Fred W. Friendly, the broadcast journalist who teamed with Edward R. Murrow to create the highly acclaimed “See It Now” series and later resigned as CBS News president to protest what he saw as the commercialism of television news, has died. He was 82.
Friendly died Tuesday at his New York home after a series of strokes, CBS announced Wednesday.
For some 55 years, Friendly sought by example and vociferous commentary to use the permeating power of television to enlighten the public. From “See It Now” to “CBS Reports” and more recently PBS’ “Media and Society Seminars,” he matured from the industry’s wunderkind to its eminence grise.
“This little black box didn’t get invented at this time in our technological evolution just to show pictures of horse operas …,” Friendly once said. “It is just asking to be used. We can take the people there and show them what is happening.”
The Public Broadcasting Service seminars were renamed in Friendly’s honor after he stepped down from what he called “America’s largest classroom” in 1992, using the words Murrow had said to him decades earlier: “Nothing is forever.”
PBS President Ervin S. Duggan called Friendly “a great broadcaster, a great innovator, a great friend of public television. Most of all, he was a good citizen, deeply committed to the ideals of serious civil discourse and an informed populace. … We in public broadcasting are proud to be part of his monument.”
Introduced to Murrow in 1948, Friendly first collaborated with him on record albums featuring Murrow’s incisive commentary coupled with the famous voices of modern history in the now legendary series “I Can Hear It Now.”
After a short-lived radio program of the same name, Friendly and Murrow began co-producing television’s “See It Now” in 1951.
The weekly news program, featuring Murrow on camera and Friendly as the behind-the-scenes producer, took viewers to Europe for a ride on the Orient Express, to Korea for a battlefield tour and to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the announcement of Dr. Jonas Salk’s new polio vaccine.
But the show and its creators earned their niche in history on March 6, 1954, with their “Report on Senator McCarthy,” an examination of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics. The single program prompted more than 100,000 mostly favorable viewer responses to CBS, and signaled what some critics called “television’s coming of age.”
It was broadcast at a time when the Republican senator from Wisconsin had bullied the most powerful politicians in the land into silence for fear they might be attacked as part of his “communist conspiracy.” The Murrow-Friendly broadcast was the first nationwide overt attack on McCarthy and was credited by many with bringing about his ultimate censure by the Senate.
At the end of its seven-year run, “See It Now” was ignobly shifted to obscure hours and finally was canceled in 1958. The show fell victim to the commercialism that Friendly battled throughout his career - the networks’ preference for more marketable adventure and game shows over controversial documentaries.
On his own, Friendly continued producing quality shows, winning more than 40 major awards, including 10 Peabodys, with his hard-hitting “CBS Reports.”
In 1964, Friendly reluctantly abandoned what he called “the best job in the world” running that show to become chief of CBS News.
“I feel like I’ve been shot into orbit and have no retrorockets to come down with,” he joked. “If this isn’t fun, I’ll be a flop.”
Friendly was certainly no flop, but he didn’t have much fun either. And on Feb. 15, 1966, he dramatically resigned when network executives canceled his planned live coverage of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s public hearings on the Vietnam War. Instead, viewers were treated to a far more marketable rerun of “I Love Lucy.”
“I am resigning,” he said in a stinging and widely published letter, “because the decision not to carry the hearings makes a mockery of the (CBS Chairman William S.) Paley- (CBS President Frank) Stanton Columbia News division crusade of many years that demands broadest access to congressional debate.”
In his 1967 book “Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control,” Friendly blamed the programming decision not on individual executives, but on “the mercantile advertising system that controls television.”
Friendly immediately became communications adviser to the Ford Foundation and the driving force behind foundation efforts to fund public television. He was credited with prodding Congress into chartering the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and remained an irascible critic of what he saw as network pandering for profits.
Friendly wrote five books, among them, “See It Now” with Murrow in 1955, “The Good Guys, the Bad Guys and the First Amendment: Free Speech vs. Fairness in Broadcasting” in 1976 and his most popular, “Minnesota Rag,” in 1981.
In 1994, Friendly was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He is survived by his second wife, Ruth W. Mark, and three children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.