence," the goal was "serious work that we all took seriously," and reporters felt chosen "by a journalistic deity..to serve our country by doing God's work."
Those are enviable professional feelings. It's sad Mudd must present them in the past tense.
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. ###