Roger Mudd. The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008. xv + 413 pp. Plates. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58648-576-4.
Reviewed by Frederick Blevens (Florida International University)
Published on Jhistory (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker (Salve Regina University)
Roger Mudd and the "Golden" Years of CBS
In part, Walter Cronkite earned his anchor seat at CBS as a result of the distrust that Edward R. Murrow harbored for the new medium of television. When Cronkite relinquished his role as “the most trusted man in America” in 1981, Roger Mudd, Cronkite’s solid backup, was the presumptive successor. CBS, however, chose Dan Rather over Mudd--a choice made as a result of CBS’s whim rather than one man’s distrust of a new medium.
It is seldom wise in history to speculate about the “what ifs,” but in the case of CBS and television news, Cronkite rather than Murrow and Rather instead of Mudd provide the bookends marking a period of television news that was unprecedented in its scope, influence, and intrigue.
Mudd’s professional divorce from CBS is not a new story. The selection of Rather and the subsequent break-up between Mudd and the network combined to illustrate just how far television had pushed broadcast journalists into celebrity circles. For good reason, Mudd’s description of the events that led to the biggest disappointment of his career is laced with a hint of bitterness. But the melancholy does little to temper Mudd’s enthusiasm and respect for a network that dominated through talent and creativity from Murrow’s radio war days in London through Cronkite’s tenure through the Carter presidency.
Specifically, Mudd focuses attention on the CBS Washington bureau between the 1961 and 1980, a period that saw a parade of remarkable CBS journalists probing into and pounding away at some of the century’s most critical developments: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, civil disobedience, the space program, Roe v. Wade, and the assassinations of two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. All that social politic was wrapped in stories of an equally unprecedented cultural upheaval: the Beatles, the sexual revolution, Muhammad Ali, women’s liberation, recreational drug use, and the rise and fall of the counterculture.
Mudd credits much of the change to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “an elixir for television” and a man whose family was artfully seductive in its tease of the camera. “And then everything seemed to happened at once,” Mudd writes. “Scattered sit-ins in the South coalesced into a civil rights movement and a political force; Alan Shepard spent fifteen minutes in space and America was on the way to the moon; young Americans found the Peace Corps more challenging than Wall Street; and television news shrank the world with satellites and videotape” (pp. 35-36).
Joining Mudd and Rather in covering the game-changing political events were Daniel Schorr, Marvin and Bernard Kalb, George Herman, Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Robert Pierpoint, and David Schoumacher, just to name few. The most powerful testament to this bureau staff comes in an appendix titled, “Where are They Now?”, a five-page listing of most of the journalists who left a mark on the bureau and on Mudd’s career. His descriptions of the characters in this star-studded lineup at times are harsh, though he is equally deprecating about his own foibles and weaknesses.
Early on, Mudd differentiates the golden age of television from the golden age of television news, explaining that the transition from pictures in the head to pictures on the screen went from a newsreel to fifteen-minute news-reading to thirty-minute anchor-driven newscasts in a process that took fifteen years. At the same time, he notes, its practitioners evolved from orator-actors reading to journalists who could report, write, and talk.
CBS had an obvious advantage from its experience with radio. During the war, Murrow had recruited and hired a huge contingent of excellent journalists, many of whom came home from the war and made the transition to television. Even though Murrow would never take an anchor seat at CBS or any other network, it is significant to note, as Mudd does throughout the book, that Murrow’s fingerprints were all over the role that the Washington bureau played in CBS’s dominance of television news.
One of the most compelling narratives is Mudd’s story of how he covered the seemingly endless Senate filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. Fred Friendly, the newly installed president of CBS News, suggested that the network push the story over the radio and television platforms, giving Mudd almost constant exposure from early morning through the late evening newscasts on affiliate stations nationwide. Mudd notes that his coverage made him a tourist attraction for people visiting Congress, a feat made more remarkable by a prohibition on cameras and recording devices in the chambers. He was challenged as well in constant coverage of a story whose action was being blocked by a procedure designed to produce little or no news.
Popularizing a filibuster says more about Mudd’s storytelling on television than any of the dozens of his other remembrances. But the storytelling in the book reflects the passion, detail, and humor that Mudd learned in his early newspaper and radio days in Richmond, Virginia. At the News Leader, the city’s afternoon daily, Mudd was assigned to get a local angle for the Mau Mau revolt in East Africa. Mudd, never short on creativity, found a local company that made hard-bristle street-cleaning brooms out of Calabar bass fiber harvested from palm trees in the Calabar region of Nigeria. He milked the story for a whole summer, until one day in September when the owner’s secretary informed him that the brush company owner, his primary source, had died. Mudd writes, “I expressed my condolences to the secretary and sent the desk a note: ‘Broom source dead. What next’? The desk replied: ‘Have you thought about an obit’? Duh” (p. 9).
The storytelling is even better in two chapters titled “The Front Row” and “The Back Row,” references to the Washington bureau seating chart. The first group had the superstars, including Mudd, Rather, George Herman, Marvin Kalb, and Schorr. The second group included Leslie Stahl, Jim McManus, and dozens of other new hires who aspired to be on the front bench. Here, Mudd looks in detail at each person on the first team and a few on the second. Eric Sevareid gets his own chapter, not so affectionately called “The Four Rules of Sevareid,” three of which admonished all newcomers to “never talk to Eric” in the restroom, the hallway, or elevator. The fourth is, simply, “Never talk to Eric” (p. 88).
The stories behind the news stories are equally good. Mudd recalls, sometimes emotionally, Robert Kennedy’s run for the White House, Lyndon Johnson’s sweetheart regulatory deals for his wife’s broadcast empire, and Johnson’s disdain for Robert Kennedy, a hatred so deep that Johnson concocted backroom deals with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to spy on Kennedy and other adversaries. The most troubling stories revolve around Mudd’s relationship with Robert Kennedy, a relationship that tied their families--wives and children--into an extremely close bond. When CBS assigned Mudd to do a documentary on Kennedy prior to Kennedy’s fatal 1968 campaign, the Mudds and Kennedys viewed the piece, then went to dinner. As he prepared the piece, Mudd hosted a dinner party for the Kennedys at his home. Though Mudd’s tales build a marvelous explication of CBS’s hegemonic role in nascent television news, his candor about his relationship with Kennedy presents a remarkably low threshold in ethics. The industry may not be able to match the talent and quality of journalism during Mudd’s days, but it certainly can say that such obvious and blatant conflicts are inexcusable today. That may be a fair trade.
Mudd has had perpetually rocky relationships with both Cronkite and Rather. In a number of anecdotes about them, Mudd is measured but candid, often balancing his criticism of them with his own mild confessional style. He apparently never has reconciled with Cronkite, but his relationship with Rather has come full circle, if not to the level of friendship the men enjoyed when they were "front row" reporters for CBS. When Rather was ceremoniously fired for questionable reporting on President Bush’s military service record during the Vietnam War, Mudd, in an interview, partially acquitted Rather, saying he probably deserved better after having done well at nearly everything the network wanted. The catharsis continues in this narrative as Mudd writes:“Perhaps I should have stayed and not have walked out” when Rather was selected to succeed Cronkite. “Lord knows, they offered me everything and anything I wanted to do except anchoring. But the hurt was too great and the fall too sudden. If I had stayed, perhaps the Kalb brothers would not have jumped ship to NBC, and perhaps we could have helped keep the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather in first place. Perhaps, perhaps. Too late then and too bad now” (pp. 377-378).
There is something very therapeutic to all these stories and the healing appears to be complete.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/jhistory.
Frederick Blevens. Review of Mudd, Roger, The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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