Media pioneer Frank Stanton was remembered not just as an executive who helped turn CBS into the “Tiffany network,” but as the “patron saint” of broadcasting who helped stave off government intrusion as television grew into an entertainment and news powerhouse.
Stanton died in his sleep Sunday in Boston at age 98.
Walter Cronkite said Stanton “recognized the role that broadcast news would play in providing the American public with the essential news of what its governments were doing in its name.
“He faced jail to challenge a federal suit brought by Congress demanding the news sources that CBS had used in a documentary. But Stanton’s unflagging courage and overwhelming commitment to justice on the case won the day and considerably strengthened the free press rights of broadcast as well as print news sources.”
As the right-hand man to CBS founder William S. Paley, Stanton once summarized his duties as “keeping the company going.” But the psychologist helped build the company from a modest chain of radio affiliates into a communications empire whose centerpiece became the nation’s preeminent TV network.
During his tenure as the president of the network from 1946-73, Stanton became one of the broadcast industry’s chief statesmen as federal watchdogs cast a wary eye on everything from violent content and the quiz-show scandals to news programming. Often his efforts convinced politicians that the medium could police itself, winning battles in a war the industry continues to wage as federal regulators crack down on broadcast indecency.
“If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton. If CBS is the Tiffany Network, Frank Stanton deserves the lion’s share of the credit,” said “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt.
Much of his efforts in expanding CBS’ public affairs and news programming helped establish television’s credibility as more than a source of pop culture. He demanded standards in the news division, which still stand today, and programmed such award-winning series as “CBS Reports.” When he pushed to ease the government’s equal time provisions, it cleared the way for the first televised presidential debate in 1960. Three years later, he allowed CBS News to broadcast commercial-free four straight days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Later, he withstood pressure from the Johnson White House when CBS News reported critically on the Vietnam War, including a report in 1965 that showed soldiers burning the huts of Vietnamese villagers.
Stanton “demanded a firewall between news and entertainment programs,” according to a memoir he gave to Minnesota Public Radio.
It was that separation that surely helped him make his case that television broadcasters should be afforded the same First Amendment protections as their counterparts in the print media. In 1971, when CBS’ airing of the documentary “CBS Reports: The Selling of the Pentagon” drew the fury of the Nixon administration and some members of Congress, Stanton refused a congressional subpoena to turn over notes and outtakes of the broadcast.
The documentary was an examination of the government’s use of public relations activities to shape public opinion in favor of the military, but it drew criticism because certain interviews had been edited and reconstructed.
Stanton held firm, even as he risked being thrown into jail. Testifying for more than four hours, Stanton said that he “had a duty to uphold the freedom of the broadcast press against congressional abridgement.” Eventually, the House voted down its own committee’s attempts to cite Stanton with contempt.
CBS News president Sean McManus said that “broadcast journalism thrives today, to a large extent, because Frank Stanton defended our rights under the First Amendment.”
CBS prexy-CEO Leslie Moonves said that Stanton “never lost his zeal for the preservation and strengthening of the democratic process.”
As the head of CBS beginning in 1946, Stanton oversaw varied enterprises that included Columbia Records, CBS Laboratories, a book publisher, a toymaker and, for a brief time, the New York Yankees.
Paley, a radio man, didn’t initially grasp the potential of television.
“He thought it would hurt radio,” said Stanton, who took a chance on the new medium by signing a comic with untested appeal named Jackie Gleason, then nailing down a new sitcom, “I Love Lucy,” which might otherwise have gone to NBC.
“Who else had the opportunity to take a new medium, television, and plot its future?” Stanton once said. He called the job so interesting “I would have almost paid them to do it.”
A less admirable chapter of Stanton’s career found him overseeing CBS’ blacklisting policies in the 1950s and ’60s. These included the creation in 1951 of a security office to investigate the political leanings of CBS employees. There was some resentment among surviving blacklisted writers and performers when, in 1999, the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gave him its lifetime achievement award for his First Amendment work.
Shortly after receiving the award, Stanton told the New York Times of the blacklist era, “I didn’t have the wisdom, nor did anyone else. The head of the law department was one of the fairest people I’ve ever known. When he said this was the course we should follow, we went along with it.”
And he wasn’t always supportive of the efforts of the news division. Legendary news chief Fred Friendly resigned in protest when Stanton and CBS programmers declined to pre-empt “I Love Lucy” reruns to air live broadcasts of congressional hearings on Vietnam.
But Stanton acted quickly to restore television’s credibility when the quiz-show scandals threatened government intervention in 1959. With programs like “The $64,000 Question” found to have been staged, Stanton investigated, bore some of the blame and then canceled all of its highly profitable, high-stakes gameshows. It helped make him one of the industry’s chief spokesmen, and he pledged new standards to prevent program deception. He even proposed doing away with canned laughter.
Despite the evanescent world of broadcasting to which he devoted his life, one of Stanton’s proudest achievements was the stone-and-mortar edifice of CBS’ mid-Manhattan headquarters, completed in 1964 and designed by Eero Saarinen at a cost of $40 million. He guided its design from the stone that inspired its “Black Rock” nickname to the typography of the elevator numerals. It helped burnish CBS’s image as the “Tiffany network,” reflected in many of its prime time shows and news division.
The long duet of Stanton and Paley was both richly fruitful and problematical. Never friends, the two titans were polar opposites in many ways, with Paley the charming dreamer and Stanton the thinker and doer.
“Paley needed Stanton; he made the machine run and understood many of the complexities that eluded Paley,” according to Sally Bedell Smith’s Paley biography “In All His Glory.” “But as Paley recognized this dependence, he grew to resent Stanton.”
Among other things, Paley felt excluded when it was Stanton who got all of the attention during such controversies as the “Selling of the Pentagon” affair, according to Smith.
In 1966, Stanton had counted on rising to CEO upon Paley’s retirement at age 65 — but Paley, exempting himself from the mandatory retirement age, stayed on. Paley later told a writer for M magazine, “If he had been made chairman, I would have had to get out. I didn’t want to get out.”
Five years later, at 63, Stanton was forced to step down as president, then served as vice chairman until his ignominious retirement in 1973.
After CBS, Stanton chaired the American Red Cross for six years.
Stanton’s path to CBS started at Ohio State U., where his studies led him to devise a scientific method for measuring radio audiences and invent the forerunner of what A.C. Nielsen would one day use to gather ratings.
In 1934, CBS invited Stanton to New York City to explain his technique. He stayed on, building a three-person research office into a 100-strong department.
Stanton rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming president in 1946, at the age of 38, when Paley resigned to become chairman.
Stanton, whose wife died more than a decade ago, has no immediate survivors.