Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about Fred Friendly and America's early newspapermen

Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism | By Ralph Engelman, Foreword by Morley Safer | Columbia University Press | 440 pages | $34.50

Those who saw Good Night and Good Luck, the 2005 film about Edward R. Murrow’s encounter with Senator Joseph McCarthy, may have come away with the impression that Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly (played by George Clooney), was a quiet, sensible fellow who stayed demurely in the background. Ralph Engelman’s full-scale biography corrects that impression in spades. It offers a Friendly more recognizable to those who knew him—a ferocious, always impatient, fissionable mass. He was my colleague, off and on, at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and my temptation is to remember the intimidating personality, with its many failures of civility, and to overlook how well Friendly employed this persona to gain his ambitious ends. Possibly fueled by his youth in Providence as a dyslexic and a poor student, he grew up hypercompetitive, first creating a name for himself in the Army during World War II as a tireless roving journalist/lecturer. After the war, he hitched himself to Murrow’s star to create the legendary and short-lived See It Now CBS documentary series. As the ailing Murrow’s career faded at the network, Friendly rose to the presidency of CBS News, then the leading brand name in broadcast journalism. Through what may have been his miscalculation, he resigned in a dispute over coverage of the 1966 Vietnam hearings. At that point, he dusted himself off and set up shop at the Ford Foundation, where he helped create public television as we know it, and at Columbia’s journalism school, where he was promptly designated the Edward R. Murrow Professor.

There he devoted himself to training the young. He always seemed too large for the school, chafing at the smallness of the institution. Quasi-retirement, in 1979, did not stop him. He went on to create a series of television seminars featuring groups of public figures wrestling with public issues; the Fred Friendly Seminars continue to this day, a decade after his death. Yet what his biographer calls Friendlyvision—his concentration on big names, big issues, and national-scale television—now seems an artifact of the twentieth century. Engelman, chair of the journalism department at Long Island University, Brooklyn, devoted a decade of research to creating this complex, rewarding portrait of one of network television’s most memorable figures. The author talked to friends, to enemies, to admirers, and to skeptics. For me, Engelman not only recreates the Fred Friendly I knew decades ago, but adds a private, troubled Friendly I did not.

Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy | By Marcus Daniel | Oxford University Press | 386 pages | $28

Marcus Daniel, a scholar at the University of Hawaii, thinks that the recent spate of books about the nation’s founders, concentrating on the familiar roster of dignified statesmen, has not taken seriously enough those whom he calls “the other founding fathers”—the nervy newspaper editors who helped give the new nation its political character, for better or worse. He lines up six of them for our consideration. There is John Fenno of the Gazette of the United States; Philip Freneau, poet and editor of the National Gazette; Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s nephew and editor of the Aurora General Advertiser; Noah Webster, lexicographer and editor of the American Minerva; William Cobbett, a Brit and editor of the prickly Porcupine’s Gazette; and William Duane, successor to Bache at the Aurora.

All of them were based in the temporary national capital, Philadelphia. They were more or less of a generation, born in the 1750s and 1760s, younger than most of the founders and deeply disrespectful of their elders, including George Washington. As a group, they have often been dismissed by historians as the progenitors of “the Dark Ages of partisan journalism”—a mudslinging interval that theoretically preceded the later dawn of journalistic objectivity. Giving each a detailed examination, Daniel shows that there was more substance to their output than mere partisanship and personal abuse of politicians (although there was plenty of that as well). While the editors lined up as Federalists and Republicans, the early incarnation of our two-party system, they were more like sailors in storm-tossed boats, never knowing where the winds of dispute might blow them. Daniel may fall short of establishing these six as founding fathers—even founding fathers of journalism. Yet there is no question that he affirms their important place in the turbulent politics of the 1790s. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.