Living with the Bomb: Fred Friendly's "The Quick and the Dead"

By Ehrlich, Matthew C. | Journalism History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Living with the Bomb: Fred Friendly's "The Quick and the Dead"


Ehrlich, Matthew C., Journalism History


Fred Friendly's NBC radio series in 1950, "The Quick and the Dead," represented a key moment in the evolution of broadcast news documentaries as it examined the creation of the atomic bomb, the looming prospect of the hydrogen bomb, and the potential benefits of atomic energy. It aired at a charged historical moment just after the outbreak of the Korean War and not long after the announcement that America would begin work on an H-bomb in response to the Soviets' acquisition of atomic weaponry. The program also bridged the news and entertainment worlds by featuring Bob Hope and New York Times science reporter William Laurence along with many key figures in the bomb's development. It exemplified journalism's ambivalence toward the new atomic age while pointing the way toward Friendly's legendary work with Edward R. Murrow at CBS.

In the summer of 1950, NBC aired a four-part radio series representing a key moment in the evolution of broadcast news documentaries. "The Quick and the Dead" was created by Fred Friendly, who worked for two years at NBC before cementing his historic partnership with Edward R. Murrow at CBS, and examined the development of the first atomic bombs, the looming prospect of the hydrogen bomb, and the potential benefits of atomic energy. It aired at a charged historical moment: less than two weeks after the outbreak of the Korean War and less than six months after President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would begin work on a hydrogen bomb in the wake of the Soviet Union's development of atomic weaponry.

This article draws upon NBC company records, Friendly's collected papers, and an original broadcast recording in analyzing "The Quick and the Dead," which was significant in several respects. It bridged the news and entertainment worlds while marking an important transition for network documentary. The series featured Bob Hope as an "average" taxpayer who sought to understand how and why his money was being spent on atomic research. It also combined the voices of real-life people and impersonations of historical figures, with the cast including nuclear scientists, the Enola Gay crew who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and well-known actors such as Helen Hayes. Finally, the documentary blended natural sound with elaborate special effects. As such, it drew upon the tradition of dramatized documentaries that the networks had featured since the 1930s while also pointing toward the actuality-based news documentary form that Friendly would soon perfect with Murrow at CBS.

In addition, "The Quick and the Dead" exemplified journalism's simultaneous fascination and fear concerning the start of the atomic age. The news media presented a number of anti-nuclear stories and programs in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, they produced reports extolling the wonders of atomic science, and as the Cold War deepened, they grew more hawkish regarding the need for nuclear weapons.1 Friendly expressed the hope that "The Quick and the Dead" would help silence calls for America to use the atomic bomb in Korea. The series also relied heavily upon New York Times science reporter William Laurence, who was much respected but has since been criticized for being in effect a government propagandist and for sanitizing, if not outright glamorizing, the realities of atomic warfare.2 In the end, Friendly's documentary avoided taking an explicit pro- or anti-nuclear stance, instead expressing the need for citizens to be informed about the issues and to consider their options carefully, a stance that would carry over to Friendly's subsequent collaboration with Murrow.

Their partnership has been well documented, particularly in connection with the CBS television series See It Now, which aired in 1951-58. Friendly also devoted much of his memoir to his tenure from 1959-66 as executive producer of CBS Reports and president of CBS News.3 However, he made little mention of his career prior to joining CBS, saying only of "The Quick and the Dead" that it followed his collaboration with Murrow in 1948 on the highly successful recorded history album "I Can Hear It Now" and "convinced the CBS management that a permanent MurrowFriendly partnership might be productive. …

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