The man who helped to make the Columbia Broadcasting System the "Tiffany Network" died on 24 December at age 98. Frank Stanton was one of the last of the creators of television broadcasting in the United States, as well as an historic champion of freedom of the press. "Like the CBS Eye logo that he unveiled in 1951, Frank Stanton was an American icon, recognized and respected around the world," noted Leslie Moonves, the president and chief executive officer of CBS.
Stanton was originally invited to join CBS in 1934, after inventing a technique for studying why listeners tuned in to the radio network's programming, a forerunner of modern ratings schemes. With a strong grasp of the technology, he quickly ascended the ranks of the radio giant's management, attracting the attention of William S. Paley, one of its founders. Paley, who was not particularly known for his interest in technical matters, picked Stanton to succeed himself as president of CBS in 1946, just as the communications firm was poised to launch its new television service. He quickly turned it into the most successful network broadcasting system in the nation.
While Stanton shares much of the credit for launching popular entertainment programming such as "The Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy," his career will likely be remembered for what he did to raise broadcast journalism to its highest plateau. Early on, Stanton gathered some of the finest reporters in America to the microphones and cameras of CBS News—led by a dynamic "anchor" named Edward R. Murrow. To ensure professionalism even further, Stanton literally wrote the rulebook for on-air news reporting, the CBS News Standards, which are still in place today.
"Frank Stanton undoubtedly was one of the great leaders in the development of radio and television," said former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. "His principles became the ethics of broadcast journalism."
Those ethics were challenged in 1971, when the U.S. House of Representatives subpoenaed Stanton to produce outtakes from the documentary "CBS Reports: 'The Selling of the Pentagon'," which was critical of the defense department. He refused, arguing before a Congressional committee that a TV journalist's footage was no different than a newspaper reporter's notebooks, protected equally under the First Amendment. Threatened with prison for not complying, Stanton avoided the punishment by a House vote of 226 to 181. The confrontation became a free speech landmark. He earned the sobriquet "the conscience of broadcasting" for it.
"He was very courageous, and he was principled, and he never let us down," said former "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt.
In the 1950s, when a scandal broke out over the TV networks airing quiz shows with rigged results, Stanton investigated the affair and cancelled all of CBS's lucrative game-show programs. Beginning in 1951, he led an unsuccessful fight for the CBS color sequential system for TV. In 1960, he organized the first televised presidential debates, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. (Their effect was so unexpected that leading candidates for the presidency refused to participate in further broadcast debates for the next 16 years.) In 1963, upon learning of the assassination of Kennedy, Stanton ordered the network to air CBS News coverage of the tragedy for four straight days without commercial interruption.
"If broadcasting had a patron saint, it would be Frank Stanton," said Hewitt. "If CBS is the Tiffany Network, Frank Stanton deserves the lion's share of the credit."
After retiring as president and vice-chair of CBS in 1973, Stanton accepted a position as chairman of the American Red Cross for the next six years. He also served as a trustee of the Rand Corporation, among many other corporate and government appointments.
Stanton once said that his job at CBS was so interesting that "I would have almost paid them to do it."