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Friendly Fire

Chances are, if you didn't study journalism in college, you've probably never heard of Fred Friendly, who passed away last week at the age of 82 after a series of strokes. Unfortunately, Friendly's legacy -- strong broadcast journalism that used facts and integrity to tell a story instead of rumor and a win-at-all-costs attitude -- has long since died.

Friendly was one of a handful of pioneers at CBS News, the network that invented broadcast journalism. He was a producer in a group that included legendary reporters such as Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and, later, Walter Cronkite.

Friendly and Murrow were the force behind See It Now, a documentary series that began as a radio show and moved to TV in the early fifties. In 1954, the duo became a household name with their "Report on Senator McCarthy," the first broadcast to blow the whistle on Joseph McCarthy and his Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy was censured and TV news proved itself a medium for serious journalists.

As powerful as that report was, Friendly's most meaningful contribution to television may have been his resignation. In 1966, the Senate was holding hearings on the Vietnam War. ABC and NBC both covered the event live. CBS, on the other hand, aired an I Love Lucy rerun. Then the president of CBS News, Friendly was incensed with the decision of his corporate bosses and quit, saying "the decision not to carry the hearings makes a mockery of the CBS News division." His departure served as a somber prophecy of what was to come.

After CBS, Friendly became instrumental in the charter of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he stayed active, including hosting a number of PBS specials focusing on the media.

Friendly's resignation seems almost unbelievable in this day and age of tabloid shows and Entertainment Tonight-style news. After all, network news shows are supposed to entertain as well as inform, right? You mean there was an actually a time when the news was about things that matter instead of the new White House canine or a litter of seven babies out in Iowa?

The closest remaining relative to Friendly's style of news is the News Hour on PBS. Last year, after the birth of Dolly, the sheep that may or may not be the first clone of an adult mammal, the Big Three networks spent a minute or so on the subject. Viewers were treated to 15-second sound bites of scientists saying how amazing it was and priests saying that the apocalypse was upon us. No effort was made to actually explain the process in any detail. Apparently, we viewers were too stupid to understand. And besides, that would take time away from Part 57 of Our Exclusive Series, "Tax-Cheating Welfare Mothers on Crack: The Fleecing of the Eye on the American Agenda."

But PBS' Newshour featured a five-minute initial report on the researcher's claim, another five minutes on what the procedure was and how it worked. As if that weren't enough, the anchor moderated a discussion with a geneticist, a medical ethicist and another scientist which went into even more detail and actually enlightened viewers on to why this might be a bad thing or a good thing.

If you're used to watching the network newscasts, PBS can be quite a shock. But getting the whole story, understanding the issues that actually affect your life, is a refreshing change from 15-second sound bites and overdone computer graphics.

The current White House sex scandal provides the perfect counterpoint to Friendly's no-nonsense approach. The issue of whether the President obstructed justice or committed purgery is indeed a pressing question, but Murrow would have been able to give viewers the entire story without ever using the words "oral sex."

MSNBC, on the other hand, has carved out quite a niche for itself as Scandal Central. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, viewers can be updated on the latest non-happenings reported by such political luminaries such as Keith Olbermann. It wasn't that long ago that Olbermann was telling ESPN SportsCenter viewers that "That's two goals for Lemieux if you're scoring at home. Or even if you're alone."

These days, the former sportscaster is moderating discussions on whether or not oral sex is adultery, what the President's genitals look like, who else he's slept with and whether or not slipping Monica Lewinsky his tongue is an "improper relationship."

Not only would Murrow, Friendly, Sevaried, et al be able to confine their reports to actual news, they would have given viewers a more informative story by actually exercising a little journalistic integrity. Every single journalism student is taught that a story isn't a story until you've checked your sources and gotten confirmation from at least one other person. Yet every day, newscasts and newspapers trumpet exclusive stories based on a single, anonymous source. Many times, these turn out to be completely untrue and the news organizations end up retracting the "facts" they were in such a rush to publish before anyone else could.

Just last week, the Washington Post published a story about a major shift in the President's defense strategy that claimed he may acknowledge he kissed Lewinsky. The genesis of this report? A single, anonymous source. Jumping right on the bandwagon, all of the broadcast networks featured the story in their newscasts. They weren't even relying on their own, single anonymous source -- they had to use somebody else's.

It's a tactic one would expect from William Randolph Hearst back in the heyday of Yellow Journalism. Why doesn't anyone care that it's standard operating procedure these days as well?

Don't try and compare Deep Throat from Watergate to the anonymous sources of today, either. Woodward and Bernstein did not go out and publish those claims hours after they heard them the first time. They corroborated the story whenever they could. They sat on it, making sure it was right. Who in journalism, broadcast or print, would have the courage and patience to do that today? It's a damn short list.

Friendly would also have no need for the new trend of journalistic psychoanalysis which happens every time a big story breaks. After the initial rash of coverage where every single rule of solid journalism is repeatedly shattered, the reporters put on a show of examining themselves. "We shouldn't be acting the way we do, where have all our ethics gone?"

It happened after Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana. It's happening now with the Lewinsky affair. And the reporters' answer is always the same: "We don't want to do it, but we're just giving the public what it wants." That's entertainment, not news. Journalists should not be taking requests. It turns them into little more than Siegfried and Roy with notepads.

What made Friendly and his colleagues great was their courage to give the public what it needs, not what it wants.

If that sounds snobbish, it should. But history has proven again and again that the public knows nothing about what is important and what isn't. It's hard to dispute the business sense of CBS' decision to run the I Love Lucy rerun instead of the Senate hearing back in 1966. There were probably more people watching the sitcom than the hearing on the other two networks combined. But no one can rationally argue that Lucy trying to fix dinner for Ricky on time is more pressing than a war in which thousands of American soldiers were destined to die.

Giving the public what it wants resulted in the OJ Simpson civil trial verdict interrupting the State of the Union address. I'm surprised Friendly didn't die of a heart attack that night.

The JonBenet Ramsey murder case is another example. Hundreds of little girls are murdered every year. 99.9 percent of them do not have millionaires for parents, the ones you never hear about. But Joe Lunchbox wants to see rich people with more problems that he has, moronic cops and a phalanx of $600-an-hour defense lawyers to hiss at.

The perverted world of sexualized six-year olds strutting around in junior beauty pageants should be examined in great depth. Police misconduct or incompetence in any murder investigation is another serious charge. But these kinds of actual, generalized news events don't make people sit up and notice. Tragically, neither does an epidemic of violence against children. JonBenet could have been a way for news organizations to focus the public on these kind of issues. Instead, they'd rather dwell on the latest slimy lawyer to join the fray.

The pathetic part of Friendly's death wasn't the passing of a legend, but the requisite "soul-searching" of journalists across the country. Koppel, Rather, Jennings, Brokaw all lining up, singing the praises of Fred Friendly and how much they learned from him. Either he wasn't a very good teacher, or they weren't paying attention.


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