He helped invent TV news. Doug Edwards chats about medium's history, promise
``Simple, straightforward, and elegant'' is the way radio and TV news pioneer Douglas Edwards describes his own style. In fact, the headline on a newspaper clipping on his desk, a tribute to his career, reads: ``The Elegant Douglas Edwards.'' And he is neat and, yes, elegant in his gray flannel suit and polka-dot tie, sitting in his tiny West 57th Street CBS News office behind a desktop cluttered with piles of mail. The letters have besieged CBS since it was announced that Mr. Edwards would be retiring April 1.
Edwards is the senior journalist at CBS News, having served prominently on CBS radio and television since 1942 during some of the great days of both media. In 1948, he assumed the anchor duties on the network's first Monday-through-Friday TV newscast, ``Douglas Edwards with the News.'' He is proud of the fact that he was the first evening news anchor on CBS. There have only been two other evening news anchors on the network: Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.
``We're all completely different,'' Edwards notes. ``Walter is stentorian, avuncular. Dan is quite Texas, intent on delivering the news with urgency and a bit of folksiness. My training was with [Edward R.] Murrow; so my style is more like Lowell Thomas, Bob Trout, and Murrow.''
Edwards likes to reminisce about his days with Murrow; he believes that Murrow, like most newsmen in those days, did not anticipate the enormous growth of television as a factor in news delivery, even though a few years later he would become a historic figure in that field.
``I remember talking about postwar coverage of the news with him in the London bureau,'' Edwards says. ``And not once was TV mentioned. It was simply not a factor in his thinking then in the spring of 1945. But shortly after that, back in the United States, I was invited to appear on a television news program - there was one a week on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; I did an interview about the Middle East. The producers thought I seemed relaxed and asked me to do more. Soon I was doing the news on Thursday nights and Saturday nights as well as functioning as a CBS News staff correspondent. I also had a noonday radio presence - `Wendy Warren and the News.'
```Wendy Warren' was a soap opera, and there would be two minutes of straight CBS news first at noon, then one minute of `women's news,' and then away we would go into the soap opera. Wendy Warren was a girl reporter.
``Despite the Wendy Warren experience, I knew even then that TV would prove to be a major new medium for news. And that's what has happened.''
More recently, Edwards was amused at last year's much-publicized offer by ``60 Minutes'' producer Don Hewitt to buy CBS News and run it independently.
``Don was mainly acting as a catalyst to smoke management out a little,'' Edwards says. ``Don has many good ideas.'' Edwards shakes his head and his eyes sparkle at the memory. ``One of them which was not so good involved me while he was directing my news program. It was in the days before teleprompters. Don came in one morning with the bright idea that I learn Braille so that he could stick the news under the desk with all the chewing gum and I could read it that way.'' Edwards laughs. ``Don still thinks it would be a good idea.''
Edwards has so many stories, he wants to write a book. ``An autobiography, not an expos'e,'' he explains, ``because I have no recriminations. I leave with no pique, no sadness. I've had almost 46 wonderful years here. That is not to say that I'm not saddened by the abrupt departures of quite a number of very able co-workers during the last two years. I'm sorry about those firings, but I suppose they were necessary, because the TV business is in a state of flux. However, we still have an excellent cadre of news people here.'' CBS chief Laurence Tisch, according to Edwards, is a man to be believed when he says he recognizes the importance of CBS News to the network.
But Edwards would like to see network news go to an hour, although he does not expect that to happen, because of commercial factors among affiliated stations. ``But I do not see that as the end of the world. What I would really like to see is more 10 o'clock news shows on the air. And I wouldn't be too surprised to see an 8-9 p.m. news on one of the networks someday soon.'' He rates the ``MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' as excellent, ``but it's too bad we have to leave it to public television to do it.''
Edwards would also like to see more interpretation and analysis on the dinner-hour newscasts. ``We bombard people with facts and then give them precious little time to reflect on the meaning. The old CBS retirement policy turned off Eric Sevareid 10 years ago at his peak, and we have now missed a decade of his mature reflections since then. What a loss that has been for CBS.''
In the closing months of World War II, Edwards broadcast on radio from London with Murrow, and, after serving as CBS news chief in Paris, returned to the US to anchor the ``CBS World News Roundup'' on radio. In 1946, he became the first correspondent to anchor a CBS News television broadcast, ``The CBS Television News,'' on Thursday and Saturday nights.
On Aug. 15, 1948, CBS News launched ``Douglas Edwards with the News'' on a TV network of six stations: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington. In 1951, he said, ``Good evening, everyone, coast to coast,'' as part of the first news operation to reach from Atlantic to Pacific. ``In those early days of the evening news there was only one writer plus myself,'' he recalls. ``It was the first job at CBS for Charles Kuralt.''
Edwards anchored CBS News coverage of all three conventions in 1948 - the Democratic, which nominated Harry S. Truman; the Republican, which nominated Thomas E. Dewey; and the Progressive, which nominated Henry A. Wallace. ``It was estimated that the TV audience for the three conventions was 10 million,'' Edwards says. ``There were roughly 400,000 sets in the whole country, half of them in New York. The radio audience was around 60 million.''
Edwards did ``World News Roundup'' on radio at 8 a.m. as well as the gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. Quincy Howe and Edward R. Murrow acted as correspondents; Edwards was anchor. ``I didn't get much sleep, between radio and TV,'' he says smiling, obviously pleased by the memory. ``By the time the 1952 conventions rolled around, TV had become a major factor, overshadowing radio. In four years, it had taken over the American media scene.''
Edwards believes that the political parties are tailoring their conventions more and more to suit TV requirements. In 1948, the coverage went on morning, noon, and night, sometimes way past midnight. He recalls with amusement the beginning of mass-media showmanship at the 1948 Democratic convention: ``Women's division head India Edwards brought along balloons to release during her speech to indicate how the cost of living would rise if the Republicans took power. It was an effective gimmick.''
Since 1966, Edwards has appeared occasionally on various CBS News programs, anchored ``The World Tonight'' on CBS radio, the midmorning edition of ``Newsbreak'' on TV, and the Sunday-morning TV series ``For Our Times.''
Edwards is very defensive about the perception that there has been a decline in CBS News's reputation. ``Despite what some people say, we have not lost it. It's just that there is now powerful competition breathing down our necks.''
So, on Friday, April 1, at 6 p.m. on CBS radio's ``The World Tonight,'' Douglas Edwards will end his 46-year love affair with CBS network news.
But that's April Fool's Day, isn't it?
He chuckles mischievously. ``Yes. That's my escape clause. I may even change my mind and tell the world I didn't really mean it.''
Unfortunately for the world, Doug Edwards means it.