Fourth Estate hero dies
CBS' Stanton hailed for vision, gutsHe was one of the great minds of broadcasting, a pioneer in audience research and the right-hand man to CBS founder William S. Paley during the years when CBS earned its Tiffany network stripes. But it was his vision and courage in the face of governmental power that made Frank Stanton a revered figure.
Stanton, who died Sunday at 98, spent nearly 40 years at CBS, most of them as president under Paley as the two shepherded CBS' growth in the postwar period from a radio broadcaster to a multiplatform media company worth $1 billion by the late 1960s. Highlights of Stanton's tenure as president included his spearheading the push for the first televised presidential debates in 1960 and staring down a congressional hearing into a CBS News documentary on the Pentagon in 1971.
Stanton died in his sleep on Christmas Eve at his home in Boston.
Stanton was widely respected and admired as a man of great intellect and principle. He fiercely defended the First Amendment and was cited for contempt by a congressional committee when he refused to turn over CBS News' notes on the 1971 expose "CBS Reports: The Selling of the Pentagon," about the propaganda campaign mounted by the Department of Defense to foster support for the Vietnam War.
"Frank Stanton lived and died a genuine hero of the Fourth Estate," former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite said Tuesday.
Stanton was president of CBS from 1946-73, an extraordinary tenure and longer than anyone in the company's history. Known to all at CBS as "Dr. Stanton," the former teacher with a doctorate in psychology pioneered audience-measurement research into radio shows while at Ohio State University in the 1930s. His list of accomplishments stretched from research innovations to pushing for the landmark decision to televise the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race debates in 1960, ending the equal-time provisions for political candidates. Stanton backed the famous "See It Now" targeting Sen. Joseph McCarthy and brought Holt, Rinehart & Winston publishers and the New York Yankees into the CBS fold in the 1960s.
"Dr. Stanton was a broadcaster who established CBS' long history of programming innovation, dedication to news and to progress in the communities we serve," said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. "He was a communicator, the standard-bearer for our industry in any fight against limiting a free press or the flow of information. He was an educator and never lost his zeal for the preservation and strengthening of the democratic process."
Stanton contemplated leaving CBS many times, including becoming a partner in the Roper Organization polling firm as well as a high-ranking official in the Truman, Johnson and Kennedy administrations. He was close to several presidents, including Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. By some accounts, he was devastated that he never got the chance to succeed Paley as chairman of CBS, though outwardly he remained ever-loyal to the CBS chieftain.
"He was a very private public man," said Don West, the former editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable magazine who spent four years as Stanton's executive assistant at CBS in the mid- to late 1960s. "He had only a few close friends. But everyone who worked at CBS felt extraordinarily close to him even if they were not personally close. He had enormous credibility and people respected him — within CBS, in Washington and in the industry."
In his private life, Stanton was a studied aficionado of art and architecture. He rarely took extended vacations but would think nothing of making weekend trips to Paris to look at new art pieces, recalled West, who is now president of the foundation that owns the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland. Stanton's close friends included famed British sculptor Henry Moore and former CBS News president Richard Salant.
Stanton was born March 20, 1908, in Muskegon, Mich., and raised in Dayton, Ohio. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in 1930 and received his doctorate at Ohio State in 1935. It was at there where Stanton caught the passion for research into broadcasting that would become part of his life's work. He choose Ohio Wesleyan for undergraduate work, he told an interviewer six decades later, so he would be closer to his childhood sweetheart, Ruth Stephenson. The couple married in 1931. Ruth Stanton died in 1992.
He invented a recorder that fit inside big console radios as a way of measuring listenership on radio programs, a precursor to Nielsen Media Research's contemporary PeopleMeter electronic monitoring technology and far ahead of the phone surveys NBC and CBS were doing at the time in the mid-1930s. His work caught the eye of CBS sales chief Paul Kesten, who hired him in 1935 as part of the fledgling audience-research department. It was there that Stanton learned the business of broadcasting, which was in its early days and still thoroughly dominated by NBC.
Stanton was named a vp in 1942. During World War II, he ran CBS' owned-and-operated stations as well as its marketing and research units. During a reception celebrating Paley's return from service in World War II in September 1945, Paley took Stanton aside and asked him to lunch. Although the two had spoken before, they never had met one on one.
When he drove to Paley's home in Manhasset, Stanton was stunned to find that no one else from CBS was there. He also was stunned by what Paley told him: Paley, who wanted to become chairman of CBS, offered Stanton the presidency. It took until Christmas to settle the job — more because of Paley's management style — but Stanton became president in 1946.
It was an important time for CBS and all of broadcasting. Freed from the war-imposed restrictions on growth — and the sales of radios and the emerging medium of television, CBS under Paley and Stanton continued to make inroads into NBC's traditional dominance. Where Paley was very much the creative force — David Halberstam's classic book "The Powers That Be" described Paley's famous ear and eye for talent — Stanton was the behind-the-scenes presence that made it all work, and he was credited with snagging some famous talent of his own, including Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Arthur Godfrey.
Stanton helped lead CBS into the television era, making the fateful decision in the early 1950s to divide the company into television, radio and technology divisions. He also diversified CBS from a pure broadcasting company into records, publishing (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), toys (Creative Playthings) and even sports teams with the purchase of the Yankees in 1964.
He spent a lot of time in Washington for CBS (and the Office of War Information) in the early 1940s and remained the company's face in the nation's capital fighting for the network — and all of broadcasting — during the quiz show scandals of the late '50s. He was an eloquent advocate for the broadcasting business during public policy-related fights, particularly in the late '60s and early '70s and the controversy surrounding "Selling of the Pentagon" that brought the issue of the First Amendment and TV news to the forefront.
The fight made Stanton a hero in journalism circles but cost him within CBS and particularly with Paley, who believed it was a mistake to fight the government and had sought a private meeting with House Speaker Carl Albert to resolve the situation. The Nixon administration had sought to put Stanton in jail and, Stanton later said in an interview, he was resigned to going to jail for the principle. The House of Representatives' Commerce Committee subpoenaed Stanton for CBS' outtakes and notes for the documentary; Stanton refused, citing protection from the First Amendment. He was cited for contempt by the committee but was exonerated by the full House of Representatives.
"It was a very gutsy call on his part," said former CBS and NBC News executive Bill Small, who like West would regularly make a trip to Boston to visit with Stanton in his later years. "He turned down the opportunity to have others front that effort. He felt the issue was so important."
Looking back on his career decades later, Stanton told a Columbia University interviewer that organizing the televised presidential debates and the fight over "Selling of the Pentagon" were the two most important things he had done in his career.
"If we had lost the fight on 'The Selling of the Pentagon,' I think we would have had the federal government into the news business clear up to our eyebrows. … It was just, again, that kind of a gut feeling that it was important to make the stand," he said.
It was for this that Stanton received special recognition from the National Association of Broadcasters that noted, among other things, "his uncompromising rejection of encroachments on freedom and his determinations to advance the public interest."
He also strongly backed the famous Edward R. Murrow investigation into McCarthy's work in the House Un-American Activities Committee on "See It Now" in 1954. Long known as a friend to broadcast journalism, he found a place for the "CBS Reports" documentaries and boosted news as much as he could.
"If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton," "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt said. "If CBS is the Tiffany network, Frank Stanton deserves the lion's share of the credit."
It wasn't all smooth sailing between Stanton and the news division. Murrow's 1958 speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Assn. — memorialized in the recent film "Good Night, and Good Luck" — landed the CBS News star in hot water with Stanton and Paley. Controversial too was Stanton's willingness to create an office within CBS to probe employees' politics during the era when the anti-communist blacklist was carefully enforced, particularly at CBS. That included every employee signing a loyalty oath to the U.S., a move suggested by the legal department that Stanton later told the New York Times he wasn't smart enough to resist.
"He was conscious of that (blemish on his record), but he was still probably the best friend any news organization ever had. He was marvelous," Small said. "You never heard directly from him whether there was any criticism. He always dealt directly with the president of the news division and never pressed."
In the late 1960s and early '70s the pressure was enormous, with Nixon administration aide Charles Colson and others threatening all kinds of things against CBS for its reporting. Small, who then was head of CBS News' Washington bureau, said he never heard about it until much later.
After reaching mandatory retirement age in 1973, Stanton remained involved at CBS until 1987 as a director and consultant. He also kept his hand in corporate and philanthropic affairs, including the chairmanship of the American Red Cross from 1973-79, an overseer of Harvard College from 1978-84, and from 1983-90 as a member of the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities. He was chairman of the Rand Corp. from 1961-67 while at CBS, and he was a member of the boards of directors at Atlantic-Richfield, Pan-Am, New York Life and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others.
Stanton leaves no survivors, and it was his wish to not have a memorial service.
Cynthia Littleton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.