U.S. News Documentary

Beginning 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.

NBC 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.

Network 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.

Unlike 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, and others.

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.

The 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.

With 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.

In 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."

-Tom Mascaro

PRODUCERS Irving Gitlin, Fred Freed


1960-1980                                                Various Times


Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Bleum, 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).

Einstein, Daniel. Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1987.

Frank, Reuven. Out of Thin Air. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Hall, 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.

Yellin, David. Special: Fred Freed And The Television Documentary. New York: Macmillan, 1973.


See also Documentary; Freed, Fred