I was a shade more than three years old when I first heard the words that gripped the nation every night: “Good evening everyone from coast to coast……this is Douglas Edwards with the news.”
Often, I am critical of network television for being too callous about its history. Much of that comes from focus group research that tells network executives younger audiences don’t know much about broadcast history and—-worse—doesn’t care.
Last week, CBS News—in the midst of arguably the biggest firestorm over journalism in history—remembered a forgotten legend. The tribute was way, way overdue.
Friday, July 14, CBS observed Douglas Edwards Day. Thursday night at the end of the CBS Evening News, a 90-second montage of Edwards’ historic pioneering work was shown. No doubt, a significant number of viewers had no idea who he was or what his role was in network television news. I did.
Edwards was called “the inventor of television news anchoring” by no less than one of his successors, Dan Rather. In 1948, with a limited number of television sets in homes, the network launched CBS TV News with Douglas Edwards at 7:45 p.m. in six Eastern cities. Edwards had 15 minutes to tell the fledgling video audience what happened in America and the world.
For the next 14 years, his was the familiar face that informed us of Presidential inaugurations, the Korean War, the development of the Salk polio vaccine, the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and our first suborbital manned space flights.
His trademark opening “good evening everyone from coast to coast” started in 1951 when the coaxial cable linked the entire country. The line stuck until his final evening news broadcast in 1962.
Because of the limited technical resources of the era and the restriction of a 15-minute format (network news did not expand to a half-hour until September 1963), Edwards did not frequently go out on stories himself. However, he was first to the scene in a helicopter as the SS Andrea Doria sank off the coast of Nantucket in July 1956. In its day, the coverage was both innovative and dramatic.
For the first 10 years, Edwards was the definitive face of network news. He constantly outdrew the foppish John Cameron Swayze and his Camel News Caravan on NBC.
Particularly in the flyover states, Edwards was unbeatable. A glance back at the local ratings for Douglas Edwards with the News on WRBL in Columbus, Ga., in 1958 showed the CBS quarter-hour in the top ten in the Chattahoochee Valley.
I saw Edwards and briefly met him 33 years ago when he gave the keynote address at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in San Antonio. A portion of his speech was a foreshadowing.
“With the advent of Cable News Network, CBS and the other broadcast networks are no longer alone as voices in broadcast journalism,” he said. “As technology advances and the capability of live coverage expands, the field is open for other voices to enter the field.”
At the time, we had no idea what online technology would mean but Edwards’ words had a touch of a crystal ball ring.
Broadcast news historians, such as I am, were shocked when the announcement was made in the spring of 1962 that Edwards would be replaced on the CBS Evening News by Walter Cronkite.
Many books on CBS News have suggested that Edwards lost the anchor slot because he failed to aggressively become as much of a journalist as he was a news reader. That is as much baloney as what’s in the packaged meat counter at Publix.
Still other accounts knocked him because of his moonlighting into entertainment formats. In the summer of 1952, Edwards presided over the panel game show Masquerade Party. For five years, he was the host and narrator of CBS’ Armstrong Circle Theater, an alternate week series of live and taped dramas.
He was not alone in reaching across the aisle from the newsroom. The erudite commentator Eric Sevareid served as a substitute host on a panel game. Cronkite, unbeknownst to many viewers, was host of the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game show It’s News to Me in the summer of 1955. Before he became the central figure of 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace had a career as the host of three game shows—including the big-money $100,000 Big Surprise. Wallace also did the pilot for To Tell the Truth under a different title. The father of broadcast news Edward R. Murrow spent six years as host of a popular Friday night CBS celebrity interview show, Person to Person. In an era where network news salaries were suppressed, news personalities took crossover roles because the pay was better. The public perception that news and entertainment were rigid, uncrossable tentpoles did not solidify until the decade when Cronkite assumed the reins of the Evening News.
As for Armstrong Circle Theater, which aired every other Wednesday at 10 on CBS, I submit the series did not compromise Edwards’ credibility. Every play on Circle Theater was a docudrama based on current issues in the news, such as corruption in the coin-operated jukebox industry, emotional difficulties created by a divided Germany, the effects of compulsive gambling and the influx of heroin into large American cities. At the end of many of the dramas, Edwards conducted a news-themed interview with an expert analyst on the subject matter. Though scripted drama, one can argue that Edwards gave Circle Theater added credibility and delved into serious issues in a perspective that a 15-minute news format of the era could not.
As for pure journalism, Edwards had plenty of experience. Exhibit A: from 1942 to 1948, he was a correspondent for CBS Radio. He reported on a number of fronts during World War II.
Exhibit B: in 1948, Edwards anchored the first television coverage of all three conventions. He was there with the Democrats (who re-nominated Harry Truman), GOP (which went with Tom Dewey) and the Progressives (who chose Henry Wallace).
Edwards, for reasons only CBS News executives of the era knew, was not included in the network’s convention coverage in future quadrenniums. Cronkite was always at the helm for the Presidential selection weeks from 1952 to 1980. At the 1956 conventions, Cronkite was anointed as “anchorman” for the first time. We needed another decade before the term “anchor” became a verb in the industry.
The truth is: in 1960, a turn occurred in something that drives all of television—-ratings. The climb for Edwards’ evening opponents was a gradual one.
In 1956, NBC chose to pair two correspondents who had never previously worked together—-Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Huntley’s looser style and Brinkley’s dry wit struck a chord with viewers. Anxious to move on from Swayze, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was born in late 1956.
The NBC pair were not an immediate hit. Gradually, their conversational style and tag line of “Goodnight, Chet. Goodnight, David” began to attach to viewers. They began to inch up on Edwards’ ratings. By the end of 1959, Huntley-Brinkley slid ahead of Douglas Edwards with the News.
In Gary Paul Gates’ 1982 book “Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News,” the author suggested Edwards began to feel the strain as Huntley-Brinkley week by week took an even larger lead that culminated in his departure in 1962. Gates outlined that instead of working harder professionally to improve his broadcast, Edwards succumbed to drinking more. Most of the sources for the that assertion were unnamed.
Gates wrote that on the day the switch to Cronkite was announced, Edwards came out of his office and extended his hand to Cronkite and offered him congratulations. “That was the classiest move I’ve ever seen from anyone,” Cronkite said.
Douglas Edwards did not suddenly deteriorate into a poor news commentator because he began losing the Nielsens to Huntley and Brinkley. If anything, viewer tastes began to change from the straightforward style and presentation of Edwards and CBS News to the looser, faster-moving performance of NBC’s dual anchor format. Further, NBC gave both Huntley and Brinkley separate prime time, though low-rated, half-hours that expanded their reach with news viewers.
Arguably, Edwards may have suffered from CBS News’ decision to make Cronkite the face and voice of big news events: election night, conventions, and manned space shots. I used that example when ABC News made the decision to anoint David Muir as the anchor for World News but declared George Stephanopoulos would be the lead for all major breaking coverage. We can only guess whether Edwards would have developed the same reputation as the most trusted man in America had he been assigned the major coverage Cronkite assumed.
Edwards may have been professionally humiliated by his demotion but he did not take his toys or his talents to another network. He never complained in the media. Not once did he express any bitterness toward CBS or Cronkite. He displayed some of the finest character ever shown by a television journalist who had been demoted from one of the most influential assignments in television news.
“I have no recriminations,” Edwards told The Christian Science Monitor. “I leave with no pique, no sadness.”
Only 45, Edwards was relegated to a five-minute newsbreak, The CBS Afternoon News with Douglas Edwards, immediately after daytime To Tell the Truth. He held that spot he held onto until his retirement in 1988, though the interstitial eventually retracted to two minutes and then one and moved to late mornings after Love of Life. At the outset of his Evening News exit, he anchored local early and late evening news on New York’s WCBS. Eventually, he took over The World Tonight, the CBS Radio flagship evening newscast.
Cronkite did not forget his predecessor on the day he passed the baton to Dan Rather in 1981. “For 14 years before I was in this chair, it was manned by Doug Edwards—-a great broadcaster,” Cronkite told his audience.
During his 1984 speech in San Antonio, Edwards displayed a sense of humor rarely shown on the air. He told a story of a week in 1960 when Harry Reasoner substituted for Edwards on the evening news.
“Harry was getting close to the end of the first segment when the floor director started giving him a signal that meant stretch (extend) because of a problem that had developed,” Edwards said.
Reasoner kept reading. “Harry didn’t know but the problem was in the control room,” Edwards said. “The producer was told the commercials had to be switched for the first break. That’s because the first scheduled commercial opened with two women. One of them said to the other: ‘Harry needs a laxative.’” The usually staid, starched-collar group of news directors roared.
CNN made a big pitch to steal away Edwards as the lead anchor when the network launched in 1980. Broadcasting reported he seriously considered it until then-CBS News president Bill Leonard said, “Doug, I can’t let you go,” His pay was significantly increased to remain for the duration of his career at CBS.
I often wondered what CNN’s image would have been at the outset if the man who invented television news anchoring was the central face of cable’s first 24-hour news network. I submit he would have been brilliant and re-energized his career.
For my money, one of Edwards’ finest assignments was toward the end of his career on a broadcast few people saw. For more than 20 years, Sunday morning television on CBS was headlined by Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, both of which viewed religion—-television news’ worst-covered and most misunderstood element of American life—-through drama, music and discussions from elitist theologians and college professors.
In the ’80s, Edwards assumed the helm of For Our Times, a contemporary look at religion in America. The format took on a newsmagazine style and explored serious issues affecting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations. The broadcast was well-produced. Edwards did a solid job of weaving together the threads and interviewing key analysts with expertise on the stories. The entire package was remarkably similar to public television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
Unfortunately, the audience was miniscule watching For Our Times. Offered largely as a public service filler to stations, the Edwards half-hour aired all over the local Sunday schedules across the country. The CBS affiliate at which I worked in 1982-83, WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., scheduled For Our Times at 12:45 a.m. Monday mornings. Some CBS affiliates chose not to carry the broadcast at all.
July 14, Douglas Edwards would have been 100 years old. He died in 1990 at the age of 73. He did not live to see the impact of the internet and social media on television news. He never saw cable news turn into prime time verbal versions of pro wrestling. He missed the screaming charges of “fake news.”
What he did was leave a legacy by writing the rules for television news broadcasting at a time when no rules existed. For the entire 1950s, a domestically calmer but internationally turbulent era, he told us what happened in the world and who was affected in that slither of 15 minutes.
Sadly, he is somewhat the forgotten anchor of television news. Yet, for those of us who were viewers when he was in that chair surrounded by that primitive set, we remember.
When Douglas Edwards was there just after sunset, we all felt a little better about the world. When he said, “Good evening everyone from coast to coast,” we had the idea that he was talking just to us. He was.
Someone had to be first in that chair so others could be next. I hope another 100 years don’t elapse before CBS News offers him another tip of the cap.
Edwards’ last broadcast for CBS can be viewed at https://youtu.be/LZWVUXA1qbg.
The CBS News tribute to Edwards is online at https://youtu.be/XC38imRgo_k