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Mike Conway
IU School of Journalism

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, September 14, 2009

IU professor's new book reveals a lost first chapter in the history of television news

Sept. 14, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Contrary to popular belief, Edward R. Murrow and the "Murrow Boys" did not invent television news. Neither did Walter Cronkite, Fred Friendly or Don Hewitt for that matter.

While he doesn't want to diminish the accomplishments of these pioneer journalists, an Indiana University professor has discovered and reconstructed a lost first chapter in the history of television.

In his new book, The Origins of Television News in America: The Visualizers of CBS in the 1940s (Peter Lang, 2009), Mike Conway tells the stories of a mostly unknown group of CBS employees who worked in obscurity above New York's Grand Central Terminal to develop a new way to deliver the news.

Conway, an assistant professor of journalism at IU, argues that these people, during the period 1941-1948, developed the television newscast, the most popular format for news for the past 45 years.

"More than a dozen years before Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy on television, a media critic, Gilbert Seldes, and a Broadway producer, Worthington Miner, began to build the staff that would develop the enduring news format," Conway wrote in the book's introduction. "The group included documentary filmmakers, photographers, radio new writers, an audio engineer, a picture editor and a German émigré -- people not constrained by journalists' reverence for the printed word.

"You will not find the work of the 1941-1948 CBS television news staff highlighted or even mentioned in most books on the history of television or broadcast news," Conway added. "Instead, in most cases, television news magically appears, fully formed, in the 1950s, when millions of people bought their own sets and popular radio news broadcasters were forced to move over to the new mass media leader."

Holles and Cassirer

Photo courtesy of Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

Everett Holles reads the latest war news while Henry Cassirer stands off camera, pointing to the appropriate place on the map during a 1944 WCBW newscast.

Print-Quality Photo

The genesis for Conway's decade-long project began in the archives at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas, where he stumbled upon the papers of Henry Cassirer, the German émigré who became TV's first news producer.

"He had a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and he'd kind of considered himself a writer and scholar. He wrote in great detail about the work involved and the ideas behind developing the television newscasts in the 1940s. He saved all of his writings in a personal archive," Conway said of Cassirer in an interview.

"I thought I knew the history of broadcast news, because I love history, and I'd spent many years in television news, but what he was writing about didn't fit with what I thought I knew."

Conway re-read broadcast news histories and memoirs and found few references to Cassirer or his associates. "It was as if it never happened," he said. "As I started doing the historical research and digging into the archives, it started to become clear that there had been interesting work going on."

The IU professor became something of a detective, tracking down more than two dozen people and interviewing about 20 of them on video. He traveled as far as France, where Cassirer lived until his death in 2004.

In addition to learning about Cassirer, Seldes and Miner, Conway learned about Robert Skedgell, the first writer for television news; Richard Hubbell, the first "anchor (a term that became popular with Walter Cronkite's work on the 1952 political convention coverage)," and Chester Burger, whose official job title was "visualizer."

Largely seen as an experiment by CBS, the newscasts were broadcast from a transmitter on the Chrysler building in mid-town Manhattan and could only be seen in the New York area by a few thousand people in the early years. Yet, Conway said the people he interviewed told him they took their roles as journalists seriously.

"Since the radio news people -- who were not visual -- did not take control, it allowed the TV people to start thinking about news in a visual way and not just radio on television," he said.

No film, kinescope or video recordings of these early newscasts exist, but Conway was able to locate photographs, scripts, government documents, reviews and personal archives. They reveal a creative effort by people to tell the story of World War II using 3-D maps of Europe, occasional government newsreels, other films and props. They also brought in guest experts, common to viewers today but something new then. Because of a lack of available technology, they could not report live from outside their studios until the mid-1940s.

"The other big myth that this book tears apart is the idea that the anchor is the key to everything. Everyone thinks that's how TV news developed," Conway said. "These people did not think that. They thought the person delivering the news was one part and not really that important of a part. Very early TV research showed that people did not want to stare at someone reading the news."

Burger and others realized that because most viewers were placing TVs in their living rooms, the person delivering the news had to be someone who people would welcome there. Between 1944 and 1948, at least a dozen different people presented the news on CBS television.

Douglas Edwards, a stalwart of CBS Radio, had been among that group and established himself during his coverage of the 1948 political conventions for CBS television.

By the time of the conventions, the ability to establish television networks was in place. By then, 18 stations in nine cities could present live coverage of the conventions, allowing the largest number of people in history to collectively watch a political event.

"The impact of the 1948 convention coverage convinced broadcast executives that television was no longer an experiment and television news was going to become an important news source," Conway explained.

CBS executives began to pay closer attention to the television news effort. One by one, most of the television pioneers profiled by Conway quit or were fired and eventually replaced by the more famous names from CBS radio.

Cassirer, who was fired off the newscast on election night in 1948 and left CBS six months later, became head of radio and television education for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Burger left CBS TV News in 1954 and became one of the first public relations professionals to effectively utilize visuals.

Seldes became the founding dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Robert Bendick, a photographer who was a cameraman on the original newscasts, who hired both Douglas Edwards and Don Hewitt, became the first dedicated producer for the "Today Show." Another cameraman, Edward Anhalt, went on to win two Oscars for best screenplay. Others connected with this period of early television included famed directors John Frankenheimer and Franklin Schaffner.

In addition to oral history interviews with people involved in CBS TV news in 1941-48, Conway also spoke with radio and print journalists who moved on to the new medium, including Cronkite, Reuven Frank of NBC News, Joe Wershba, who was involved in the groundbreaking Murrow "See It Now" broadcasts, and his professional partner and wife Shirley Wershba; and Don Hewitt, one of the last people hired during the 1941-1948 period and later the creator of "60 Minutes."

CBS News gave Conway permission to use its news reference library. His research also came from company documents, government records, news scripts, various personal writings and reviews from newspapers, magazines and trade publications.

Conway said the omission of this tale from the larger history of television is understandable, "since we have a propensity to focus on a technology as it emerges as a force in society.

"Although most of the people working above the Grand Central Terminal in the 1940s for CBS television news eventually quit, were fired, or pushed out of the way to make room for the more famous names from radio news, the work they did during those years created the framework, the template of television news that later news broadcasters could build upon and improve."