March 14, 2020

This week in TV Guide: March 14, 1970

To fully appreciate Eric Sevareid's interview with Neil Hickey about bias in television news, it needs to be put in proper context, and that's going to require a little bit of work from yours truly.

It starts with Vice President Spiro Agnew's famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa on November 13, 1969, in which he lays out the argument that a liberal media bias exists. The network news divisions, according to Agnew, dominate the political debate, with the power to "make or break" policies, reputations and campaigns, through their coverage and commentary. He charges the media with operating in an echo chamber; they "read the same newspapers, and draw their political and social views from the same sources. Worse, they talk constantly to one another, thereby providing artificial reinforcement of their own viewpoints." The result is "a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news. A single dramatic piece of the mosaic becomes, in the minds of millions, the entire picture." In the end, "For millions of Americans, the network reporter who covers a continuing issue. . . becomes, in effect, the presiding judge in a national trial by jury." To say that Agnew's speech stirs up a hornet's nest is an understatement. His charges are hotly rebutted by members of the media; meanwhile, NBC reports that more than 85 percent of those contacting the network support Agnew's views.

Fast forward three months, to the February 28, 1970 issue of TV Guide, and Edith Efron's interview with Howard K. Smith. Entitled "There Is a Network News Bias," Smith asserts that the news bias is, indeed, real, beginning with the liberal political composition of the staff. Liberals, says Smith, by definition have "a strong leftward bias"—"Our tradition since FDR, has been leftward." He denounces the "conformism" of network newsmen: "They react the way political cartoonists do—with oversimplification. Oversimplify. Be sure to please your fellows, because that’s what’s 'good.' They're conventional, they’re conformists. They're pleasing Walter Lippman, they're pleasing the Washington Post , they're pleasing the editors of The New York Times, and they're pleasing one another.” To say that the media is out of touch with the middle class is an understatement: "Joseph Kraft did a column in which he said: Let’s face it, we reporters have very little to do with middle America. They’re not our kind of people . . . Well, I resent that. I’m from middle America!" Smith, who in fact considers himself a liberal, nonetheless says that conservatives get the short shrift from his colleagues, who respond with party-line, "automatic reactions." "If Agnew says something, it’s bad, regardless of what he says. . . "I'm unwilling to condemn an idea because a particular man said it. Most of my colleagues do just that."

Provocative, eh? This week's letters section is devoted entirely to responses to Smith's comments, which editor Merrill Panitt says "is running about 15-1 in favor of Smith's position." A typical missive says "It takes a great deal of courage and integrity to reprimand publicly one's colleagues. If we had more network newsmen of his stature we wouldn't have to worry about bias and fair coverage." One writer asks, tongue-slightly-in-cheek, "Is he interested in being President?"

With this established, it's now time to turn to Eric Sevareid, who is equally adamant that there is no bias in the media. In an interview with Neil Hickey, Sevareid discusses the difference between news values and judgments and personal biases. While acknowledging that "we have fallen into at least some shallow ruts," he insists that for the most part, stories are selected based on "ingrained reflexes on what is news and what isn't." Why, then, do so many people believe in the existence of a liberal bias in the news? "I don't know what the word liberal means," replies Sevareid, "except a kind of open-mindedness, a basic humanitarian view of life and concern for people." He has, in fact, been accused many times of being too conservative, by youth groups, protester groups, radical groups. "A lot of people say a lot of things," Sevareid concludes.

He also dismisses Smith's claim that the media operate in an echo chamber. "I haven't had a serious conversation with Howard K. Smith, I suppose, in 10 years. I haven't run into Huntley or Brinkley in two or three years. It's ridiculous." Agnew's accusations, which stirred up so much of the controversy in the first place, are "demagoguery," the "conspiracy theory of history." It's easy to whip the public into believing in this kind of argument once it's made public; "Joe McCarthy had a majority of Americans convinced that this government was crawling with Communists. It simply was not so."

Much of the discussion, as has been the case all along, surrounds the Vietnam War. "[T]he war has torn up a lot of things here," Sevareid says; the economy, the nation's youth, the draft, and the relationship between the media and the Nixon administration. He feels that Agnew's, and by extension Nixon's, criticism of the media has simply stirred things up. "This Administration was not doing that badly with the press. But this attack has exacerbated things, made lots of people angry. It's scapegoat politics."  Even so, he feels that Nixon has had "very decent treatment" from the press.

Finally, he reiterates his belief that there is no media bias. "Every letter I've ever received in my life that accused me of bias was simply someone who disagreed with me. I have never had a letter yet from anybody who says, 'I agree with you but you were not fair to the other side.' Never. Never."

Once again, this is not the end of the story. In the April 4 issue, the letters section features this response from a reader who rebuts Sevareid: "The suggestion is not that the networks are filled with liars but rather with liberals, not that they conspire to slant news but that they all share a point of view, and consequently cannot help but bias their presentations by their very honesty." Once again, Merrill Panitt notes on the number of letters TV Guide has received; they're running 37% pro-Sevareid, 63% anti-Sevareid. Either Sevareid is right that the public can be stampeded, or Smith is right that there's the media's of touch with the middle class. I suspect each of these sentiments would have a large segment of support today, which might explain why we're so divided today. Or not.

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.Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

One of life's eternal mysteries has to be why some actors are natural-born stars, while others, with evidently more talent, wind up as supporting players. (Perhaps it's not right up there with why I never seem to win the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, but it's a mystery nonetheless.) And so it is with Tim Conway, who was easily the funniest man in any studio he was in, but only found success as a guest on someone else's show. This week, Our Cleve takes a look at Conway's sitcom follow-up to McHale's Navy, entitled—appropriately enough—The Tim Conway Show.*

*Wikipedia's typically understated description of Conway's 1980 comedy series: "The show should not be confused with the spring 1970 sitcom also called The Tim Conway Show or with The Tim Conway Comedy Hour, a comedy-variety series which aired in the fall of the same year, both also on CBS." Besides Conway's name, the other thing that all three shows had in common was that they were all ratings failures.

This version of The Tim Conway Show reunites Conway with his old McHale co-star, Joe Flynn. The two of them play owners of a one-plane airline that barely stays aloft. It perhaps says something about the success of this premise that Amory reserves the first half of his review commenting on the show's laugh track. And no wonder, since the laugh track has to do all the heavy lifting in this series. "A lesser laugh track might have found it hard going. But not this track." Typical scenario: the door to the plane won't open, when it does it hits Flynn in the head, after which the two try to get through the open doorway at the same time. "The laugh track holds its sides. Mr. Conway and Mr Flynn fall down. The laugh track rolls in the aisles." See what I mean?\

One reason why Cleve spends so much time writing about the laugh track is that it's currently a topic of debate due to what many viewers feel is its intrusiveness. Of course, the other reason is that there just isn't that much to say about The Tim Conway Show. The cast, as he points out, is not to blame for the show's inadequacies; "few of the troubles here are of their origination." It's just that—well, it's never a good thing when a show is so dependent on one star to carry the mail. The laugh track performs heroic work, but even it has to run out of steam sometime. Tim Conway is a smash hit on The Carol Burnett Show, just as he is every time he guests on someone else's program. It is, as I say, a mystery.

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Artis Gilmore (L) takes on Lew Alcindor
Sports, anyone? College basketball is the big story this week, with the NCAA and NIT tournaments both going strong. We've been over this terrain a few times, so I'll try not to be redundant, but in this day when we've become accustomed to everyone—and I do mean everyone—having a bracket, some of this still bears repeating.

The 1970 NCAA tournament started out with 25 teams, and ran over three weekends. This Saturday, two of the four regional finals are televised, beginning at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBC; the double-header you get depends on where you live. Since we're looking at the New York Metropolitan edition this week, the two games are the East Region final from Columbia, South Carolina, where St. Bonaventure, led by Bob Lanier, heads for its only appearance in the Final Four by beating Villanova 97-74; and the Mideast Region final from Lawrence, Kansas, with Jacksonville (and Artis Gilmore) besting Kentucky in a magnificent game, 106-100, for their only Final Four trip. (Meanwhile, New Mexico State defeats Drake in the Midwest, and UCLA beats Utah State in the West). NBC's back on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. for one of the two national semifinals, St. Bonaventure vs. Jacksonville, played at College Park, Maryland (home of the University of Maryland; capacity of Cole Field House is about 14,000 with standing room). The national championship game is scheduled for the following Saturday afternoon; UCLA wins again, defeating Jacksonville 80-69. You'll agree that this is a far, far cry from today's NCAAs.

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There's a show on Saturday night on NBC (7:30 p.m.), one of those that redefines the concept of "something for everyone." It's called The Switched On Symphony, and the starting point is Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.* The idea, explains Mehta, is that a good deal of today's pop music "has its roots in the classics." To prove his point, he's created a "musical college" of pop and classical performers for this one-hour special. The pop stars include Ray Charles, Bobby Sherman, Santana, and Jethro Tull. From the classical side, pianist Joao Martins, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, and guitarist Christopher Parkening.** I don't think even the Boston Pops ever had that eclectic a lineup. And of course, the Philharmonic tops it all off with the theme from 2001, also known as "Thus Sprach Zarathustra" by Strauss.

*Fun fact: Zubin Mehta has been married, since 1969, to former actress Nancy Kovack.
**Fun fact #2: Pinchas Zuckerman was married to Tuesday Weld from 1985 to 1998.

L-R: Bolger, Haley, Hamilton
I know that's going to be tough to top, and to be honest I'm not sure we're going to be able to do it this week, though it's not for lack of trying. On Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m., it's NBC again, this time with the 17th annual presentation of The Wizard of Oz, which ties in nicely with a story featuring three of the movies stars, Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow), Jack Haley (The Tin Man), and Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch) as they reminisce about the making of the movie, 31 years ago. What's shocking about it, in a way, is that none of them are that old—Bolger is 66, Haley and Hamilton 68—and yet, along with 83-year-old Billie Burke, who played The Good Witch, they're the only principles still living.

Tuesday is St. Patrick's Day, and WPIX celebrates with four hours of coverage of New York's 208th parade (12:30 p.m.), with 120,000 marchers, clans from all of Ireland's 32 counties, and more. If, like me, you're not into that kind of thing, you could watch WABC's morning movie, The L-Shaped Room (9:30 a.m.), with an Oscar-nominated, non-singing performance from Leslie Caron. And since I just watched a YouTube clip with Ernie and Cookie Monster, you'll forgive me for mentioning Sesame Street (9:30 a.m., WPIX), with Ethel Kennedy reading a story. Later that evening, WNBC carries a special, A Choice of Destinies (7:30 p.m.), a portrait of America reflected by five recent assassinations: John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. You could also choose Julia (8:30 p.m., NBC), with star Diahann Carroll, who in this week's cover story tells Carolyn See that her success is due, in part, to being "a black woman with a white image." See asks Carroll about accusations from the black community that she's a "sellout." "Of course," she replies sharply. "What else would I be? I've sold my talents for a job I'm not particularly crazy about. Isn't that what you do? Isn't that what most people do? I've been operating in the white world for 15 years." She's worked hard to get where she has, and when asked why, she replies, "For exposure. For an audience, for a reputation, for a wider public. You can't do very much without these things. And the gamble, too. Because if the series goes a third year, there's real money in it." Yes, in 1970 it was something to be a black person succeeding in the white world. How have things changed since then, I wonder?

On Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., it's coverage of the 21st annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, hosted by Bob Barker and June Lockhart. I don't know if this even exists anymore, and as a former Pillsbury employee I suppose I should know things like that, but it was a long, long time ago that I worked there, and things change. Speaking of change, the celebrities appearing on the program—not just the hosts, but Mike Minor, Anne Lockhart, and June Lockhart Jr., are all associated one way or another with CBS, so the network is obviously responsible for the program, but since it's on Hartford's WTIC but not New York's WCBS, I'm guessing it might have been taped the previous week. Or maybe not; at this point who really cares? At 7:30 p.m., it's a program that's definitely on CBS: Hee Haw, with guests Faron Young and Dolly Parton. I was never a big fan of Hee Haw (or of country music in general), but I have to hand it to them that they always had the biggest stars in the industry. No pun intended, of course.

Friday, it's another episode of Here Come the Brides (9:00 p.m., ABC), and that's the reason for Leslie Raddatz's article on the show's resident heavy, Mark Lenard. He says he's never considers himself to be the villain, and always presents his characters as fully-formed and well-rounded, and I think he always transmitted an elegance and gravitas in his portrayals. And, you know, Mark Lenard had a long and successful career as an actor, on stage, in the movies, and on television. But his most famous role—and, I daresay, the one you first thought of when you saw his name here—gets barely a sentence in Raddatz's article. After Lenard's appearance in the movie epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, "West Coast television appearances followed, most notably, before Here Come the Brides, the role of Mr. Spock's father in Star Trek," Sarek. He also played a Romulan and a Klingon, which pretty much covers it all.

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I generally like to end on a light note, and this week's topic comes from a feature called "Second Look" by Scott MacDonough, which is a kind of retrospective look at shows from the last few weeks. I admit that the utility of this somewhat escapes me; after all, in this pre-VCR era, unless you catch something in reruns, what good is it to know whether or not a show was any good? It's not as if you recorded it for playback later. And if it does show in reruns, you're probably likely to have forgotten what Scott said about it, anyway.

Be that as it may, he likes Ed Sullivan's tribute to the Beatles, "The Beatles' Songbook," shown March 1 on Sullivan's regular show, even though some of the covers were a bit iffy. "Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme belted out a fiery "Can't Buy Me Love" but massacred the lovely "Michele," while Peggy Lee's renditions of "Something" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" were flawless.

On the other hand, when a review begins with the phrase "Speaking of garbage," I doubt that there's anything flawless about what's to come, except perhaps for the insults. Such is the case with The Don Adams Special: Hooray for Hollywood, which aired February 26 on CBS and "desecrated our fondest memories of many a movie classic. Don Adams got Charlton Heston to host and Edie Adams (who should know better) and Don Rickles to guest in this ersatz satire of the movies. Heston narrated as if he were delivering Commandments 11 through 20, while Adams' ribs at the flicks accented leers and sneers."  Ah, but what, you may ask, did he really think? "[I]n co-writing, co-producing and co-starring in this fiasco, Mr. Adams didn't accomplish much. He merely showed how a little talent can go a short way." Let's hope you feel more kindly toward the rest of this issue. TV 



3 comments:

  1. Per The NY Daily News, The Pillsbury Bake-Off aired at 4pm on Tuesday,March 17, St. Patrick's Days. In the 1970's WTIC-TV/WFSB tended to air some shows in a one-day delay in favor of syndicated programming. There was a time when WFSB (Channel 3) didn't clear the Price is Right, but that's another story. As for the Bake-Off ,it still exists as of 2019, but probably will be under hiatus this year due to the coronavirus. CBS has not carried the Bake-Off since 2002. Since then, it has bounced from cable, to syndication, and in some instances not airing or not even held. Then again, you probably didn't care too much. :)

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  2. FredFlix reviews the shows of this same week in a new YT video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRwsIcMfEYU

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    1. In fact, we were watching that while I read and approved your comment. Great minds do think alike, don't they?

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