9 May: The world and inner wars of Howard K. Smith

Smith, whose brilliance reporting Berlin's destruction was equaled only by his flair for being his own worst enemy. (Photo: CBS.)

Smith, whose brilliance reporting Berlin’s destruction was equaled only by his flair for being his own worst enemy. (Photo: CBS.)

Edward R. Murrow’s World War II reporting team has earned a reputation for daring, often dangerous reporting. Murrow himself has traipsed the rooftops of London at the height of the Blitz, then accompanied deep bombing runs in the European war theater. Eric Sevareid has found himself lost in the Pacific when a military flight aboard which he flew went down with engine trouble during the Burmese-Chinese phase of the war in the Pacific. And Richard C. Hottelet has spent a few hours in a Nazi concentration camp.

Another member of the team that came to be known as Murrow’s Boys has returned to Berlin for tonight’s report, the day after official V-E Day—after a three-year absence insisted upon by Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Howard K. Smith doesn’t have anything quite as treacherous as the London Blitz or lost in the Pacific on his resume, but he has something either as glittering or as dangerous on it, depending upon your point of us. At the peak of the Blitz, Smith was Murrow’s man in Berlin, who actually got to interview a considerable group of the Third Reich’s biggest or at least most blustery wolves, including Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, SS boss Heinrich Himmler, and even der Feuhrer himself. Which must have made Smith cringe, considering an upbringing in the Jim Crow South which taught him early enough and often enough about racial discrimination official and otherwise.

The son of a Louisiana railroad conductor, Smith graduated with honours from Tulane University and did some post graduate work at Heidelberg University in Germany, where he saw and disdained the Nazi regime for the first time, returning to his native Louisiana to join the New Orleans Item-Tribune. After going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1937 (where he chaired the school’s Labour Club and led protests against the conservative Chamberlain government), Smith joined United Press (whose ranks included a future CBS teammate named Walter Cronkite) in London as the European war began in 1939.

Getting interviews with the Nazis’ Big Three was one thing. But Smith demurred from including Nazi propaganda in his dispatches, as Goebbels in particular probably insisted he do. That drew the Gestapo to seize his notebooks and punch him a one-way ticket out of Germany. Never mind how careless the Gestapo proved to be (they’d make the same mistake with the papers that proved to be Anne Frank’s diary in due course), forgetting to seize Smith’s manuscript describing conditions in Germany prior to the United States entering the war—a manuscript published in due course as Last Train from Berlin. One day before Pearl Harbour, Smith arrived in Berne, Switzerland to establish a new base of operations.

Smith’s most wounding flaw, a barely-veiled self-importance, will help cause the end of his CBS career in 1961, when Smith is one of the rotating anchors of CBS Reports. He had Edward R. Murrow to thank for getting the assignment to deliver the installment “Who Speaks for Birmingham,” at a time when the notorious Birmingham police commissioner and segregationist, Bull Connor, would send police to handle a Ku Klux Klan attack on a group of the Freedom Riders after the Klan did its worst.

Smith and other reporters witness the Klan attack and the deliberately delayed police arrival. He will telegraph his CBS Reports documentary with an eyewitness account over CBS radio. But his otherwise on-the-money television documentary about civil rights battles in Alabama gets the man who refuse to buckle to der Fuehrer and his henchmen his head on a plate at last.

The issue will be Smith’s insistence upon including in his closing analysis Edmund Burke’s famous phrase about what’s necessary for evil to triumph. CBS will pull the Burke quote from the final product that airs, on the orders of news president Richard Salant, provoking a showdown between Smith and Salant in which Salant will tell Smith to quit editorialising and Smith will retort that there is right, there is wrong, and right is “not an equidistant point between good and evil.”

It might or might not blow over without Smith’s next move, a lunch with CBS chairman William S. Paley, who doesn’t exactly lack in the self-importance department. The discussion between the two will be described by Salant deputy Blair Clark thus: “It wasn’t a reasoned discussion of balance and fairness.”

That, according to other materials about CBS News over the years, may prove a polite way to phrase it. Paley in the post-World War II years comes to chafe at some of the commentaries and analyses by assorted CBS News people, even as he will make frequent exceptions for Murrow himself.

Paley biographer Sally Bedell Smith will suggest one reason why Paley becomes edgy over even such distinctions between the blunt Smith and the more composed Sevareid: the CBS commentators rankle the Eisenhower Administration, whereas Paley and Eisenhower are longstanding friends and Paley will harbour an infrequently-discussed ambition to be named an ambassador to Europe. Smith, for his part, will find John F. Kennedy only slightly less inept than Eisenhower.

The Paley-Smith luncheon has another uncomfortable prelude: Paley, who, shall we say, invited Smith to lunch in the first place, will ask Smith to send a memo “outlining his understanding of CBS’s policy on fairness and balance,” as Bedell Smith will record it. “Instead,” she will write, “Smith wrote about his duty to enlighten the public by giving it informed opinion on issues of the day.”

Salant, Clark, and CBS president Frank Stanton will join Paley and Smith at lunch in Paley’s dining room, according to Bedell Smith.

Stanton, Salant, and Clark silently bore witness at Paley’s dining room table while Paley and Smith argued. “It wasn’t a reasoned discussion of balance and fairness,” Clark recalled. “It was more like Paley saying, ‘How can you think that isn’t opinion, Howard?’ and Smith saying, ‘You have a right to your opinion, Mr. Paley. Either I am right or you are, Mr. Paley, and I know I am right’.” What irritated Paley more than anything was Smith’s statement that journalists had an obligation to lead the country since [JFK] was not doing so.

Paley’s exasperation finally boiled over. He yanked out the memo Smith had written. “I’ve read junk like this before,” he said, throwing the offending document across the table. “Maybe you ought to try something else.” As usual, Paley could not bring himself to say the words, “You’re fired,” but Smith correctly concluded that he was out. The newsman pushed back his chair, said, “I think this lunch is over,” and left the room.

Paley would later insist that Smith “wasn’t driven off the air. He and I had a difference of opinion . . . I never fired him.” Even though Paley periodically came down hard on the newsmen, he “always liked to be on the side of the journalistic troops,” said Salant. Once again, Paley wanted to have it both ways. “When it came to unpleasant acts he always distanced himself,” said Salant.

Sally Bedell Smith, in In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.)

The Paley-Smith showdown will receive another translation in due course, when Gary Paul Gates writes Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News, shortly after Eric Sevareid’s retirement.* Based on conversations with assorted CBS staffers, Gates will transcribe Smith’s rejoinder as a case of the country needing leadership with the none-too-thinly-veiled implication that the kind it needs is the kind only Howard K. Smith can provide aboard the CBS network.

Smith will move on from there, enjoying a solid enough second career at ABC News, even if he still proves unable to duck controversy for very long. He won’t be entirely wrong, following Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s infamous attack on broadcast news, suggesting on the air that a little more depth and objectivity certainly is called for. But Smith won’t exactly make many new friends, in and out of his craft, by his not so very subtle implication that only one network newsman possesses such a combination.

After resigning from ABC News in 1979 when the network curtails his commentaries, Smith will write his memoir, Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter, in 1996, six years before his death at 87.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Howard K. Smith: “The Most Massive Work of Concentrated Destruction . . .” (Combined American Networks, 1945)

Accompanying such Allied air commanders as Army Air Force legend Carl Spaatz, Smith delivers what may yet endure as the signature report of his long career, a jarring examination on the manner in which Hitler’s war finally devastated Berlin itself.

He lacks Murrow’s knack for letting a fact or picture speak for itself; he lacks Sevareid’s multi-minded analytical skill. But this Berlin report evokes both the best (his firm, sober description and analysis) and his worst (his inability to disguise his own self-importance, if not check it at the door), and the shame of it is that the best of Smith keeps listeners gripped tight.

Just try to avoid peeling away when he refers to Richard C. Hottelet’s short spell in a Nazi camp. Reviewing the carnage wreaked upon Berlin in the final months of Hitler’s war, Smith keeps his own self-importance under tight control for once in his career.

You may yet believe someone else among Murrow’s Boys might have done it better, But you might believe concurrently that only one or two, at most, could have done it with this much raw humanness. If Smith could only keep in mind what makes this work so brilliantly, he might spare himself many of his own future professional headaches.

 

Thomas Cadett: “There Was the Body of Goebbels . . .” (BBC, 1945)

The British Broadcasting Company has been no slouch in war reporting itself, and—like many of their best reporters—Thomas Cadett lacks the sense of self-significance that compromises Smith. Perhaps that is why Cadett, in a shorter report, damn near equals the harrowing Smith in describing what remains of Hitler’s Berlin bunker, not to mention Hitler’s longtime propagandist and never-questioning acolyte: Joseph Goebbels.

For a single day upon Hitler’s death, Goebbels served as Germany’s chancellor until Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s surprise successor, assumed power after receiving the formal dispatch of Hitler’s wish from Goebbels himself. Now, Cadett reports the staggering news that Goebbels has had his children poisoned before he and his wife commit suicide.

Cadett’s sober, matter-of-fact descriptions includes one problematic item, his description of a reputed Hitler doppleganger found amidst Berlin’s ruin. That may make it hard to isolate whether his report inadvertently helps ignite a decades-long speculation over whether Hitler and other top Nazis, Martin Bormann most notoriously, actually escaped the fall of the Third Reich, ending their lives even further on terms they denied their fellow Germans and millions more.

But Cadett’s equally sober description of discovering the fate of the Goebbels family should have dispelled the rumour machinery post haste. Nothing if not slavishly devoted to Hitler, Goebbels’s diaries will reveal his explicit wish—begun with a striking refusal to join the Doenitz government to stay, as Hitler requested, the only time in Goebbels’s life the propaganda minister could bring himself to disobey der Feuhrer—to end his life (and, grotesquely, the life of his family) rather than live it without Hitler to serve.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Chase & Sanborn Hour: Guest Ann Harding (comedy; NBC, 1937)

The Goldbergs: Ed and Leah Refuse to Tell (comedy/drama; CBS, 1941)
The Burns & Allen Show: George’s Door-to-Door Radio Campaign (comedy; CBS; rebroadcast: Armed Forces Radio Network, 1944)
Duffy’s Tavern: Men’s Fashion Lecture (comedy; CBS, 1944)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Alice Darling’s New Boyfriend (comedy; NBC, 1944)
The Bob Hope Show: Live from Jacksonville Training Camp (comedy; NBC/AFRS rebroadcast, 1944)
Escape: The Time Machine (adventure; CBS, 1948)
The Fred Allen Show: Break the Contestant (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Circus Day (comedy; NBC, 1950)
The Henry Morgan Show: On Canasta; Dr. I.J. The Mental Fox (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Broadway is My Beat: The Sybil Crane Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1953)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons—The Murder of the Missing Eavesdropper (improvisational comedy; three guesses, 1960)

* It should be said that Sevareid, too, will find himself in Paley’s doghouse a few years earlier. The issue: Sevareid’s report involving a reporter invited to visit China and whose report contradicted State Department insistences that Mao Tse-tung’s regime is about to collapse. Sevareid will speak to the reporter, William Worthy, and prepare a radio report that ends up in the Congressional Record after CBS will kill it, thanks to Sevareid handing it to a friendly if unidentified U.S. Senator. That sets up the Sevareid-Paley showdown.

But the more cerebral Sevareid will be far less confrontational, if no less disappointed. He will also continue to strive toward temperate commentaries, truer to his nature. As he would say in due course, “I was more interested in elucidating than advocating.”

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