Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Nicholas Johnson's Mike Wallace Memories

May 2, 2012, 7:50 p.m.
Mike Wallace: May 9, 1918 – April 7, 2012

"I can't let the life, and now death, of Mike Wallace go without comment," Tim Weiner, "Mike Wallace, CBS Pioneer of 60 Minutes, Dies at 93," New York Times, April 9, 2012, p. A1; see also "Mike Wallace (journalist)," (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Mike Wallace was both a significant part of my television viewing experience since the 1950s, and of my professional experience during the 1960s and 1970s -- during which at least two interviews have been recalled. Excerpts from the transcript of our exchanges during my "Face the Nation" guest appearance on September 14, 1969, and my legal assistant, Tracy Westen's memory of a Mike Wallace interview in my FCC office, are reproduced below.

CBS, I can now confess almost 40 years after leaving the FCC, was kind of my favorite family network. It featured Dad in its Peabody Award-Winning interview show, "The Search." In fact, I think it was that program that convinced Dad -- after I'd left for college -- to buy a TV set; apparently that experience finally brought him to the insight that there might be at least some programs worth watching on television.

Like many Americans, I was a fan of CBS' Edward R. Murrow, and his then-partner Fred Friendly -- whom I came to know when Fred served as CBS News President, professor at Columbia University, and at the Ford Foundation. "Harvest of Shame" (about migrant workers) and their presentation of Senator Joseph McCarthy (that played a major role in his downfall) are both major milestones in American broadcasting, history.

My sister, Kate, got an early start on her broadcasting career. While in high school her proposal for a "Teen Talk" radio program won a local contest, and gained her the role of its host on local radio station KXIC-AM, where she also hosted the "Breakfast Club." She created two TV shows for WMT-TV in Cedar Rapids: "It's Fun to Find Out" (a science program for kids) and "Hobby Hunt" (either while still in high school or during summers when in college). After college, in Europe, she fed stories to NBC's "Monitor" radio program, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (where she worked with a TV predecessor to CBS' "60 Minutes," "This Hour Has Seven Days").

She began at CBS with, among other assignments, Mike Wallace's radio program, "Mike Wallace at Large." She ultimately worked for CBS Television News for a few years, including Walter Cronkite's "CBS Evening News," where she continued occasional assignments with Mike Wallace.

I found watching the in-studio creation of Cronkite's Evening News -- with directors barking orders, and film (as it then was) arriving, and being processed, only minutes before the show, more exciting than any sports match. As improbable as it seemed during the countdown to air, somehow it always came together. And to my delight Cronkite extended a standing offer to come by anytime I was in New York, or they were doing the show from Washington, at the CBS offices just a block or two down the street from the FCC building.

My next door neighbor and one of my best friends at the time, Bob Pierpoint, had been one of "Murrow's boys," and was then working as the CBS White House correspondent. Although I never met Murrow, I do remember a dinner party at Bob's that Murrow's widow, Janet, attended.

In the midst of Washington's lobbying pressure, and good old boys' use of raw power as an alternative to rational persuasion, I used to say, sarcastically and dramatically to make the point, that most industries had at least one CEO who had attended college and has some sense of the public interest. When Maritime Administrator my memory is that Mærsk McKinney Møller and Jakob Isbrandtsen (of Isbrandtsen Lines) helped show the way to ship operations without government subsidy, and that my interests in cutting down port costs (often 90% of the cost of trans-ocean shipping), as well as the subsequent rail and truck costs, were substantially accelerated by Malcolm McLean, a former trucking company owner, who created Sea-Land and the containerization revolution I was advocating.

Anyhow, in broadcasting the one network CEO who was head and shoulders above the rest was CBS' Frank Stanton, often chosen (wisely) by the other broadcasters to be their spokesperson -- and who, among other things, got the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which had no congressional appropriation) off the ground with his own $1 million contribution. (Among group station owners it was Don McGannon, of Westinghouse, who led the way by removing cigarette commercials, and creating his own "family viewing hour," before being ordered to do so.)

When CBS started "60 Minutes," it got off to a slow start. In fact, the network was considering canceling the program almost before it got off the ground. I had been encouraging broadcasters to provide more substantive programming in general, and supported "60 Minutes" in particular. I can't recall the format it took – whether it was a speech, article, or just a conversation – but I do recall encouraging the network to stick with it, confident as I was that if they'd give the program a chance it would ultimately build an audience. Reflecting back, it turned out to be one of, if not the, longest running programs in television history.

When news of Mike Wallace's death reached him, one of my brilliant, creative, charming and personable former FCC legal assistants, Tracy Westen, emailed me the following:
I saw the news this morning that Mike Wallace just died, which is certainly a shame, but it reminded me of a story involving you . . ..I remember the time Wallace interviewed you in your office (probably some time in 1970). He already had a reputation as a fearsome interviewer, so we were all a little apprehensive. His crew came in and set up a one-camera setup, with the camera focused on you in your desk chair. The interview proceeded; he asked tough questions; your answers were great.Then they reversed the camera to get reaction shots of Wallace, shooting over your shoulder. They said just "make conversation" while Wallace nodded, as if he were listening to your answers. (Was that a form of news staging?)Then, you started asking Wallace tough questions. I don't remember what you said, so I'll make it up, it was something like this:"Isn't it true, Mike, that you're really just a corporate shill for CBS, and that your news stories are just designed to sell your sponsor's products?" (Something like that.) Poor Mike, he had to sit there, and nod, as though he was listening to one of your answers -- but the hilarious part was that you were forcing him to "agree" (nod in assent) to all your critical questions.He left shortly after that, seemed a bit disgruntled, but, as I recall, gave you a good interview when it aired.I still remember that and will always associate it with Mike Wallace, and your undaunted wit in the face of a notoriously tough reporter.
There are a number of stories regarding the "Face the Nation" program from which the transcript excerpts of my exchanges with Mike Wallace are reproduced below.

One of the producers of the program, whom I had met but never dated, told me the following amusing story. Apparently someone with CBS in New York wanted to use as a backdrop on the "Face the Nation" set in Washington a large graphic including my face, and made a very early call to the Washington producer. Assuming she and I had a relationship of some sort, he asked her, "Does Nick Johnson still have his mustache?" (It was subsequently featured on the cover of the Rolling Stone.) Flummoxed, irritated at being awakened and at her caller's assumption, she told me she replied, "Just a minute, I'll roll over and look."

We received in my FCC office something like 7000 letters regarding the program. The network informed me that they got more mail for that particular "Face the Nation" than for any other.

This was especially noteworthy, since I had noticed TV Guide listed the program for the wrong time. Thus, anyone who watched it saw it by accident. Indeed, one woman wrote me how pleased she was to have caught it. She was dusting her TV set when it accidentally went on, and there I was.

When I commented about this to one of the show's producers, she explained, "What you have to realize, Nick, is that you're not paranoid; you have real enemies." So I did.

So here are the excerpts from that program that involve the exchanges between Mike Wallace and myself (plus an opening and closing with CBS moderator, George Herman). (The third reporter was Richard Burgheim, of Time magazine.)

CBS Television and Radio Networks
Sunday, September 14, 1969 -- 12:30-1:00 PM EDT
Washington, D.C.

Mr. Herman: Commissioner Johnson, you are noted for some very critical views about the television industry. Your organization, the Federal Communications Commission, is far older than television. It presided over the birth and growth of the industry. It licensed and regulated the television stations. If there is something wrong with television, what is wrong with the FCC?

Commissioner Johnson: I think the FCC suffers from the problems that confront many of what we call sub-governments in Washington DC: the virtual domination of its day-to-day activities by the very industries that it is supposed to regulate. The political power of the broadcasting industry is, in my judgment, unsurpassed by that of any other industry in America today. * * *

Mr. Herman: Commissioner Johnson, if the FCC is dominated by the industry, is there something wrong with the members of the FCC, or is it the setup?

Commissioner Johnson: No, I think it's a not uncommon phenomenon in this town. The concept of a sub-government Is very important to an understanding of how its decisions are really made in Washington. In most areas of decision-making, the power is really outside the domain of Congress or the president. It rests with a very small group of individuals who have an economic interest in the outcome. This would apply to areas of subsidy, of government contracts, with bestowal of monopoly rights as in broadcasting, setting of rates; any matter of that kind that involves tremendous economic interests.

And in that area of decision-making, generally the decisions are dominated by a group made up of the trade magazines; the trade associations; that segment of the Washington bar which represents the industry involved; the principal spokesman for the industry, those from the major companies making up the industry; the government agency that is involved in dispensing the economic largess; and the subcommittees and staff within Congress that is responsible for this area.

And this group tends to enjoy a symbiotic relationship: the members of the various components of the sub-government end up working for one another at one time or another. And, it's a long, long way from democratic control of political decision-making.* * *

Mr. Wallace: You were persuaded to stay, and now Dean Burch, who worked for Barry Goldwater during the 1964 campaign, Dean Burch, it is said, is going to be the new chairman of the FCC. And Nick Johnson, those who know him best say, is very unhappy about that. Why?

Commissioner Johnson: Well, I would make every effort to assume the best about any new appointee to the FCC, and endeavor to work well with him to the extent possible.

Mr. Wallace: But what's wrong with the Burch appointment, if indeed it comes, Commissioner Johnson?

Commissioner Johnson: Well, I wouldn't really comment on that. The president hasn't nominated anyone yet, and I'm not sure it would be appropriate then for me to comment on it. I think that the thing that everyone will be watching on whomever president Nixon does ultimately decide to choose, is once again, just how far the political power of the broadcasting industry has gone. Surely, President Nixon is very much aware of the kinds of problems that president Eisenhower got into during the 1950s with his FCC and the ex-party scandals at that time. He's very mindful of the, really, the outrage on the part of many Americans at the seeming business domination of the regulatory commissions. So that, if he ends up making appointments that principally serve the interests of the broadcasting industry, I think we can assume that he is doing so knowingly and fully mindful of the tremendous political price that he will pay for such an appointment, and that he is presumably doing so only because of a tremendous political power that this industry does have, not only over Congress but over the presidency itself.

For he is, after all, in the same position of any other elected official. The only way he can reach his constituency, the only way any elected official can reach his constituency, is by knocking on the broadcaster’s door and begging him for a little time. It is the broadcaster, after all, who controls what information the American people will receive, what candidates they will be permitted to view and to hear from, what issues they will be permitted to know about. And every elected official is very mindful of this power. The question is, to what extent is it also a power applicable to the presidency itself. And as I say, I think that will be tested as these appointments come up.* * *

Mr. Wallace: Have you never helped out, Commissioner, been consulted by or offered encouragement to any specific group that was trying to replace the current licensee of any station across the country?

Commissioner Johnson: In my judgment, it would be inappropriate for a Commissioner to, I don't know what your words were, but to represent in the way a lawyer might, any party before the commission during a hearing. We have express rules on this, and once a case is set, it's up to the parties to get counsel and take care of themselves. Prior to that time, my door is open as is that of other Commissioners. I try to answer my mail and answer my phone calls and see people who request an opportunity to visit with me. I talk with representatives of the broadcasting industry and the telephone company; I talk with representatives of public groups. I try to see as broad a cross spectrum of those people who want to see me at times when it is appropriate and it is possible.

Mr. Wallace: My words were "helped out, been consulted by or offered encouragement to" any specific group. In other words, did you help any group? For instance, at KRON-TV; did you talk – people are trying to get their license. Or KNBC in Los Angeles, or WMAL-TV here in Washington. There are specific groups that are trying to get those licenses. Have you offered any encouragement to or specific help to any of those groups at any time?

Commissioner Johnson: I think the fair answer to your question is no, to the extent that you are asking have I done anything more than I would have done or have done in the past for industry representatives or any other American citizen, and the answer to that clearly is no, I have not.* * *

Mr. Wallace: Would you like to see the FCC regulate or somebody regulate the prices that are paid for political broadcasts?

Commissioner Johnson: Well, that rather assumes, Mr. Wallace, that a price ought to be paid. In my judgment it is absolutely preposterous that in an industry that is earning, many stations well in excess of 100% return on depreciated capital investment, an industry that is using public property, the airwaves, an industry that is permitted to make private profit from the use of public property only in exchange for the use of that public property in the public interest, an industry that has an obligation to put on some public service programming and is doing very little of it, for that industry to hold up the elected public officials and make them pay to get time from public property in order to permit the people of this country to hear from their elected officials, it's – you know, the rationing of the time and then charging for them, it's kind of like a criminal stealing a woman's wedding band after he's raped her, you know. * * * [D]uring election time, I think this one-third of the time ought to be devoted to a discussion of public issues and candidates, yes.

Mr. Wallace: By both networks and local stations?

Commissioner Johnson: Yes. Now, you raised the question of what about the splinter parties. This has been adequately handled by every other civilized nation in the world. It's not impossible of solution here. In Great Britain, the proportion given to splinter candidates is roughly apportioned in terms of their vote. Broadcasters in this country complain that because of the equal time rule they are compelled to give all candidates time, and if only we'd suspend the equal time rule, they'd be willing to give more free time. The fact of the matter is that well over fifty percent of the broadcasters, as many as two-thirds in many areas, have not given free time when there were only two candidates.* * *

Mr. Wallace: Let's get to censorship, if we may, Commissioner. Recently you wrote – you said virtually the same thing again here today – you wrote in TV Guide that network officials are “keeping off the television screens anything,” your word, "they find inconsistent with their corporate profits or their personal philosophies." And you talk about "corporate tampering with the product of honest and capable journalists." "Sometimes," you say, "there is a deliberate alteration of content." Do you at genuinely believe that?

Commissioner Johnson: Yes, I genuinely believe that.

Mr. Wallace: What you're saying really, is that –

Commissioner Johnson: As do most former network newscasters who bothered to write books about the matter genuinely believe it. Edward R. Murrow said that the final and most crucial decisions in network news are made by top corporate management.

Mr. Wallace: Well, now, wait –

Commissioner Johnson: Fred friendly, who was former president of CBS news, said very much the same thing in Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control. Robin McNeal, who was with NBC, in his book, People Machines, documented very much the same story. These are not imaginings of mine, Mr. Wallace. My only source of information, necessarily, is from those who are now in this business and are willing to talk, not for attribution, or those who have been in the business in the past and have written books about it.

Mr. Wallace: Well, Commissioner, you say, again, "Network officials keep off the screen anything they find inconsistent with their corporate profits or personal philosophies." You wrote it in TV Guide, next week's TV Guide. And I believe you have a copy of Dick Salant, who is the president of CBS News, his statement says, "in the eleven years I was corporate officer and the six years I've been president of CBS news, to my knowledge," and he is not an unknowledgeable man I think you'll agree, "there is no issue, no topic, no story that CBS News has ever been forbidden or instructed, directly or indirectly, to cover or not to cover by corporate management." Now –

Commissioner Johnson: Well, are you familiar with the inner-office memorandum that was published in Variety from CBS management to the news department on how coverage of the New York Yankees, a ball club owned by CBS, was to be handled by the news department?

Mr. Wallace: Candidly, I am not. But the word "anything"? And let's say that you were right one percent or five percent –

Commissioner Johnson: Edward R. Murrow said it. He said look at prime time television. He said 8:00 to 11:00; I think you could extend that time a little bit. He said, see how much you see there of relevance to what is going on in our society today. He quoted Stonewall Jackson as saying, "When the war breaks out, you draw your sword and throw away your scabbard." And here is television, rusting in its scabbard.

Mr. Wallace: Mr. Johnson –

Commissioner Johnson: It's a sign of crisis.

Mr. Wallace: – aside from the New York Yankees, what are the issues that you think are in – have not been covered on television, on CBS news? How many times have George Herman or I, for instance, on CBS news, because I don't want to talk about the – been instructed to tamper with our product? You know what you're calling us when you say that?

Commissioner Johnson: I didn't call you anything. If you read the article carefully, you will see that I said that I would far rather leave the judgment as to what is going to be in America's marketplace of ideas to the creative writers and performers and journalists in this business, individuals from all sections of the United States, than to leave these decisions to committees of frightened financiers in New York City. * * *I would much rather, Mr. Wallace, that you were making those decisions on your own. I would much rather that you were deciding, Mr. Wallace, how much time in the evening schedule of CBS was going to be devoted to something that matters.

Mr. Wallace: You're not talking about timing in your article, Mr. Johnson; you're saying –

Commissioner Johnson: I am talking about time. I'm saying that one of the ways that you censor is by putting on so much tasteless gruel, by keeping America asleep, when important issues need to be discussed, when the people need to have information, and they watch television. Notice that – I think it was a week and a half before the ABM Senate vote, a Gallup poll revealed that sixty percent of the American people had either never heard of the ABM or didn't know enough about it to have a position on the issue.

Mr. Wallace: Commissioner –

Commissioner Johnson: I think it's rather interesting, if I can finish this point, that sixty percent of the American people also tell Elmer Roper that they get most of their information and opinion from television. Now, whether this happened to be the same sixty percent that was watching television that didn't know enough about the ABM to form an issue on it or not, I don't know. But I do know that the American people are woefully uninformed if they are dependent solely upon television news. Walter Cronkite said as much. And if you cannot find authority in Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, who was Dick Salant’s predecessor, and Walter Cronkite, who’s now anchoring your evening news show, I don't know what authorities I can cite to you, although I can find them from other networks as well. The ABC executive who says we censor ourselves was also quoted in the pages of TV Guide.

Mr. Wallace: . . . You say, "Network officials are keeping off the television screens anything they find inconsistent with their corporate profits or personal philosophies." Now, those are your words.

Commissioner Johnson: Well, this was in part based upon CBS's experience with the Smothers Brothers, where I think it's demonstrable, in that instance, that they were not acting in terms of corporate profit, because the shareholders of CBS have suffered as a result of the cancellation of the Smothers Brother's Show. That was nothing but personal predilection.* * *

Mr. Herman: . . . In your article you complained about several different things that we've kept off the air. Information about cigarettes, cyclomates, black lung –

Commissioner Johnson: You want to talk about cigarettes?

Mr. Herman: I just want to say that I've done several stories on the air on each of those things, and I'm a little troubled to find in the twenty seconds we have left what I did wrong.

Commissioner Johnson: Well, I'll be happy to discuss the cigarette story with you in gruesome detail. There is a prime example of this industry's effort to take all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States the argument that they have the constitutional right to keep from the American people information about the health hazards of cigarettes. The only reason those anti-smoking spots are on the air is because they were ordered to be put on the air by the FCC over the protests of the broadcast industry.

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Addendum, May 4: After writing this, I listened to a repeat of Diane Rehm's interview of Dan Rather. He’s just published a book, Rather Outspoken. He describes what happened, even to CBS News, after the years when I was complaining about corporate control of the networks in the 1960-70s (see "Face the Nation" excerpts, above), and after Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, “Network.” Rather's take is, on the whole, not only totally confirming of what Chayefsky and I had predicted, described and complained about 30-40 years earlier, it also explains how concentration of control of mass media led to an acceleration of the abuses. See also, "Dan Rather," New York Times Topics; "Dan Rather,"; and Dan Rather Reports on Facebook.

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