A name and a title appearing in Friday's Style article about the HBO film "Murrow" were incorrect. Brian Conboy is Time Inc.'s Washington vice president, and Michael Fuchs is the chairman of HBO.
Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite are trying to halt the showing of what they consider an anti-CBS film at a journalistic fundraiser to be held here Jan. 9 at the National Press Club.
The CBS News anchor and his predecessor in the anchor chair have both voiced their objections over the scheduling of "Murrow," ostensibly a film biography of CBS News founding father Edward R. Murrow, to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which plans to host a screening of the film as a benefit. Rather and Cronkite are members of the group. Spokesmen for Home Box Office, which produced the movie, say the show will go on over Rather's and Cronkite's objections, and the director of the RCFP says the group has voted to go ahead with the showing if procedural details can be worked out with HBO.
"Murrow" is "a dull movie" and "a docudrama of the worst type," Cronkite said Wednesday, and he acknowledged that he had forcefully expressed his displeasure to the committee about its plans to show the film.
"They asked my opinion and I registered a very strong 'no,' " Cronkite said from his home in New York. "I told them, 'If you persist in this, I think I would have to go on record as disassociating myself from this event.' " He said he didn't consider voicing his opinion to be pressuring the committee and that he was acting on his own, not as a CBS enforcer. "There's no CBS connivance in this, and I have no pressure to put on this committee even if I wanted to," Cronkite said.
Asked if he would go so far as to resign from the committee, Cronkite said, "Maybe that's the easiest thing to do."
Dan Rather, from his office at CBS News in New York, denied that he and Cronkite had joined forces to pressure the committee and discredit the film, which one committee member has alleged. "Walter Cronkite and I have not done any such thing," Rather said. "I've neither seen nor talked to Walter about this subject, ever."
Cronkite said, "I don't know anything about Dan Rather doing it. I'm glad to hear he feels the way I do about the film, though."
"Murrow" had already been a subject of heated murmurs within CBS News, where scripts and bootleg prints of the movie have been circulating, before the RCFP decided to use it at a fundraiser. At CBS, Edward R. Murrow holds the status of patron saint. On Wednesday's "CBS Evening News," the 25th anniversary of Murrow's historic documentary on migrant workers, "Harvest of Shame," was reverently observed, with an update by correspondent Bernard Goldberg.
In the HBO movie, which the pay cable network will begin showing on Sunday, Jan. 19, Murrow is played by Daniel J. Travanti. The script, by Ernest Kinoy, dramatizes various events in Murrow's professional life, including dealings with CBS founder and former chairman William S. Paley (played as a shifty-eyed manipulator by Dabney Coleman) and former CBS Inc. president Frank Stanton (played as a fussbudget obsessed with ratings and profits by John McMartin).
"I think the film maligns Frank Stanton rather severely," Cronkite said. "He was always one of the real bulwarks of broadcast journalism freedoms. Here's a guy who put his own freedom on the line in front of a House subcommittee. Broadcast journalism would simply not be what it is today if not for Frank Stanton and Bill Paley, and I hate to see anything like that film presented as factual.
"When an organization that champions our hopes for freedom of the press and freedom of speech chooses to endorse in this fashion a movie which badly portrays one of the great defenders of freedom of the press, it is a travesty, and I don't want any part of it," Cronkite said.
Rather was guarded about his opinion of the film. He bases his objections to the RCFP showing on the grounds that Time Inc., which owns HBO, would, he thinks, be using the committee to legitimize and publicize the movie. He also thinks a huge controversy over the film will hamper the more serious First Amendment watchdog functions of the group. "This is exactly what I feared out of this whole thing," he said of the emerging controversy, which one RCFP member says has the committee in "turmoil."
"Turmoil? I think that's a gross overstatement," said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the RCFP, on Wednesday. "Several individuals have very strong feelings on one side, and several have very strong feelings on the other side." She said the RCFP steering committee had voted to go ahead with the showing of the film, but that there were still terms to be worked out with HBO, which would make available a print of the film and perhaps make a financial contribution to the committee as well. A Time Inc. spokesman said HBO considers any problems about terms to be "minor" and expects the Press Club showing to go on as scheduled.
CBS is a major financial supporter of the committee, Kirtley said, as is Time Inc.
David Beckwith, Time's White House correspondent and a member of the steering committee who strongly supports showing the film, said he had "a very cordial conversation" with Rather about it earlier this week. "The point he made that I tend to agree with in some respect is that it's bad news when a group like ours gets embroiled in internal controversy," Beckwith said. "But his idea that the committee should not associate itself with a media event that tends to criticize a member's organization I have to reject."
Beckwith said he has seen "Murrow" twice and disagrees with Rather about the film. "I'm sorry he considers this an attack on CBS," Beckwith said. "I see it as an exposition of journalistic problems and how they've been dealt with over the years." The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, Beckwith said.
It was Time Inc.'s Washington vice president, John Conboy, who first proposed that the HBO film be used for an RCFP benefit, Conboy confirmed Wednesday, declining to comment further on the brouhaha. Beckwith said he and fellow Time employe Hays Gorey, also on the steering committee, brought Conboy's idea to the RCFP. Both Gorey and Beckwith abstained when the matter came to a vote, Beckwith said.
Asked about Rather's feeling that Time Inc. and its HBO subsidiary were using the committee -- and the controversy about showing the movie -- to promote the film, Beckwith said, "Sure, there's a little extra kick associated with the sponsorship, a little benefit to HBO. But there's also a great benefit to the Reporters Committee."
HBO President Michael Fuchs said from New York that he was vaguely aware of disputes surrounding the benefit screening but wouldn't comment on them. He called the film "my pet movie" and said that his feeling since the film was first proposed is that it is about Ed Murrow and not about CBS. "I didn't care if he came from CBS or the moon," Fuchs said. "We are always looking for heroes. This for us is 'Sakharov' another HBO docudrama . This has nothing to do with CBS. We have no reason to do an anti-CBS film. There's no dishin' going on here."
Asked about the role of Paley being played by Coleman, who usually plays double-dealers or villains (as in the films "9 to 5" and "WarGames" and the TV series "Buffalo Bill"), Fuchs said, "They don't make Bill Paleys anymore. There is no Tyrone Power or young Spencer Tracy to play the part. Dabney is physically fine for the role. You needed someone with an edge. He's a terrific actor. He's a fabulous character actor."
Although he said he did not think the portrayal of Stanton was derogatory, Fuchs confirmed that the closing scene of the film was rewritten before shooting to make Stanton seem less abrasive. In the original script, Paley and Stanton learn of Murrow's death (in 1965) and Stanton simply keeps babbling on about profits and ratings. In the revised version, Stanton's dialogue is eliminated. The camera zooms in on three noisy TV sets and then the scene dissolves to an empty park bench in La Jolla, Calif., where Travanti as Murrow had last been seen.
In the movie, which has been screened by The Washington Post, Murrow lectures Paley about the responsibilities of broadcasting and Paley listens to Stanton's admonitions about responsibilities to the stockholders. "This industry has to be a helluva lot more than an industry," Murrow tells Paley at one point. Later, during the red scare of the early '50s, Paley says to Murrow, "I'm telling you, we could change the whole world," and Murrow asks ominously, "Into what?"
Later, when Murrow talks to Paley about "the mission of broadcasting," Paley says, "This is a business, for God's sake." Murrow says in another scene, "Something is dying, Bill. It may take a long time, but it's dying."
"Murrow" is a particularly sore subject within CBS News because of another of the film's depictions, that of former Murrow partner and one-time CBS News president Fred W. Friendly, now occupant of the Murrow chair at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism and also an occasional outspoken critic of current CBS News fare and policies. After the premiere of the news division's flashy new magazine show "West 57th" in August, Friendly was quoted as saying it was so bad that he was glad Murrow hadn't lived to see it.
Friendly was "heavily consulted" at early stages in the film's production, Fuchs said, but then "he wouldn't read the script" once it was written. "He gave us a lot of source material," said Fuchs. Friendly is played in the film by Edward Herrmann as a crusader for truth. One CBS News insider says, "Every single CBS person in the movie is a caricature, except for Fred Friendly."
From his home in New York, Friendly, now 70, said Wednesday that he sent the script back unopened when it was sent to him and had no intention of seeing "Murrow" until it is shown on HBO. "I was not a consultant. I was interviewed," Friendly said. "I'm available to anybody who wants to talk about Murrow. I never met Michael Fuchs.
"There are those saying I had something to do with the making of that movie. I did not," Friendly said. "I'm upset that people I thought respected me are telling people I had something to do with the movie when I didn't."
Friendly said that as a rule, "I do not like docudramas. It's not a form of journalism. CBS was the first network to put them on, and it was always over the objections of Murrow and me. We begged them not to do 'You Are There,' but they did it anyway. What I've said about docudramatists generally is that they don't let the facts get in the way of the truth; they perceive a truth and then they make the facts fit it."
If the movie depicts Murrow and Stanton as enemies, that is accurate, Friendly said. "Murrow and Frank never got along. During the 'See It Now' years, we never saw Frank. I never really saw much of Frank until 'CBS Reports.' There was the Frank of the '50s who didn't have very much to do with CBS News, and there was the Frank of the '60s who had a great deal to do with it."
Friendly resigned as president of CBS News in 1966, after two years in the post; his resignation was accepted by Stanton. A major symbolic factor cited at the time was the network's refusal to preempt an "I Love Lucy" rerun for live coverage of Senate hearings on Vietnam. Friendly said Wednesday, "CBS News is the best news organization in broadcasting -- or it once was."
For CBS, "Murrow" is reopening old wounds during a particularly tender time for the news division. It's been traveling through a meteor shower for months, what with a $120 million lawsuit filed (and lost) by retired general William Westmoreland, attacks on the news division from Sen. Jesse Helms and other conservatives, and a recent bid, however fanciful, by "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt, allied with Rather and others, to buy the news division in order to protect it from corporate interference.
To Beckwith, the CBS complications are irrelevant. "The film does not pretend to be a thorough portrayal of Paley or Stanton," he says. "It's a film about Murrow and the world as he saw it. It's an honest effort by a serious filmmaker to portray this situation through Murrow's eyes."
Rather was asked if he would attend the RCFP showing, assuming it does go on. "I don't know. I just don't know," he said. Cronkite was more definite. "As it happens, I think I have to be somewhere else on that date," said Cronkite, "but no, I certainly wouldn't go. Not if I were right next door."