TOPICS > Nation

Newsman Roger Mudd Reflects on ‘Glory Days of Television News’

April 8, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
Loading the player...
In his new book, "The Place to Be", veteran television news journalist and former NewsHour correspondent Roger Mudd describes more than 20 years working in the Washington bureau of CBS News and assesses the future of the television news business.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Jeffrey Brown has our conversation with newsman — and, among other things, former NewsHour correspondent — Roger Mudd.

ROGER MUDD, Television Journalist: It was just a year ago this afternoon, 4:46 precisely, that the second session of the 87th Congress adjourned for good.

JEFFREY BROWN: For 19 years, beginning in 1961, Roger Mudd was a familiar face in millions of American households as a correspondent for CBS News, covering Congress….

ROGER MUDD: This is Roger Mudd at the U.S. Capitol.

JEFFREY BROWN: … national election campaigns…

ROGER MUDD: Why do you want to be president?

TV ANNOUNCER: This is the “CBS Evening News” with Roger Mudd…

JEFFREY BROWN: … and serving as primary substitute for anchor Walter Cronkite.

ROGER MUDD: Good evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mudd began his career in 1953 as a newspaper reporter at the Richmond, Virginia, News Leader, before switching to radio and then TV. He left CBS in 1980 when Dan Rather was chosen to succeed Cronkite and became co-anchor of the rival “NBC Nightly News.”

He later spent five years with us at the NewsHour and served as documentary host at The History Channel until 2004.

Now, in a new memoir, “The Place to Be,” Roger has written of the excitement and turbulence of his days in the CBS Washington bureau.

TV as an emerging news medium

Roger Mudd
Author, "The Place To Be"
in 1963, when CBS moved from a 15-minute broadcast to a 30-minute broadcast, everything changed, and television, with the addition of satellite transmission, broke the exclusivity, the monopoly that newspapers had on breaking stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roger, welcome to you.

ROGER MUDD: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why was CBS News in Washington the place to be?

ROGER MUDD: Because it was a perfect storm. It was a collection of principled, talented, honest, hard-working, very tough perfectionists who all came together during a 20-year period that had written into those two decades violence, chaos, marvelous stories, terrible stories to cover, constitutional crises, assassinations. Everything that could have happened, happened in those 20 years, and we were there with a swagger, covering every bit of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, there had been television news before, but the power of television news flowered, I guess, it was really seen in those years, because of those stories.

ROGER MUDD: John Kennedy being a matinee idol, in effect, ushered in television as a integral part of daily life. And in 1963, when CBS moved from a 15-minute broadcast to a 30-minute broadcast, everything changed, and television, with the addition of satellite transmission, broke the exclusivity, the monopoly that newspapers had on breaking stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through so strongly is the hot house, competitive atmosphere within the bureau, where you're fighting off some real heavyweights there, right, Sevareid and Rather and Marvin Kalb and Dan Shore (ph), and then NBC. And nothing seemed to make you happier than to beat their pants off.

ROGER MUDD: Well, the rule at CBS during those 20 years was, first, we cover the news and, next, you beat the hell out of NBC.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it that?

ROGER MUDD: We used to call it the National Biscuit Company.

Covering historic events

Roger Mudd
Author, "The Place To Be"
It was a very dramatic moment. The Senate chamber was absolutely jammed. And when the last vote was cast that broke the filibuster, everybody went, 'Ah.'

JEFFREY BROWN: There are so many stories that you have in the book, especially about covering Congress, but one most striking is covering the 12-week filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Tell us about that.

ROGER MUDD: Well, that was a Fred Friendly idea. And I thought it was a kooky idea. I thought it was like a flagpole-sitting stunt. But he said, "No, no, no, no, this is a serious attempt to right a wrong."

And so the filibuster was begun on the civil rights bill of 1964. And Friendly says, "I don't want you to cover just once a week. I want you to cover it every day. And I want you to cover it on all four of our network broadcasts. And I want you to cover it on every other radio broadcast."

It was the 12th attempt to break a filibuster against a civil rights bill, and this one succeeded. And it was a very dramatic moment. The Senate chamber was absolutely jammed. And when the last vote was cast that broke the filibuster, everybody went, "Ah."

They knew it was going to be broken, but to be there and to witness this historic moment was, for all of us there, some special, special time.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Congress doesn't have a great name these days. In polls, it may be a little bit over journalists, right, a little bit higher, but you clearly loved Congress, I mean, telling the stories of what was going on there. Why?

ROGER MUDD: When I was hired at CBS by Howard K. Smith, he indicated that I might be headed for the White House and whatever happened, happened. And he said, "We're going to send you to the Hill." And I said, "What? The Hill? I want to go" -- "You're going to the Hill." "Yes, sir."

I went to the Hill and absolutely loved it, 500-and-however-many, 535 politicians, all of them wanting to talk, great access, politics morning, noon and night, as opposed to the White House, where everything is zipped up and tightly held.

But on Capitol Hill, hundreds of different characters, all of them -- most of them wanting to do good, some of them really special people. They wanted to talk to you; they wanted to explain why things were the way they were. And it was for me just a memorable, memorable time in my life.

Journalist as storyteller

Roger Mudd
Author, "The Place To Be"
When you deal with such interesting people, I think just having the difference in character, the difference in motive makes the story itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we talk about covering a story, but I always was struck by your work and then, by reading it in the book, that the storytelling part seems so important to you. Were you always aware? Is that what you were trying to do, to tell a story?

ROGER MUDD: Well, I never thought of it that way. When you deal with such interesting people, I think just having the difference in character, the difference in motive makes the story itself.

And in this book that I've done, I've gotten in touch with all the men and women who were in the bureau during that period. And all of them tell stories.

And I had a little microcassette I used to record them, and those cassettes are just filled with laughter, and they all had great memories of those, because the bureau was working at all the agencies of the government. And every agency, every reporter had a marvelous story to tell. That's the simple nature of news reporting.

Considering today's television news

Roger Mudd
Author, "The Place To Be"
The commercial pressures are such, the demands of the audience are such, the changing tastes are such that commercial television is finding it more and more difficult to maintain news divisions. And that's the sad ending.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you one last thing that comes through a lot here in the book, and I guess I'll call it an ambivalence about television and about television news. I mean, you're talking about the glory days. That suggests we're no longer in the glory days.

You gave a speech in 1970 in which you talked with great ambivalence about the problems or the promise of TV news not having been reached. Where are we today? Where do you see television news now?

ROGER MUDD: Well, I think it's in the doldrums.

JEFFREY BROWN: The doldrums?

ROGER MUDD: The doldrums. It used to be, you know, there were three networks. That was it. And now there are 500 channels that you can go to. And the pie that used to be sliced in three or four slices is now 500 slices.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that is not a good thing?

ROGER MUDD: Well, what's happened is that, because there's -- because so many people know exactly what's happened by the time they get home at 6:30, the evening newscasts no longer feel responsible to give an account of what happened today, because people already know it.

So you wind up with 10 minutes of news and then the rest of the broadcast at 6:30 is features. So much has been left now to cable that there's no place, at least in my estimation, no place where you can go at 6:30 or at a convenient time and get a full, responsible account of what happened that day or during the past 24 hours. And I think that's a great loss.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there some hope that you see?

ROGER MUDD: Well, there's a small hope, and it's right here in this building, and it's with the NewsHour. The NewsHour -- because I used to work here and know about it -- the NewsHour is the one place left on television where you can get a full accounting, not of the breaking news from all across the country, you get a news summary, but then you get a civil discourse about the issues that are important.

There's no other place like it. And I hope that it thrives, because that's the hope that I see for television.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you're -- thank you for that -- but you're less sanguine about the prospects for network nightly news.

ROGER MUDD: Well, the commercial pressures are such, the demands of the audience are such, the changing tastes are such that commercial television is finding it more and more difficult to maintain news divisions. And that's the sad ending.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Roger Mudd's book is "The Place to Be."

Roger, nice to talk to you.

ROGER MUDD: Thank you, Jeff.