U.S. Media Executive

Richard S. Salant started in television in 1952, as vice president and general executive of CBS. The Harvard educated lawyer worked in government and private practice for 12 years before switching industries. His corporate experience was matched by his lifetime commitment to such significant issues as freedom of the press, ethics in news production, and the relationship of government, corporate broadcast management, and news production. His longevity in the industry stemmed from such intangible qualities as skillful conflict resolutions that minimizes public debate, the ability to isolate issues among complex events, and verbal clarity in articulating his position.

After a decade as vice president for CBS, with no experience or training as a journalist, Salant became president of the CBS news division in 1961. His appointment was greeted with reservation. He moved to corporate management in 1964, as vice president for corporate affairs and special assistant to the president of CBS, then returned to again head the news division from 1966 to 1979. Because of the strength of his advocacy for the division during both tenures in this position, reservations regarding his commitment and ability abated.

Utilizing his legal background, from 1953 through 1959 Salant represented CBS in Washington, D.C. in congressional hearings and forums pertaining to broadcast regulation and rights. He learned the structure of the industry for his speeches and testimony on issues such as subscription television, UHF-VHF allocations, monopoly problems, coverage of house hearings by broadcasters, and the barriers constructed to free expression by Section 315 (the Equal Time Provision), of the Communications Act. He argued that Congress's ban on cameras and microphones as unacceptable journalistic tools placed broadcasters as second class citizens, and Section 315 prevented the free pursuit and airing of information. From his participation in the complex discussions of these legal issues Salant slowly derived the position that news should be based on what the public needs to know to participate in a democratic system, not on what they would like to know. Small experiences supported his thinking, such as when he discovered, while in Washington, that CBS cooperated with the CIA by providing outtakes of news stories. He stopped the practice in 1961.

Salant had a passion for the potential of television news; in 1961 he brought a meticulous set of policies to the news division so that the ethics and credibility of news remained unscathed. These ranged from the sweeping change that separated sports and other entertainment oriented projects from the news division, to detailed guidelines for editing interviews. His directives banished music and sound effects from any news or documentary program. They stopped the involvement of news personnel in entertainment ventures. They both limited and marked all occurrences of simulations. Salant published these directions in the CBS News Standards Handbook, which all new employees were required to read at the end of the 1990s. Employees also signed an affidavit agreeing to comply with the guidelines.

In 16 years as president, Salant looked at small and large policies for their potential contribution toward building a credible image in the public eye. He spoke out against the news division creating "personalities" to market programs. He was especially concerned for the potential harm of docudramas, which, if not consistently marked and explained as fictionalizations, might be taken as news products by the public. Most troubling to Salant was the network's lack of supervision over news emanating from CBS owned stations. Integrity and credibility came in a package under the CBS name, and the package extended, in his view, to the local level.

Salant's continuous examination of broadcast ethics and news judgment set the pace for other networks and the industry. When Fred Friendly resigned as President of CBS News in 1966 because network executives declined to preempt regular daytime programming in order to air the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings on Vietnam, Salant reiterated the importance of news judgment under the criterion of selective coverage. Congress, Washington, and the president would not, he argued, dominate airways with a selective coverage policy. The networks were responsible for alternative ways of reporting, such as evening news specials, half-hour news summaries, and the provision of alternative voices.

Salant realized that his background in the CBS corporate arena would always cast doubt on his decisions. His record of wrestling more air time for news in prime time as well as daytime changed that. In fact, Salant's insider knowledge of CBS helped the news division move from 15-minute to a 30-minute newscast. Under his guidance, CBS started a full-time election unit, created additional regional news bureaus outside New York and Washington, launched 60 Minutes, started a regular one-hour documentary series called CBS Reports, produced many investigative and controversial documentaries, and covered the Watergate Affair with more than 20 1-hour specials on the events.

These accomplishments were not Salant's most difficult. He succeeded, with great pain, in insulating news division personnel from the wrath of corporate criticism and deflected movements against the division's autonomy. When CBS President William S. Paley vehemently objected to Cronkite's Evening News report on Watergate, the first by a network, and demanded the story never appear again, Salant defied Paley, airing a second part, but reduced the number of issues covered. Although this action is open to multiple interpretations, his decisions in 1973 are clearer. He supported CBS News journalists in a protest against Paley's call for the elimination of instant specials after Presidential speeches or news conferences.

Salant continually addressed the volatile connection between news and corporate management in a pragmatic manner. He did not see the relationship as strictly adversarial, nor did he see it as polarized between two opposing sides. Every conflict was a path toward new strategies to apply in the future. Salant's brilliance as division president was grounded in the attitude and communication skills he brought to conflicts. He diverted escalating personal attacks and swung discussions back to issues.

Not everyone appreciated this strategy. When Friendly resigned, Salant referred to it as a misunderstanding, and explained CBS's strategy on the congressional hearings. When local affiliates called for less Watergate coverage, and when they demanded Dan Rather's reassignment after talking back to the President at a news conference, Salant did denounce defiance and arrogance in any news division. But he turned the argument so that affiliates had to examine the central issue as a matter of news judgment: network news needed its independence, even if it was dependent on affiliates.

In one of the most widely discussed controversies of his tenure, the findings reported in the CBS documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon (1971), put Salant in a difficult and complex position. The government called congressional hearings and subpoenaed CBS documents, accusing the news division of manipulative editing and false claims. Again, Salant simplified the matter, accusing the government of infringing on freedom of speech. He argued that a network has the right to be wrong, and even when wrong, the right not to be judged by government. To support this view he pointed to another issue, one with ramifications for the entire television industry: the government could jeopardize free speech with its power to intimidate affiliates which carried controversial programs. Even in the midst of his strong defense, however, Salant was never afraid to criticize CBS or network news, and his attitude provided credibility to his position. After the confrontation with Congress, when CBS did something questionable--such as paying H. R. Haldeman $50,000 for an interview on 60 Minutes--an admission of wrongdoing was forthcoming.

Upon mandatory retirement from CBS, Salant immediately went to NBC, serving two uneventful years as a vice president and general advisor in the network. Only one Salant proposal received extensive coverage. He recommended development of a one-hour evening news program, from 8:00 to 9:00 P.M., freeing the earlier prime-time slot for local news, and saving networks the expense of an hour of dramatic programming. Salant finished his career as president and chief executive officer of the National News Council. This independent body, recommended in 1973 by a Twentieth Century Fund panel on which Salant served, was created to make non-binding decisions on complaints brought against the press or by the press. Faced by a hostile industry that wanted no monitor looking at its work, the Council disbanded after one year. This attitude on the part of the industry was discouraging to Salant, especially considering the increased government attacks on media credibility, attacks that also functioned to maintain government credibility. Potentially, the Council could do what Salant did at CBS, protect news standards and press freedom. But the networks had changed radically. By the mid-1980s news was a profit center, noted Salant, and these larger issues were irrelevant. Although Salant did not succeed in having the standards of broadcast journalism maintained, he could still turn with pride to the historical precedents set with CBS news programming.

-Richard Bartone


Richard Salant
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

RICHARD SALANT. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 14 April 1914. Educated at Harvard College, A.B., 1931-35; Harvard Law School, 1935-38. Married: 1) Rosalind Robb, 1941 (divorced, 1954), children: Rosalind, Susan, Robb, and Priscilla; 2) Frances Trainer, 1955, child: Sarah. Served in U.S. Naval Reserve, 1943-46. Worked for U.S. Attorney General's committee on administrative procedure, 1939-41; worked for Office of the Solicitor General, U.S. Department of Justice, 1941-43; associate, Roseman, Goldmark, Colin & Kave, 1946-48, partner, 1948-51; vice-president, special assistant to the president of CBS, Inc., 1952-61, 1964-66; president, CBS news division, 1961-64, 1966-79; member, board of directors, CBS, Inc., 1964-69; vice chair, NBC, 1979-81; senior adviser, 1981-83; president and chief executive officer, National News Council, 1983-84. Died, 16 February 1993.


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ates, Gary Paul. Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

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See also Columbia Broadcasting System; Cronkite, Walter; News, Network; Paley, William S.; Selling of the Pentagon; 60 Minutes; Stanton, Frank