A Tribute to Fred Friendly

International Press Freedom Awards

“To make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking.”

In a distinguished career spanning 60 years, Fred Friendly was an inspiring and courageous leader. A principal exponent of the importance of a free press in a democracy, he challenged a fledgling industry to realize its potential to inform and enlighten public opinion. His landmark “See It Now” documentaries with Edward R. Murrow revolutionized television by breaking new ground with bold programming that uncloaked McCarthyism, revealed the shameful plight of migrant farm workers, and set a standard for investigative reporting that endures to this day. 

Friendly put principle into practice as president of CBS News from 1964-1966, resigning in protest over the network’s decision to an “I Love Lucy” rerun instead of broadcasting live coverage of  Senate hearings on the Vietnam War. The experience led to his resolve to promote the concept of noncommercial television, and he became the driving force behind the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The historic October 9, 1954, broadcast on CBS of “See It Now” is credited by many as a watershed mark in the country’s view of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Friendly and Murrow used clips of Red-baiting speeches and harassing of Senate witnesses to make the case against McCarthyism, and used their own money to take out an add in The New York Times when CBS, which was reluctant to air the program, refused to promote it.

After leaving CBS, Friendly became a professor of journalism at Columbia University, taking his powerful dictum “to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking” from the classroom to the American public and beyond in the probing Columbia University Media and Society Seminars television series, which will stand as problem-solving guides on social issues for generations to come. The programs examined the complexity, role and responsibility of the news media, profoundly broadening the public’s understanding of its obligations in a democratic society, and of the importance to the nation of a free press. Friendly was the Ford Foundation’s advisor on communications for 14 years, and also published numerous books and articles, including The Good Guys, The Bad Guys, and The First Amendment and Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, an account of his 16 years at CBS.

Fred Friendly’s lifelong commitment to press freedom helped to form a profession that is forever in his debt.

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