Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fred, Milo and me

When Milo Radulovich died last month at age 81, it brought back memories of Fred Friendly.

Friendly was my mentor and teacher 40 years ago. He also was instrumental in bringing fame and redemption to Milo Radulovich.

Fred was, as many know, Edward R. Murrow’s producer and alter-ego. Together they made the riveting “See It Now” documentaries of the “Golden Age” of television.

Among the most notable was “The Case Against Lieut. Milo Radulovich A0589839.” As the many obituaries for Radulovich pointed out, the documentary, which aired on CBS Oct 20, 1953, marked the beginning of the end for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the “Red Scare” that ruined the careers of hundreds, if not thousands.

I won’t go into Radulovich case, which you can read about elsewhere. It was the story of a man terribly wronged by McCarthy, a power-mad, fear-mongering junior Republican senator from Wisconsin.

Murrow and Friendly set out, against considerable obstacles, to expose McCarthy and to undo the damage to Radulovich.

I was one of Fred Friendly’s students in 1968-1969 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Wildly expansive in gesture, hulking, intense, Fred filled his classroom with an earnest, urgent ebullience. His loose-skinned face was huge and mobile. You could get lost in its gyrations as his broadcaster’s baritone voice ladled out war stories from his years with Murrow.

To make a McLuhan-esque observation: Fred was a “hot” persona working behind the scenes in a notoriously “cool” medium. The industry is full of people like Fred. Think of the Holly Hunter character in “Broadcast News.”

By contrast, print, a “hot,” “high definition” medium, is often managed by calmer, cooler types. Why this is the case, is a future topic.

In the film “Good Night and Good Luck” about Murrow and, to a lesser extent, Friendly, Fred is played by the strikingly handsome, made-for-the-screen George Clooney. Clooney may have been good for the film, but he was about as un-Fred Friendly-like as could be. I wanted to stand up in the theater and shout, “That’s not the Fred Friendly I knew!”

Early on in our time with Fred, he would screen the Radulovich documentary. He liked to tell us that the story offered up the perfect “little picture” to illuminate a larger problem. “Look for the little picture!” he would intone.

My field of emphasis at the school was broadcast journalism and so I spent considerable time in the aura of Friendly — and Murrow, as Friendly was the keeper of Murrow’s flame.

I was part of a four-student team that wrestled with a ungainly documentary project about two “normal families” who, of course, weren’t normal, largely because there is no such thing as a “normal family.” Our subject families were, of course, our “little pictures” exposing the larger reality of familial complexity.

In this pre-video-tape age, Karen, Mark, Bill and I worked in film. Cascades of rushes hung from ceiling clips. We lugged around what Fred called the “50-pound pencil.” It also required lights and sound equipment. Unobtrusiveness was out of the question.

Our project's inspiration was the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, a master of cinema verité, who had made a series of acclaimed films starting with “Titicut Follies” and moving on through “Police,” “Welfare” and “High School.”

We discovered in the dimness of the cutting room, in the middle of long nights that Wiseman’s genius was beyond our dreams. But we were set on giving Fred his “little picture.”

The screening was to be before all of our classmates and the entire faculty in the school’s stately “World Room.” We had been up the night before struggling to match the sound track to the picture track. Because, like Wiseman, we had abandoned a narrator, we had no easy way to cover up the “lip flap” caused by the frame lag separating sound and picture. To make it work meant intricate, and as our deadline loomed, intense splicing.

We spliced to within minutes of the screening. The big room was filled with anticipation. The word was out that ours was a particularly ambitious undertaking.

The lights were darkened, the shades were pulled and the projector cast its flickering light on the screen. For a minute or two all went well. Establishing shots of comfortable Westchester County streets. A “wild” track of suburban sounds, the whoosh of sedans, distant birdsong, the slap of a delivered newspaper on a drive.

And then a frame froze on the hot projector lamp. Up on the big screen, the jammed image blistered to brown as the heat consumed it. Our “See It Now” moment incinerated before our eyes.

Fred, like an oracle, announced to the audience that “these things happen.” He liked the little he had seen, he said, and then he dispatched us to the editing bench to repair our little opus.

Two or three days later, in a private screening for Fred, we ran the film flawlessly. It was ragged from reconstruction, but it displayed promise even in its over-reaching ambition.

Within a year or two of graduation, I decided that the 50-pound pencil wasn’t for me. I took up the two-ounce graphite version. No more late nights in the cutting room. Print allowed me to work on my own, free of lip-flap, intrusive lights and eye-glazing all-nighters bent over the splicer.

Bill and Mark went into television. Mark became a producer of the CBS evening news and later launched MSNBC. He died at age 51 of melanoma. Bill became a producer at ABC. When I saw him last, some 12 years ago, he was embittered by the state of television news and seemed to be looking for a way out.

A young teaching assistant who held our hands through repeated crises was Tom Bettag, who went on to play Fred Friendly to Ted Koppel’s Murrow on “Nightline.”

Karen and I went into print. Karen rose to the position of managing editor of “The Nation.” When I last heard from her this past summer was on a stint teaching journalism at the University of Nairobi.

I gravitated to the Northwest, where in one way or another I’ve tried to make a difference through writing, reporting and publishing. I am still looking for little pictures — and my own Milo Raduloviches.

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