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Leslie Midgley, 87; Developed TV Specials on Breaking News

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leslie Midgley, veteran newsman who began his career in print journalism and went on to pioneer the “instant special” for television, producing more than 1,500 programs for CBS News chronicling such historic events as the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War, has died. He was 87.

Midgley died June 19 of pneumonia at a White Plains, N.Y., hospital, where he was taken after a fall at his home in Hartsdale, N.Y.

In his 1989 autobiography, “How Many Words Do You Want? An Insider’s Stories of Print and Television Journalism,” he said: “News is what an editor decides it is.”

He concluded his career as a television producer, but he had started in newspapers, embarking on his career in 1935, when he was a 20-year-old government typist and visited friends at the Washington Post.

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“I decided almost from my first look inside,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that if you could actually get paid for doing this, there was no reason whatsoever to do anything else. Anything.”

Within 15 years, however, he had stretched the meaning of “anything” to include television, and he spent the next 28 years expanding that new medium’s impact.

At the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Midgley was in charge of all prime-time news coverage at CBS. Over the four days from the shooting in Dallas on a Friday to Kennedy’s interment at Arlington National Cemetery the next Monday, Midgley pioneered the continuous on-air, commercial-free reportage now familiar for major news events.

About midnight on the day of the assassination, Midgley recalled in his book, he began to wonder aloud how long he should keep commentator Eric Sevareid on the air. A voice behind him said, “Les, stay on just as long as you want.” It was network boss Frank Stanton, who kept the network ad-free until Kennedy’s funeral, forcing other networks to follow suit. At the end of the four days, Midgley agreed with Stanton, who said: “Television news will never be the same.”

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A year later, Midgley won further praise for his thorough, balanced four-part analysis of the report by the Warren Commission, which concluded that no conspiracy had led to the assassination.

The producer received three Emmy Awards and six Peabody Awards for work that included a three-hour special on the day Saigon fell in 1975.

He also exploited new technologies, incorporating videotape delivered by jet to produce up-to-the-minute news coverage from anywhere in the world. From 1967 to 1972 he was executive producer of “The Evening News” with Walter Cronkite.

Born in Salt Lake City, Midgley was a University of Utah dropout who used his family connections--his grandfather Heber J. Grant was president of the Mormon Church--to land his first job as police reporter at the Deseret News.

That was 1935, still an era of the itinerant journeyman journalist who could move easily from newspaper to newspaper.

Midgley did just that--moving on to the Denver Post, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Chicago Times, back to the Deseret News as city editor and then, in 1940, to New York City. He was hired at the New York World Telegram and within six months had moved to the New York Herald-Tribune.

Midgley proved to be a natural as a rewrite man, producing readable, informative stories from rough notes or poor copy turned in by other reporters.

He took the title of his autobiography from a question he asked his World-Telegram boss: “How long do you want this story? And what do you want it to say?” He was seeking guidance for the practicalities of journalism--space or time available and salient points deemed necessary--requirements he would adapt for decades on the page and later on television.

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Midgley spent a decade with the Herald-Tribune, most of it toward the end of World War II and afterward in the Paris office of the international edition. He then spent several years editing magazines, Collier’s and then Look, where he was managing editor.

In 1954, Midgley joined CBS to work with Andy Rooney writing a new morning pilot program called “F.Y.I.” Soon, Midgley was producing a half-hour news show featuring Sevareid.

By 1956, Midgley had begun producing his new instant specials on major international events, including coverage of the Hungarian revolt, the Suez invasion and “The Face of Red China,” which earned an Emmy and a Peabody.

Midgley was named producer of “Eyewitness to History,” later “Eyewitness,” in 1959, overseeing 148 programs about the most important story of the week.

After years of producing evening programming, including “The Evening News,” he returned to documentaries from 1972 until his retirement from CBS in 1980, when the Washington Post saluted him as “the man who practically invented ‘instant specials.’ ” Midgley worked briefly for NBC News as vice president for special programs but soon resigned to teach.

He was widowed twice, first by the death in 1965 of his first wife, Jean Burke, and in 1994 by the death of his second wife, consumer advocate Betty Furness. Midgley is survived by his three children with Burke, Leslie Midgley of Hague, N.Y., Andrea Connors of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., and Peter Midgley of Mesa, Ariz.; a stepdaughter, Babbie Green of Sherman Oaks; two sisters, Ann Gowans and Joy Orr; a brother, Grant; two grandchildren; and one step-granddaughter.

Midgley clearly relished his time in newspapers, but also understood what television meant for universal communications.

“That baby,” he said of the medium he helped nurture, “stirred in its cradle as the decade of the 1950s began, then shot up like Jack’s beanstalk. Because it brought into American living rooms entertainment, great events as they actually occurred, sports--and daily news.”

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“Television has, in the last 40 years,” he wrote in his autobiography, “opened wide magic windows through which the entire citizenry, down to the youngest, the most impoverished and the least educated, can watch--and hopefully in some degree understand--what is going on.”

Midgley helped make that happen.


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