with its premier in 1960, the long-form documentary series NBC
White Paper won praise for using the television medium to foster
journalistic excellence and an understanding of world affairs. By
the 1980s, the "white paper" approach was criticized by some who
felt these comprehensive reports chased away viewers and stifled
newer documentary forms. This acclaimed series, though, is remembered
as one of the prestigious symbols of network news that helped fuel
a fierce rivalry between CBS and NBC in the 1960s.
White Paper was spawned, in part, by the need of the networks
to heal the black eye inflicted by the Quiz Show scandal. CBS initiated
CBS Reports to showcase quality nonfiction reporting. Irv
Gitlin, a prominent producer for CBS, hoped to head the new series,
but lost out to Fred Friendly. At NBC, President Robert Kintner
sought to bolster the reputation of NBC News and face CBS head-on.
Kintner recruited Gitlin to develop a prestige series and NBC
White Paper debuted on 29 November 1960.
competition invigorated documentaries. Within a two-week period
in 1960, NBC aired The U-2 Affair, about government deception
regarding a spy mission over the Soviet Union, CBS broadcast the
legendary Harvest of Shame, which depicted the squalid lives of
American migrant workers, and ABC offered Yanki, No! which
depicted anti-American sentiment in Central America and Cuba.
CBS Reports in its early years, NBC White Paper never had
a regular time slot and appeared only a few times each year. Many
of its reports, though, were powerful treatments, beginning with
the original broadcast. The U-2 Affair chronicled the flight
and downing of a secret American spy plane over the Soviet Union,
along with denials and subsequent admissions by U.S. officials that
such espionage took place. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, survived
the crash. The Soviets distributed film of Powers and the remains
of his airplane and forced President Eisenhower to admit the deception.
Chet Huntley--NBC's answer to Edward R. Murrow--was the correspondent
for many of the White Paper reports. Al Wasserman, formerly
of CBS, assisted Gitlin as producer-director. The team was often
joined by Fred Freed, Edwin Newman, Frank McGee, Robert Northshield,
Although rival CBS enjoyed a more prominent reputation in the documentary
field, the White Paper series kept pace in both foreign and
domestic affairs coverage and demonstrated an equal willingness
to probe controversies. Erik Barnouw recounts how Sit-In made NBC
filmmaker Robert Young a hero in the black community and led to
another report from northern Angola in West Africa. Angola was a
colony of Portugal, which was attempting to quell a native uprising.
Though foreign newsmen were barred from observing the rebellion,
Young persuaded NBC to allow him to go with black cameraman Charles
Dorkins to the Congo. Armed with letters of reference from prominent
African Americans, Young and Dorkins trekked through 300 miles of
jungle and shot footage for the 1961 documentary Angola: Journey
to a War.
reporters also retrieved fragments of a napalm bomb and shot film
of English-language instructions inscribed on the shrapnel. To prevent
Soviet use of the report against American interests, Gitlin excised
the bomb segment from the final program. The report succeeded, however,
in balancing the Portuguese version of events with graphic depictions
of native suffering.
The Battle of Newburgh, White Paper employed powerful interview
techniques to push the envelope of the editorial function within
the documentary form, on a par with CBS's Harvest of Shame.
A welfare-reform plan by the city manager of Newburgh, New York,
intensified debate between liberals who supported children and the
underprivileged and conservatives who decried taxation for "social
purposes." An extensive White Paper investigation discredited
Newburgh's claims about welfare fraud. Although the report illustrated
both sides of the argument, a dramatic interview with one needy
family had a devastating effect. In a conclusion that straddled
editorializing and reportage, narrator Huntley rebuked the charge
that Newburgh was riddled with cheats.
Irv Gitlin died in 1967, a year in which there were no White
Paper reports. Fred Freed assumed the role of executive producer
and focused the series on domestic issues, as with the three-part
Ordeal of the American City, which aired in the 1968-69 season.
1980, White Paper broadcast If Japan Can . . . Why Can't
We?, which explored how that country recovered from World War
II to achieve world-class industrial status. NBC was inundated with
requests for transcripts and copies of the program, which was studied
by major corporations and universities. Interest began to wane,
however, for the "white paper" approach. In a Los Angeles Times
interview in 1991, David Fanning, executive producer for the PBS
documentary series Frontline said, "One of the reasons the
documentary declined is that the networks didn't allow the form
to grow and be innovative. They didn't sense that people might want
something beyond the traditional 'White Paper' approach of throwing
a net over an important subject and telling us about our troubles."
Irving Gitlin, Fred Freed
Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University
A. William. Documentary in American Television. New York:
Hastings House, 1965.
Carroll, Raymond Lee. Factual Television in America: An Analysis
of Network Television Documentary Programs, 1948-1975. (Ph.D.
dissertation, University Wisconsin-Madison, 1978).
Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary
Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey:
Scarecrow Press, 1987.
Reuven. Out of Thin Air. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Jane. "Television; The Long, Hard Look; A Producer's Passion for
'Rattling Good Stories' Helps 'FRONTLINE' Win Awards--and Preserve
A Dying Genre." Los Angeles Times, 13 October 1991.
Mascaro, Tom. "Documentaries Go Stylish." Electronic Media
(Chicago), 1 February 1988.
David. Special: Fred Freed And The Television Documentary.
New York: Macmillan, 1973.