If a hall of fame for broadcast journalists existed, Roger Mudd would almost certainly be voted into it on the first ballot. A probing reporter, talented writer, skilled questioner, and authoritative newsreader, Mudd was among the most respected journalists of an era when it was TV network news that brought the visual force of reporting about the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, and Watergate into American households.
And if an award could be given for the best bureau in the history of television news, the powerhouse CBS Washington bureau of the 1960’s and 1970’s would be an odds-on favorite to win it. Serving as home base for Mudd, Dan Rather, Marvin Kalb, Bob Schieffer, Lesley Stahl, Fred Graham, Eric Sevareid, and a long list of other skilled news practitioners, the bureau distinguished itself year after year in a time when Washington news dominated the network evening newscasts.
In “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News,” Mudd, now 80, has combined his story with the bureau’s to create an informed and candid memoir of CBS Washington during these two decades. It was a time that Mudd calls simply the “Golden Age of Television News.”
Presided over for much of the period by the dour and demanding Bill Small, the CBS bureau was a journalistic juggernaut, as notable for its aggressiveness as it was for its skills. Mudd tells us how, time and again, its hard-charging staff put the network out in front on major stories. Acting on a Saturday morning tip, a CBS producer runs blocks to the local courthouse and the network breaks the story of the Watergate burglary. When George Wallace is shot, a CBS cameraman captures the incident exclusively, then commandeers a passing truck to get his footage into position for broadcast. Over time, these and other superior efforts paid off: CBS passed the perennial leader, NBC, in the evening news ratings and stayed on top for almost a generation.
By any measure, Mudd, the network’s top Congressional and political correspondent, was a big contributor to CBS’s success, appearing often on the evening news from Capitol Hill, anchoring special coverage of major events, reporting prime-time documentaries, and filling in regularly for Walter Cronkite at the anchor desk. A perfectionist, he prized preparation and accuracy and had little regard for those who didn’t.
Never was Mudd’s penchant for excellence more in play than in his marathon coverage of the 67-day Senate filibuster against the 1964 civil rights bill. Filing morning, noon and night for both television and radio, his pointed, sometimes irreverent, reporting won him a national following. (Sensing the moment, CBS took out a full-page ad in The New York Times with pictures of Mudd reporting in good weather and bad, accompanied by the postman’s motto, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night …”.)
Mudd concedes that all the attention swelled his head and that his stubborn insistence on high standards sometimes gave colleagues and superiors “a pain in the neck and elsewhere.” He describes himself in his early years at CBS as “prickly, at times sardonic, slightly self-important, unnecessarily unforgiving of others’ mistakes, reliable, trustworthy, knowledgeable, and regularly infatuated with the absurdities of the Congress in particular and the government in general.” Having worked with Mudd years later, when he came over to NBC, I find it hard to quarrel with his self-description. Fortunately, his shortcomings were more than matched by his strengths.
The CBS News of the ’60’s and ’70’s, Mudd claims, “set a standard for thoroughness, balance, credibility, commitment and journalistic skill that has not been equaled.” Integrity, however, seems to have been an occasional problem. Mudd chronicles several examples of serious ethical lapses. In one, after the bureau failed to cover a hearing that turned out to be newsworthy, a CBS reporter convinced an all-too-willing House committee chairman to stage a same-day reenactment of the hearing—Congressmen, witness and all; the television audience apparently was not told that what it was watching was not the real thing. In another, a CBS reporter made repeated, illegal contact with a member of a sitting Watergate federal grand jury; wisely, higher-ups refused to air what he learned. Mudd gives no indication that either reporter was ever punished.
Mudd describes some conduct of his own that raises ethical questions. Seemingly without qualm, he accepted an assignment to report a major documentary on Senator Robert Kennedy as the senator prepared to run for President; this, despite the fact that the Robert Kennedy and Mudd families were close socially. When the documentary aired, the senator and his wife, Ethel, joined the Mudds for a celebratory dinner. Later, Mrs. Kennedy has a falling out with Mudd over his 1979 documentary “Teddy,” in which her brother-in-law, Senator Edward Kennedy, stumbled badly when Mudd asked the simple, now famous, question, “Why do you want to be President?” At another point, Mudd eavesdropped repeatedly on closed-door Senate Democratic caucuses with the help of a Republican staffer who provided him with access to a closet separated from the caucus room by a paper-thin wall. If he had any doubts about the propriety of this or of doing the documentary on Robert Kennedy, he doesn’t mention them.
As Mudd tells it and his colleagues confirm, the correspondents at the CBS bureau sometimes seemed as competitive with each other as they were with their rivals at other networks. Airtime was oxygen and few at CBS were reluctant to compete for it. Mudd regards this as a good thing overall, but concedes that, inevitably, it led to tension, even personal animus. He feels that the bureau’s pride in its accomplishments was an effective antidote to this, but there must have been more than a few days when CBS Washington wasn’t a very happy place to be.
There was no greater competition in the bureau, of course, than the one between Mudd and Dan Rather as the time approached to replace Cronkite. Mudd writes that he was “ambivalent” about getting the post, fearing it would compromise his professional independence and personal privacy. But it’s clear that, deep down, he wanted the job badly, believing Rather to be a less worthy heir, a man “calculating and suspicious of mind” and lacking “personal believability.” When Rather got the job, Mudd was crushed and cleaned out his desk. Later, he went on to do good work for NBC, the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” and the History Channel, but his professional life would never be quite as fulfilling, it seems, as in “the glory days.”
“The Place to Be” is filled with good reporting and compelling stories, but one wishes Mudd, a student of history, had reflected more deeply on how well he and his contemporaries served the nation’s needs. Was the huge amount of time devoted to Washington news appropriate? Or did it come at the expense of news about other important matters such as major social trends, medicine and science, and consumerism? By placing so much emphasis on White House coverage, did CBS News and its competitors help to create the Imperial Presidency? Was the television news “star system” of which Mudd was a part a good or bad thing for journalism and, by extension, the country?
Let’s hope Mudd turns his attention to such matters in future writings, expanding the contribution he has made in “The Place to Be.”
Bill Wheatley, a 1977 Nieman Fellow, is a former executive vice president of NBC News.