Revisiting the golden age of television news

Memo to TV journalists thinking of writing their memoirs: Forget it. It’s been done, and done exceedingly well. In fact, it’s unlikely anyone will surpass Roger Mudd’s insightful, engrossing and candid account of what it was like when CBS dominated television news in the late 20th century.

That was, of course, before the networks’ influence was undermined in recent years by power struggles among network executives and anchors; the advent of cable TV, the Internet and the blogosphere; and the popularity of fake TV pundits like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and unabashed partisans like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.

Mudd is an old Washington hand. A former print reporter, he joined the CBS bureau in 1961, covering Congress and national politics and often subbing for Walter Cronkite until 1981. That year, CBS picked Dan Rather over Mudd to succeed Cronkite, a decision Mudd says left him in “a quiet fury.” He left to join NBC, where he co-anchored “Nightly News” and “Meet the Press” before moving on to the McNeill-Lehrer “Newshour” on PBS in 1987, and then to academia and The History Channel in the 1990s. He retired in 2004.

Mudd, who turned 80 in February, planned to write about the decline of TV network news until publisher Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs disabused him of the notion. “Everybody knows what happened to the networks. Why don’t you write about how great network news used to be? Why don’t you write about that great Washington bureau you were part of?”

Mudd followed the advice with a vengeance. “The stories the bureau was witness to and got to cover enabled us to nearly monopolize the output of CBS News for twenty years,” he writes. Indeed, they encompassed a huge chunk of contemporary American history: the 1963 March on Washington and the civil rights movement; the ambitious New Frontier and Great Society agendas; the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King; the tragedy of Vietnam and the crimes of the Watergate scandal.

“That twenty-year stretch was unlike any in our history for the changes it wrought, its political upheavals, the growing distrust of government it produced, and the sheer excitement it generated,” he writes. And, he might as well have added, the growing distrust and decline of network TV news.

It’s a fascinating story, and Mudd tells straight on. He spares neither his own feelings and faults nor those of his hyper-competitive and ego-driven colleagues. There are too many examples to do justice in the space of a review, but some of the best revolve around Mudd’s rocky relationship with Cronkite, the iconic CBS anchor.

Case in point: After CBS was badly beaten by NBC in its coverage of the 1964 Republican National Convention — which Cronkite covered with Mudd, then a floor reporter — Chairman Bill Paley decided to replace Cronkite with Mudd and a co-anchor, Robert Trout, at the upcoming Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. The move proved to be a disaster, and NBC again won the ratings war.

“The Cronkite loyalists did not blame [Trout] for the unhorsing of Walter,” Mudd writes. “They took it out on me.” Mudd’s relationship with Cronkite was never the same, and he is convinced that it led to CBS tapping Rather instead of him to succeed Cronkite 16 years later.

Those bruised feelings may account for Mudd’s willingness to take potshots at Rather as well as some famous CBS colleagues like Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, Connie Chung, Lesley Stahl, Dan Schorr and Marvin Kalb, which gives the book a certain “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again” quality.

Mudd’s account of the famous 1979 interview with Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) — when the senator was unable to explain why he was running for president — is equally absorbing. The interview helped kill Kennedy’s presidential chances and made Mudd persona non grata with the Kennedys.

With the exception of a call the senator made when Mudd was bumped from NBC Nightly News in 1987, they had no contact until a brief encounter at church on Easter 2005.

Mudd’s CBS colleague Bob Schieffer has summed up the book as “the perfect example of what a professional memoir ought to be.” This reviewer couldn’t agree more.