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Fred W. Friendly (1915-1998)

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipient, 1997

Former producer and president, CBS News Division; Creator, The Fred Friendly Seminars

Fred_friendlyFred W. Friendly could be honored for many achievements.  There is the ground-breaking work that he did as Edward R. Murrow's producer: "Hear It Now," "See It Now," and such "CBS Reports" classics as "Harvest of Shame."  Friendly could be honored too for his principled guidance of CBS News during his tenure as its president.  There are his talents as a writer and speaker.  And the contribution that he has made to future generations of writers and journalists through his teaching.

Tonight, however, the Libel Defense Resource Center is honoring Fred Friendly for the unique contribution that he has made to bringing the United States Constitution, and particularly the First Amendment, to millions of Americans through his award-winning seminars. We honor him for creating a format that encourages intelligent and insightful dialogue between representatives of institutions that do not always understand or even listen to one another.

The idea that Fred Friendly brought to reality in 1974 was elegantly simple. Gather about 30 judges, journalists, attorneys and government officials around a table. Have a moderator trained in the Socratic method present them with a hypothetical that raises constitutional and ethical questions about journalistic practices and the media's role in society. Then watch them sweat out a session of unrehearsed questions, answers and counter-questions — to face, as Mr. Friendly has put it, "an agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking."

Begun with seed money from the Ford Foundation, then developed as the Columbia University Media and Society Seminars, this remarkable use of Socratic dialogue is now known simply as the Fred Friendly Seminars.  These discussions have reminded national television audiences that the Constitution, and particularly the First Amendment, is not some icon lying in state at the National Archives, but the organic product of two hundred years of debate and interpretation that must be argued over to retain its vitality.  What began as a means of helping judges and journalists to better understand each other is an exceptional vehicle for helping everyone to understand the complex issues and  relationships of modern American institutions and of Constitutional values.

A Background in News

It was utterly unsurprising that Mr. Friendly would be the driving force behind top-flight public affairs programming like the Seminars. Throughout his career, he often showed just how good broadcast journalism can be.

Mr. Friendly's life in broadcasting began in 1937, when he persuaded the manager of a Providence radio station to let him script five-minute biographies and read them on the air. He broadcast "Footprints on the Sands of Time" until 1941, when he was drafted into the Army.  Late in the war, Master Sergeant Friendly received an assignment to film GIs in Europe, and he became part of the force that liberated the Nazi death camp of Mauthausen, chronicling the experience in a haunting letter home.

After the War, Fred Friendly came to New York. After freelancing radio scripts for a couple of years, and seeing NBC cancel a quiz show he conceived after only a short time on the air, Mr. Friendly seized on the idea of creating a phonograph history of the '30s and '40s. To read his narrative, Fred friendly wanted what he called "the best voiceI in broadcasting," the voice that millions of Americans had heard reporting gripping scenes of I wartime London. He wanted Edward R Murrow.

And Mr. Friendly got his man. "I Can Hear It Now 1933-1945," one of the best-selling records of 1948, began what may be the most famous and important partnership in the history of broadcast journalism.  With Mr. Friendly producing, and Mr. Murrow reporting, the pair launched a radiodocumentary series on CBS called "Hear It Now."  In 1951, they made the leap into television with "See If Now," a half-hour show on CBS that would revolutionize broadcast journalism and sire the genre of the television news magazine.

"See It Now" did not just report the news, it was the news. In March 1954 Sen. Joseph McCarthy had become one of the most powerful and feared government officials in the nation.  He had broken the reputations of prominent and ordinary Americans alike with vehement accusations of Communist ties.  Mainly using footage of McCarthy's own hearings, and closing with a powerful editorial statement, "See It Now" exposed McCarthy's Red Scare for the intrusion on civil liberties that it was.  For the junior senator from Wisconsin, that broadcast was the beginning of the end.

The Murrow-Friendly team, on the other hand, continued. Among their later work was a "See If Now" broadcast that, for the first time on national television, drew the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. And on Thanksgiving weekend of 1960, they broadcast "Harvest of Shame," a searing documentary about the harsh lives of migrant farm workers that enraged the agricultural industry and sparked a legislative and judicial drive to protect migrants' rights.

In 1964 Mr. Friendly became president of the CBS News division. He held the post for only two years, resigning because network executives chose to air sitcom reruns rather than coverage of Senate committee hearings on Vietnam. In his memoir of his CBS years, Mr. Friendly recalled what he said to then-CBS President Frank Stanton on the eve of his departure: "I'll compromise, but not over Vietnam or what we cover or who makes the editing decisions, and I can't believe you'd really want me to.  I'd no longer be the man you hired."

The consummate journalist that CBS had hired then took up teaching — as the Edward R. Murrow Professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, as well as at Yale and Bryn Mawr — fostered the development of public broadcasting as an advisor to the president of the Ford Foundation, and concentrated on bringing the Constitution to life for those who live under its law.  Among several other books, Mr. Friendly wrote Minnesota Rag, an account of the personalities and events surrounding Near v. Minnesota, and The Constitution: That Delicate Balance, co-authored with Martha Elliott and designed to accompany the first public television series of seminars, also of that title.

Post-Watergate: The Seminars Are Designed

In the days after Watergate, Mr. Friendly perceived that judges and journalists, whom he called "the two hems" of the scandal, "were at each other's throats."  Journalists, Mr. Friendly reportedly has said, thought that the judiciary was interested only in "gag orders and suppressing the news," while judges thought the news media "didn't give a damn about the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, and that all we cared about was selling papers and getting ratings." To bring these conflicts out into the open, Mr. Friendly developed the seminars that today bear his name.

Not designed to change people's minds or basic principles, nor to develop some preordained consensus, the Seminars were seen as a means of breaking down stereotypes and fostering understanding between otherwise contentious participants.

From their start, the seminars fulfilled Mr. Friendly's hopes.  He wrote that at an early seminar sponsored by The Washington Post after two days of tense confrontation between judges and journalists, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who had come only to observe stood up and ad-libbed a ringing interpretation of constitutional history:

"Where, ladies and gentleman of the press, do you think these great constitutional rights that you are so vehemently asserting and that you were so conspicuously wallowing in yesterday, where do you think they come from? The stork did not bring them, these come from the judges of this county, these villains, as you perceive us. ... If you went back to the original understanding of our ancestors, back in the early years of the 19th century, you would find that their understanding of this clause and the Constitution in their judgment allowed them to enact something called the "Alien and Sedition Laws."  And if those laws were still on the books, Richard Nixon would still be President of the United States, Spiro Agnew would still be Vice President ... and all of you people would probably be in prison."

Following the judge's speech, Mr. Friendly wrote, there was an embarrassed silence. Then a journalist shouted: "Yes judge, but what have you done for us lately?"

To the journalists, attorneys and judges who depend on and argue over what the Constitution means 'lately," and who thrive when the society at large appreciates and encourages Constitutional values, Fred Friendly's work has been a special gift.

He has now produced nearly one hundred hours of seminars for television, and hundreds more in nontelevised settings, in which panelists have debated such topics as criminal justice, national security and the press, privacy and libel, and censorship and popular culture. Over the years, the televised seminars have garnered more than twenty awards, including the Peabody Award for excellence and an Emmy.

The format has been borrowed for countless gatherings of lawyers, journalists, judges, government and corporate officials.  With participation since their inception by Stuart Sucherman, and with Ruth Friendly as senior editorial advisor, Richard Kilberg as executive producer, Charles Nesson, Arthur Miller and Charles Ogletree as moderators, the Fred Friendly Seminars continue to be produced by Seminars, Inc.

There can be no question that Fred W. Friendly has given this society a treasure that will endure and for which we must give him our deepest thanks.

 
 
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