This Day in Jewish History, 1915

The Man Who Founded Television That Matters Is Born

Fred Friendly helped bring down McCarthyism and even quit CBS News when the network opted for 'I Love Lucy' over a committee hearing on the Vietnam War.

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October 30, 1915, is the birthdate of Fred Friendly, the television-news pioneer, who virtually invented the news-documentary genre, and fought to keep the press independent, sometimes in the face of powerful opposition.

Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer was born in New York, to Samuel Wachenheimer  and the former Therese Friendly. Samuel was a New York-born descendant of Jewish-German immigrants, who owned a jewelry business together with his two brothers. On a sales trip on the West Coast, he met Therese, also the daughter of German Jews, though of higher social standing.

Ferd, an only child, was 11 when the family moved from Manhattan to Providence, Rhode Island, where his father's jewelry plant was situated. A year later, Samuel died suddenly, from meningitis, leaving Therese to raise Ferd by herself. She was well provided for, but she was hard-pressed to deal with, or even recognize, her son’s learning disabilities, which included dyslexia, though that was understood only many decades later.

Footprints in the sand

Ferd was clearly intelligent, but he did understandably poorly in school. He graduated high school only because his mother moved him to a private school for his senior year, and even then, he only was accepted into Nichols, a junior college, where he took business classes for two years, and was very involved in acting.

As a child, Ferd and his father had built a crystal-radio set, and used it to listen to an early broadcast of a prizefight. Shortly after finishing Nichols, he came to WEAN, a Providence radio station, which accepted his proposal to make a series of short biographical portraits of historical figures, which he called “Footprints in the Sands of Time.” By now, he had legally changed his name to “Fred Friendly.”

In 1941, he volunteered for army service, and was sent to work as a reporter for an army newspaper in the China-Burma-India theater. After the war ended in Europe, in May 1945, he received permission to travel around the former battlegrounds there, interviewing soldiers about their war experiences. His interviews were never aired, but the experience served him well in his professional life.

That troublesome producer

In 1948, Friendly, together with the vaunted war reporter Edward R. Murrow, produced a recording for CBS Records, “I Can Hear It Now,” an oral history of the years 1933-1945. The show incorporated both archival recordings and occasional recreations of certain events, something that was not always acknowledged.

After a brief period at NBC Radio, where, among other things, Friendly produced a series about the making of the atom bomb, Friendly returned to CBS, where he and Murrow hooked up again to create a radio series, called “Hear It Now,” then moved it to TV, creating “See It Now.”

“See It Now” was truly ground-breaking, but it brought Friendly into regular conflict with the network. He also had an ambivalent relationship with its chairman, William S. Paley, who generally backed his troublesome producer, but not always enthusiastically.

The beginning of McCarthy's end

Among the most notable episodes of "See It Now" were the 1954 broadcast about Joseph McCarthy, which used archival material to demonstrate the bullying, anti-democratic demagoguery the Wisconsin senator employed in his campaign to root out “Communists” from every sector of public life. The show marked the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s his campaign of fear.

After Murrow's departure from CBS, Friendly produced the series "CBS Reports," also hard-hitting documentaries, such as "Harvest of Shame," about the plight of migrant farm workers in America.

Friendly became president of CBS News in 1964, but resigned in a huff two years later, after the network chose to air a rerun of the 1950s show "I Love Lucy" instead of live coverage of a Senate committee hearing about the Vietnam War, as Friendly wanted.

In the following decades, Friendly consulted on broadcasting with the Ford Foundation, where he did some of the foundational thinking that resulted in the establishment of the Public Broadcasting System. Later, he was on the faculty of Columbia Journalism School, where he developed the Media and Society Seminars, on ethics in journalism, that eventually were broadcast nationally. Fred Friendly died of a stroke on March 3, 1998, at age 82.