TV news giant Friendly dies

Legacy of integrity and highest standards

Fred Friendly, who put his stamp on a generation of news producers and correspondents as a hands-on executive during the glory days of CBS News in the 1950s and ’60s under Edward R. Murrow, died at his home Tuesday after a series of strokes, CBS said Wednesday. He was 82.

Friendly, a large bear of a man, gregarious and hail-fellow-well-met, produced some of Murrow’s best and most influential documentaries under the weekly primetime “See It Now” banner on CBS from 1951-58 and under the “CBS Reports” umbrella in the 1960s. The 1954 “See It Now” telecast that portrayed Sen. Joseph McCarthy as a bombastic demagogue who was exploiting the anti-Communist fervor then sweeping the country was the first national-TV attack on McCarthy, and was deemed instrumental in helping to bring the senator down.

Friendly served as president of CBS News from 1964-66, resigning when the network stopped showing live coverage of congressional hearings on the Vietnam War in favor of “I Love Lucy” reruns.

The Ford Foundation soon hired him as a consultant to create a news operation for public television, which resulted in a two-hour weekly primetime magazine series from 1967-69 called “PBL” (Public Broadcasting Laboratory).

Born in Providence, R.I., Friendly started as a radio producer, teaming up with Murrow to produce a spoken-history radio show called “I Can Hear It Now.” CBS picked it up, shortened the title to “Hear It Now,” and transformed it to the TV series “See It Now.” That show evolved in the ’60s into “CBS Reports,” the umbrella title for a series of primetime documentaries irregularly scheduled throughout the decade.

“Fred Friendly was one of the inventors of broadcast journalism and will remain one of its guiding lights,” said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, in a statement. “The only road he knew was the high road, and the clear view from there helped the rest of us find our way.”

During his long career, Friendly won 10 Peabody Awards and was known for setting standards of excellence. The Peabody program is administered at Columbia U. and is considered the top awards program for broadcasters.

“My memories of working with him was how demanding he was, demanding for excellence, demanding to do the right thing. He was a large man physically, mentally and in his passions and emotions,” CBS News TV anchor Dan Rather said Wednesday.

Andy Rooney, commentator on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” in a 1997 newspaper column called the highly principled Friendly a “lovable, irritating giant.”

“His journalistic standards were so high that it was difficult to maintain them for the rest of us, but it kept everyone on their toes,” Rooney said.

Toward the end of his career, Friendly developed what became known as the Fred Friendly Seminars that started in 1984 on public television.

The seminars, which he would introduce on camera, were designed to challenge journalists and their prominent sources to decide difficult questions in media ethics.

“His idea of a good time was to confront a panel of experts with an impossibly difficult hypothetical question … and watch his guests squirm trying to resolve the problem as he directed his director to move in tight for close-ups that he hoped would reveal drops of sweat,” Rooney wrote.

In the final seminar broadcast in 1992, Friendly said the purpose was “not to make up anybody’s mind, but to open minds; to make the agony of decision-making so intense you can escape only by thinking.”

Writing in the New York Times in 1989, Friendly criticized TV news for its use of staged reenactments, unnamed sources and so-called docudramas.

He blamed top management, who he said “emerged from the ranks of money managers and manufacturers who are not steeped in the tradition and standards of broadcast journalism.”

“The tradition today has become the constant crush for hot pictures in pursuit of ratings and revenues, not journalistic integrity,” he wrote. “Television journalism is at risk of losing its credibility.”

Friendly also taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in New York. He became a professor emeritus in 1979 and continued as a lecturer until 1990.

Friendly also put together a 13-part public television series called “The Constitution — That Delicate Balance” that aired in 1984.

Slowed by several strokes in recent years, Friendly was at home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, just north of Manhattan, when he died.

He’s survived by his second wife Ruth, three children from his first marriage and three stepsons. Memorial services will take place Friday at Riverdale Temple in the Bronx.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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