Academic journal article Journalism History

"My Rhodes Scholarship": Fred Friendly as an Information Officer in World War II

Academic journal article Journalism History

"My Rhodes Scholarship": Fred Friendly as an Information Officer in World War II

Article excerpt

Fred Friendly's experience as a master sergeant in the Information and Education Section of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater during World War II served as a laboratory for his post-war career in broadcast journalism at CBS, the Ford Foundation, and Columbia University. At CBI, he engaged in troop education and made wire recordings of air and ground combat for the Armed Forces Radio Network, and he also reported from the eastern and western fronts for the army newspaper CBI Roundup. During this period, he developed skills and qualities that showed up in his subsequent career as a pioneer of television journalism. This article draws upon the author's interviews with wartime associates as well as Friendly's private papers, which were recently transferred to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

Fred Friendly's experience as a master sergeant in the Information and Education Section of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater during World War II represents a seminal-if largely unknown-period in his professional development. His later career, however, is well known. He became the leading innovator in news and public affairs programming on television as executive producer of "see It Now" and "CBS Reports" and as news president at CBS, an advisor on communications to the Ford Foundation, and a professor of journalism and producer of the Media and Society Seminars at Columbia University.

During his lifetime, Friendly (1915-98) referred to his war years in a cursory manner in his writings and in interviews about his career. For example, he only devoted two brief paragraphs to his wartime activities as a correspondent for the army newspaper CBI Roundup in the introduction to Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control. . . , a memoir of his CBS years. He merely noted that witnessing the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from a reconnaissance plane, the freed Bataan Death March survivors, and the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria "are the only scars I bear from what was, for me, a relatively soft war."1 He provided little additional information in interviews he gave to the "Newsleaders" series of video interviews conducted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and his testimony for the Video History Project of the Museum of Jewish Heritage dealt almost exclusively with his experience witnessing the liberation of Mauthausen.2

But no attempt has been made to consider Friendly's war experience as a whole. An examination of his private papers and interviews with wartime associates reveals how his activities during World War II prepared him-and served as a dress rehearsal-for his subsequent career as a major innovator in broadcast journalism from the 1950s through the 1980s at CBS, the Ford Foundation, and Columbia University.

Friendly's career path prior to the war was inauspicious. As a child, his education was hobbled by dyslexia, which was undiagnosed and little understood at the time.3 He graduated in 1934 from a private high school for underachieving students, after which he attended a two-year business college. At this time, he developed an interest in acting and a passion for radio, and in 1937, he began working part-time at WEAN, the first commercial radio station in his native Providence, Rhode Island, and part of the Yankee Network chain. At WEAN, he worked as an announcer and the producer of "Footprints in the Sands of Time," dramatic five-minute biographies of great historical figures, and also assisted his mentor at WEAN, Rhode Island broadcasting pioneer Mowry Lowe, on a variety of quiz, man-in-the-street, and news shows.4 In addition, Friendly operated a small radio production service for advertising agencies with financial backing from family and friends.5 While he achieved a certain status in Providence as a popular local broadcaster and an extroverted personality, there was no indication that he was about to move to a larger professional stage. …

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