“The greatest innovator and producer in the history of television journalism.” That’s how Ralph Engelman of Long Island University sums up the late CBS News great Fred Friendly, even as he wonders whether students today have ever heard of him.
Engelman’s new book “Friendlyvision” describes the man who was Edward R. Murrow’s producer on “See it Now” and later president of CBS News as both a pioneer and a wizard. The book makes a convincing case that much of what is good about broadcast news today can be traced directly back to Friendly.
He was an enthusiastic supporter of new technology. During World War II, he embraced the newly-developed wire recorder that could capture sound in the field. Later, he pioneered the use of satellite transmission.
Friendly introduced the concept of cross-cutting in TV news, juxtaposing different points of view in a story by butting interview segments together. And he understood, instinctively, the power of television.
What television does superbly is hold a mirror up to the individual. There is a great difference between what a man says and what he is. Exploring that difference–that’s what television is all about.
You can see Friendly’s influence in programs like 60 Minutes, with its emphasis on interviews. Engelman quotes Bill Moyers as saying that Friendly believed there was “no greater production value than the power of the human face.” And he notes that Murrow and Friendly worked tirelessly to integrate image and text through multiple re-edits.
‘Tighten it up’ became Friendly’s refrain as he aimed to eliminate the extraneous and to heighten the pace and ultimate effect.
Engelman portrays Friendly as a showman whose emphasis on production sometimes concerned his colleagues, who worried about his journalistic ethics. He pioneered the use of hidden cameras in TV news, for example–not an unalloyed innovation.
But Friendly’s enthusiasm and attitude infected all around him. In his later years, he taught at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and groomed a new generation of influential TV journalists from Tom Bettag to ABC Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that Friendly will be forgotten. As Moyers puts it, “there are no legacies in television.” But Friendly deserves to be remembered for the impact he had on TV news through the people he touched and the production values he espoused. Engelman’s book paints a portrait of Friendly, warts and all, that should help keep his memory alive.