Frank Stanton, 98; TV pioneer who helped brand CBS ‘Tiffany Network’
Frank Stanton, a pioneering executive in early television who was a major force in branding CBS as “the Tiffany Network” while also defending its news division against 1st Amendment assaults, died Sunday afternoon at his home in Boston. He was 98.
Stanton, who had lived in Boston for the last eight years, had been in declining health for some time, according to Elizabeth Allison, a longtime friend who had been coordinating Stanton’s medical care.
In a career at CBS that spanned his early days as a researcher for the radio division in the 1930s until his retirement as president of CBS Inc. in 1973, Stanton won five Peabody Awards for distinguished achievement and public service in broadcasting and made several lasting contributions to the industry.
He pioneered efforts to analyze audience responses to programming; instituted such innovations as block programming, bundling similar programs in blocks of time during the day; led the way in persuading Congress to suspend the equal-time rule as it applied to presidential debates, opening the door for today’s familiar format of presidential debates between the leading candidates; and pulled the plug on CBS’ quiz shows after it was found that several of the programs, which were produced independently of CBS, had manipulated the results.
“Stanton came to be regarded as broadcasting’s foremost statesman, and more than anything else, it was his vigorous and admirable response to the 1959 quiz-show scandals that elevated him to that stature,” Gary Paul Gates wrote in “Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News” (1978).
Perhaps most notably, however, Stanton in 1971 risked jail for contempt of court rather than turn over to a House subcommittee the outtakes from a controversial CBS production sharply criticizing Pentagon spending. Stanton avoided jail when the full House refused to back up the citation.
“Broadcast journalism thrives today, to a large extent, because Frank Stanton defended our rights under the 1st Amendment.... " said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, in a statement released by the network.
“If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton,” said Don Hewitt, the creator of “60 Minutes.” “If CBS is the Tiffany Network, Frank Stanton deserves a lion’s share of the credit.”
Stanton worked with William S. Paley -- the man who, with his father, had bought a fledgling radio network called Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928 and turned it into one of the most successful businesses in broadcasting.
Although Paley was definitely in charge at CBS and was the master of the strategic picture, Stanton for nearly 30 years was his right-hand man and carried out the network’s day-to-day management.
Together with Paley, Stanton practically invented the idea of “branding” the network. They oversaw the creation of the CBS “eye” -- the William Golden design that is one of the most effective graphic identities ever developed for a corporation. And they directed the construction of the company’s distinctive corporate headquarters -- the Eero Saarinen-designed “Black Rock” in midtown Manhattan.
Stanton also was to a great extent the public image of CBS, particularly when CBS was under attack for news programs that raised the ire of politicians in Washington.
“As president of CBS, Frank Stanton stood up for the broadcast press and resisted government efforts to intimidate it,” former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite wrote in the foreword to Corydon B. Dunham’s 1997 book about Stanton, “Fighting for the First Amendment.”
Richard S. Salant, who was hired by Stanton to be president of CBS News during the 1960s and ‘70s, wrote in his 1999 memoir that Stanton insulated the news division from outside political pressures and did not interfere with his decisions.
As the years went by, Stanton became almost a more visible symbol of CBS than Paley. As Sally Bedell Smith wrote in her 1990 biography of Paley, “In All His Glory,” “To much of the outside world, Frank Stanton, not Bill Paley, was Mr. CBS.”
“He was better prepared and more eloquent than his counterparts at the other networks,” Smith wrote of Stanton. “He knew every senator and congressman. His speech, conduct and look gave CBS a personal dignity that had little to do with what was appearing on living-room TV screens. Stanton’s contribution to CBS’ image was incalculable.”
It is probably no surprise, then, that the seemingly all-powerful Paley began to grate at the attention Stanton was getting.
Even Stanton himself recognized this. Speaking in a 1994 interview with Arthur Unger for Television Quarterly, Stanton said that Paley at one point complained to him that his own friends “don’t think I have anything to do around here anymore.”
In 1966, Stanton was slated to take over as chief executive from Paley, who was going to retire at age 65 under the company’s mandatory retirement rule. But, just minutes before a board meeting at which the changeover was to be announced, Paley decided he could not relinquish the reins of power of the institution that he had created almost from scratch.
Stanton was crushed.
According to David Halberstam, writing in “The Powers That Be,” his 1979 book on important figures in media, Paley and Stanton became “like two people locked into a terrible marriage, two people who need each other, and dislike each other, and need to dislike each other” and for whom “divorce was unthinkable.”
Stanton left CBS in 1973, bitter at being pushed out before he was ready. Paley continued on, through a series of top executives -- none of whom matched Stanton’s longevity or public stature. Paley died in 1990.
After leaving CBS, Stanton was chairman of the American Red Cross from 1973 to 1979. He was also an overseer of Harvard University and a trustee at Rand Corp., serving as chairman of the board of trustees from 1961 to 1967 and later as an advisory trustee.
Stanton was born March 20, 1908, in Muskegon, Mich., to a high school manual arts teacher and his wife, a weaver and potter, and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Stanton showed pluck and ambition early in life. As a teenager, he took a job at a local department store and was soon so indispensable that he was nearly running the place.
The earnings put him through school, first at Ohio Wesleyan University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930, and then at Ohio State University, where he studied psychology and earned a doctorate in 1935.
He wrote his doctoral thesis on listener response to radio programs, which led to a $55-per-week research job at CBS.
In 1935, Stanton and his wife, high school sweetheart Ruth Stephenson, drove to New York in a Model A Ford. And at CBS, Stanton’s propensity to make himself indispensable “burst into full bloom,” Robert Lewis Taylor wrote in a two-part article in the New Yorker magazine in 1947.
Stanton’s mantra was “Let’s find out,” which reflected his curiosity, his background in research and his drive to excel.
While at CBS, Stanton also worked with Austrian statistician Paul Lazarsfeld on a device to measure listener preferences, a precursor to the Nielsen audience meters.
“What’s important is less the machine than its meaning,” Randall Rothenberg and John Taylor wrote in Esquire in December 1996 of the Stanton-Lazarsfeld “program analyzer.” “The alliance between Stanton and Lazarsfeld marked the first time in the history of modern communications that theorists, researchers, media executives and sponsors joined together not only to understand the public but to manipulate it.”
On the basis of his research and hard work, Stanton quickly climbed the ranks at CBS. Within a few years, he was overseeing a staff of 100 whose research was being used to shape audience-friendly programming and attract sponsors.
In 1946, while still in his 30s, Stanton was Paley’s choice to be president of CBS, and Stanton took his place as the preeminent “boy wonder” in broadcasting at the time.
A tall, good-looking, meticulously groomed man with blondish hair, Stanton immediately showed skill, intelligence and drive in running the network.
“He was indefatigable,” Salant, the CBS news chief, wrote in his memoir. “He never seemed to need sleep. His integrity was uncompromising yet it was gentle. He nursed his associates along and taught them by osmosis and example, not by forbidding and righteous moralizing (or demoralizing) lectures.”
One of Stanton’s first major journalistic tests as a network executive came in 1954 when the network stood behind the airing of a controversial segment of Edward R. Murrow’s program, “See It Now.” In it, Murrow had pieced together footage of U.S. Senate hearings in which Sen. Joseph McCarthy intimidated the news media and entertainment industry in his hunt for communists. Murrow then methodically rebutted the charges.
Up until then, the media had been fearful of challenging the powerful Wisconsin Republican, who could just as easily turn his wrath toward them.
“The program exposed McCarthy by hanging him on his own words through footage skillfully edited to show the pattern of his demagoguery,” Smith wrote in “In All His Glory.”
After the program aired, CBS allowed the angry McCarthy time for a response.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago called the two programs, in retrospect, “among the most important in the history of television.”
“In that blustery performance,” the museum stated in its biography of Stanton, “many observers see the downfall of McCarthyism.”
As many have commented since then, however, it was somewhat ironic that CBS was so instrumental in bringing McCarthyism to an end since the network had itself imposed a blacklist.
In 1991, when Stanton was given a lifetime achievement award for his 1st Amendment work by the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, some of those who had been blacklisted at CBS objected.
Stanton, who was by then in his 80s, did not apologize, but neither did he defend the network’s policy. He told the New York Times that at the time of the blacklist he “didn’t have the wisdom” to resist the pressure from the head of CBS’ law department, who had recommended a blacklist. Stanton had approved a loyalty oath to assure advertisers and others that CBS employees’ politics were correct. It was a rare misstep for CBS and Stanton.
In 1971, Stanton and the network fared better from a freedom of the press standpoint when the network aired the CBS News documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon,” a stinging rebuke of the Pentagon’s desire to burnish its public image to the tune of $30 million. The response from the Nixon White House and Congress was immediate. Stanton was called before a House committee for questioning and ordered to provide to Congress the “outtakes” of the interviews done for the documentary. Stanton refused.
In his statement to a House subcommittee on June 24, 1971, Stanton said in part:
“If newsmen are told that their notes, films and tapes will be subject to compulsory process so that the government can determine whether news has been satisfactorily edited, the scope, nature and vigor of their news gathering and reporting will inevitably be curtailed.”
After the subcommittee cited him for contempt, Stanton asked, “Is this country going to have a free press or is indirect censorship to be imposed upon it?”
A few weeks later, under heavy lobbying from other television and print news organizations, the House of Representatives rejected a proposal to cite CBS for contempt of Congress, sending it back to the subcommittee on a 226-181 vote. No further action was taken.
Thereafter, Stanton was viewed as a journalistic hero.
During his time at CBS, Stanton became well acquainted with several presidents, some of whom offered him positions in the government, which he refused.
In the days following the assassination of President Kennedy, CBS News offered continual commercial-free coverage of the national tragedy for four days, which earned plaudits from critics.
Stanton was closest to President Lyndon Johnson, whom he met when he was still a researcher at CBS and Johnson was a member of Congress.
Sometimes the president would call Stanton at home and berate him for hours over some CBS news story. Once, upset about a shocking report by war correspondent Morley Safer on a Marine action in villages in Vietnam, Johnson called to say, “Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.”
“He could be very vile,” Stanton said. “And then he’d say, ‘What are you doing this weekend? Come on down and spend the weekend with Bird and me and relax. You’re working too hard!’ ”
Years later, Stanton admitted he was probably “too close” to Johnson.
Stanton and his wife had no children. She died in 1992. He leaves no survivors.
According to Allison, Stanton left explicit instructions that there be no memorial service or suggestions for contributions in his name.
“When he left CBS as their legendary president, he wanted no gifts or parties,” Allison said. “He just picked up his briefcase and went home. He was not a grandstander.”
Times staff writer Jon Thurber contributed to this report.