Frank Stanton, who died Monday at age 98, not only was a pioneer in the development of television broadcasting but a key figure in defining and defending the First Amendment against government intrusion. As CBS founder William S. Paley’s right-hand man from 1946 to 1973, he became the broadcast industry’s chief spokesman in Congress, as federal watchdogs cast a wary eye on everything from violent content to news programming to the quiz show scandals.
In addition to clearing the way for television’s first presidential debate in 1960, Stanton launched “CBS Reports” and, according to a memoir he gave to Minnesota Public Radio, “demanded a firewall between news and entertainment programs.” It was, to say the least, a different era.
Stanton expressed some regret at his role in demanding that CBS employees take a loyalty oath during the blacklist era. When George Clooney made his movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Murrow’s face off with Sen. Joe McCarthy, Stanton was noticeably left out of those people who were depicted.
Perhaps his most courageous moment came in 1971, when CBS broadcast the documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon,” which created a Congressional outcry. Stanton risked going to jail for contempt of Congress, when he refused a House committee’s subpeona to protect the network’s First Amendment right to withhold notes and outtakes of the broadcast from government scrutiny.
He told a Congressional hearing: “If newsmen are told that their notes, films, and tapes will be subject to compulsory process so that the government can determine whether the news has been satisfactorily edited, the scope, nature, and vigor of their news-gathering and reporting activities will inevitably be curtailed … a fundamental principle of a free society is at stake.”
The audio memoirs of Stanton are here.