The way Fred Friendly likes to put it is "I'm flunking retirement."
At 65 (and a half) he has just retired as communications adviser to the Ford Foundation and added at least the word "emeritus" to his professorship at Columbia University's schools of journalism and law.
"The trouble," says his wife, Ruth Friendly, "is that he's a man who can't say no."
"The trouble," says Friendly, with just the right amount of rue, "is ego."
Whatever the "trouble," Friendly is as active, as "indefatigable," as former colleagues put it, as ever.
Fred W. Friendly, born Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer, is the man who, with Edward R. Murrow, left a permanent imprint on television journalism with the seminal "See It Now" programs. Friendly was executive producer. He left television news in 1966, in protest, after his decision as president of CBS News to broadcast live the Senate hearings on Vietnam was overruled by a corporate executive and viewers got "I Love Lucy" reruns instead.
Now he will continue to teach journalism to lawyers and law to journalists at Columbia as he has since 1968, and has agreed to teach a seminar once a week at Bryn Mawr, which means a nearly five-hour commute from the Riverdale, N.Y., house he shares with his wife and whichever of their six grown children is home at any given time. The place is overflowing with memorabilia from his early radio days and his television days with Murrow.
His new book, his fourth, "Minnesota Rag," has just been published by Random House. It is a kind of "Read It Now," about the 50-year-old Supreme Court case that overturned a Minnesota state law permitting before-the-fact censorship. The case, Jay M. Near v. the State of Minnesota, was not the one most journalists (or constitutional lawyers) might want to pick as a First Amendment test. The Minneapolis Saturday Press, a descendant of an earlier "rag," the Duluth Rip-saw, was a bigoted, biased, vitriolic travesty of a newspaper edited by an unpleasant man who was anti-Semitic, anti-black, illiberal, ill-tempered, vulgar and venomous.
The paper was shut down by authorities after it accused the police and city officials of being in corrupt collusion and of blackmail, assault and murder.
As it happened, most of the accusations were true. Jay M. Near's rake may have been barbed and poison-tipped, but there was plenty of muck for it to comb through. But that was irrelevant.
And although most lawyers and many journalists can quote from the Charles Evans Hughes opinion in the case, not too many are aware of some of these curiosities uncovered by Friendly in his research:
When the paper proclaimed "Jew gangsters," it may have been graceless, even intemperate, and "Jew-pigs" certainly could be regarded as out of line. But in fact, Friendly found, the gangsters in Minneapolis in the '20s were mostly Jewish. The politicians, even those who helped form Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party, now seen as the prototype of ethics, and major law enforcement officials were largely crooked, or looked the other way when crimes were committed. There was plenty of collusion between politicians and mob.
One of Near's staunchest supporters was the Jewish owner of a small dry-cleaning establishment, Sam Shapiro. Shapiro's son, Irving, watched his father beaten up by a mobster because he refused to pay protection to the Jewish mafia. Near's paper championed Shapiro's cause and eventually -- seven years after the act -- the then 18-year-old Irving testified at the trial of his father's assailant, where his remarkable memory had great impact on the outcome. (Irving Shapiro grew up to be chairman of the board and chief executive officer of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. and met Friendly at a Ford Foundation affair. It was Shapiro's recollections which, Friendly says, "compelled" him to write the book.)
Two major backers of Near in this case, which wrote such far-reaching "liberal" law on the First Amendment, were Roger Baldwin of the then-budding American Civil Liberties Union and Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, an alliance every bit as seemingly anomalous as that of Near and Sam Shapiro.
Friendly loves these ironies from those turbulent days along the Mesabi iron range. For one thing, it gives him an opportunity to make this point:
"The First Amendment protects the reader more than the newspaper . . . freedom of the press is the right of the reader , not the publisher."
Fred Friendly folds his lanky (and trim) 6-2 frame into a patio chair in his shaded and spacious back yard. Riverdale is technically part of the embattled Bronx, but on this affluent, quiet street the greatest damage appears to be to the leaves of the trees inflicted by an unusally heavy infestation of gypsy moth larvae.
Even now, Friendly tends to speak in the abbreviated epigrams of his TV journalist colleagues, who mesure items in seconds, and to sprinkle quotes throughout conversations.
Hemingway: "Every good reporter has an automatic, foolproof s--- dectector."
Murrow: "Journalists aren't thinskinned. They have no skin at all."
Or Friendly will say things like:
"Teaching is making the agony of decision so difficult that you can escape only by thinking."
"Television and newspapers set the national agenda. That's much more important than what we say. It's the fact that we tell everybody what's important."
Palmer Williams was Friendly's No. 2 man when they joined Edward R. Murrow in "See It Now."
Now senior producer of CBS's popular "60 Minutes," Williams is tracked down at the Provincetown (Mass.) Tennis Club.
"Oh my lord," he sighs. "Fred. I could talk for hours. . .
"He was," says Williams, "unforgetable as a dynamo, a driving, powerhouse of energy with a will to get it done. He used to drive editors crazy, but he would demand impossible things."
Williams recalls that Friendly not only "insisted on quality, but was in absolute genius at praising camera crews and technical staff and in general oiling up the skids. Where else could you find groups working 90 to 100 hours a week, all swept up in his giant enthusiasm?"
Friendly also was fiercely competitive and demanding, friends recall, and note that it was about Friendly that someone coined the now-classic line, "He'll never get ulcers. He's a carrier."
Williams remembers Friendly, the perfectionist, insisting on sending heavy sound equipment to Korea because "he said when the gun went off he wanted to hear THAT gun, not some Navy cannon dragged in by a sound-effects engineer."
He was not always successful. "One I really love," Williams says, "was when we were intercutting Adlai Stevenson with Eisenhower campaign speeches. wThe sound got so far out of synch, when the cut came of Stevenson we had a 10-piece orchestra coming out of his mouth."
For a period after he left CBS, Friendly was widely quoted on his unyielding views on the obligations of television journalism and not all of his ex-colleagues were particularly pleased.
At one point, a CBS executive had calling cards printed which read, "Fred W. Friendly, Former President CBS News." It was not a friendly gesture.
Nevertheless, another friend, CBS' Burton (Bud) Benjamin, says, "I think he left a pretty good legacy."
Ruth Friendly teaches the fifth grade in a Scarsdale, N.Y., elementary school.
Each year she has her class rewrite "Little Red Riding Hood" from the point of view of the wolf. One year she got a story about how the wolf was entrapped.
She also brings her husband in periodically as a guest speaker. That permitted him to come up with this aphorism:
"A good journalist," Fred Friendly told his wife's fifth-grade pupils, "has a lot of shoe leather, a conscience and the ability to see the world from the wolf's point of view."