Fred Graham Puts Message in Another Medium : Books: The former Fulbright scholar describes his journey from lawyer to reporter to TV news anchor to author.
Fred Graham’s socks and underwear are lying on the bed. The remains of one room-service meal are on the bureau, and another pot of coffee is on its way up.
Graham, the former Fulbright scholar turned lawyer, lawyer turned journalist, and journalist turned failed local TV anchorman, is on a book tour.
“I’m still fresh,” he says happily, but he doesn’t look it.
In 1972, Fred Graham was at the top in journalism--the New York Times correspondent at the Supreme Court. The son of a Southern preacher, he had attended Yale on scholarship and later studied at Oxford. He had become a lawyer and then Special Assistant Secretary of Labor, then joined the Times.
Suddenly, at age 41, he did something nearly unthinkable. He quit the New York Times and went into television. Like it or not, he told colleagues, the tube is how we communicate, so we’d better take it seriously.
As the law correspondent for CBS News for 15 years--the first one in network television--Graham was there for the “golden age” of network TV news. He explained Watergate and the Burger Court to 20 million Americans a night. His bosses had to rein in his show-business tendencies.
Then it came apart. In the 1980s, cable TV started shrinking the revenues at the networks, and suddenly CBS News was pushing something called “infotainment.” Management wanted stories with a lot of quick, different shots, called “elements,” and emotional impact or “magic moments.” Graham couldn’t get on “The Evening News” anymore with stories about law or the Supreme Court.
As he did in 1972, Graham saw change coming again. Economics were forcing a decline in the importance of network news. Local news was ascending. When someone offered, Graham moved back to his hometown of Nashville to become a local anchor, the most prominent of several network stars to make a similar switch at the time. Within two years, Graham was fired.
“Meaningful happy talk news,” he said in the interview, “was a contradiction in terms.”
This journey--Graham’s life in television--is the story told in his book, “Happy Talk.” Graham lays himself bare and takes the blame often for things gone wrong. Yet the preacher’s son also wants to give lessons about television.
“What I have gone through is a metaphor for everything that has happened” in television, says Graham, now 58. And basically he’s right, though the networks still do cover the law, and one, NBC, still has a lawyer doing it in Carl Stern.
One of those lessons is that there is a limit to how substantive local news can be, Graham says. His station in Nashville had hired him to try for substance.
He tried to do it by making the chatter between stories more meaningful. The difficulty was obvious from the first attempt.
The story involved a lawsuit by the state, which wanted to test a federal regulation restricting trucks on local highways.
Graham turned to his co-anchor and added that this appeared to be a ploy by the state to get out of enforcing a federal rule that was unpopular. She looked at him, said, “That’s interesting,” and proceeded to read a story about a local child’s liver transplant.
Graham’s station tried. The news consultants, who already had coached Graham to become more competent, were summoned back from Iowa to help “facilitate meaningful happy talk.” They encouraged taking risks. Graham’s co-anchor refused.
“I have seen a lot of you guys come and go,” she told the consultants. “I have a reputation to protect, and I am not going to take chances. If Fred wants to take chances, let him do it.”
The station created a new broadcast at 6 p.m. for Graham with a different co-anchor who did want to take risks. No one watched. A new group of TV consultants or “news doctors” were hired. Graham was let go.
But he didn’t regret the attempt. For one thing, he is still convinced that the era of network news may be past.
With cable, the networks sharing their news footage with local affiliates and declining network ratings, “It is possible that one or maybe all of the network evening newscasts will not make it into the 21st Century,” Graham says. “A big affiliate like Los Angeles could make more money by dropping the network news (and programming that time itself). If one does and gets rich, then it’s going to be a chain reaction.”
These pressures were one of the things that drove Graham out. Another was that economics seem to have moved the networks toward having just a few celebrity reporters to cover most big stories. By necessity, they are generalists. “They could not be expected to report with the kind of detailed knowledge and sense of perspective that a specialist would bring.”
And these sorts of pressures are part of what in the 1980s estranged Graham and other former CBS colleagues from an old friend, Dan Rather.
“After Dan moved up to the role of anchor and company heavyweight, he seemed to feel that the simple Texas lad image was no longer adequate,” Graham wrote. “He appeared to be groping for a new persona that was a better fit. As a consequence, both on camera and off, Dan seemed to be posing.”
There is a paradox to Graham’s story about being banished from network news and then bombing in local news. It is a celebrity memoir. Graham is hitting all the major shows and the phone is always busy. Television made Graham famous, and well paid. And it is making his book a success. But it has also banished him--at least to cable.
Graham is involved now with Time Warner in launching a news channel devoted to the law, experimenting with the idea that, in the era of cable, there may be a place for narrowly specialized channels where substantive, in-depth journalism could thrive.
As he writes in “Happy Talk”:
“Television is the people’s medium, and if journalism is going to continue to reach the grass roots, much of it will have to be done through the tube. Despite the disarray of the networks, the taint of sensationalism, the appeal of tabloid-TV and the fender-bender tendencies of local news, serious journalists must find roles in television news, or surrender the most potent medium to trash and sleaze.
“I had not come up with the formula for how to do this--particularly in local TV news--but I was not sorry I tried.”