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St. Paul, Minn. — Stanton has been called the conscience of broadcasting and the greatest broadcast executive of all time. He was also a confidante of U.S. presidents from Harry S Truman to Richard Nixon. He was the driving force behind the formulation of televised debates between presidential candidates.
Frank Stanton served as president of CBS for more than 25 years (1946-1973), guiding the "Tiffany Network" through the era of its greatest growth. Although William S. Paley, CBS chairman, was in charge, it was really Frank Stanton who was the master builder of CBS, beginning at age 37.
Stanton became one of the industry's most respected leaders, an icon for his First Amendment battles. He was broadcasting's staunchest advocate for public service, making it CBS's responsibility to provide high quality broadcast journalism in the public interest.
Single-handedly, he succeeded in persuading Congress to suspend the Equal Time Law to permit the first broadcast of Presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960.
The late Dick Salant, president of CBS News, called Stanton his mentor and "the best non-practicing journalist who ever lived." Salant said Stanton understood how important broadcast news was to American democracy and society, including the "imperative need that it be responsible and honest, free from personal bias -- accurate and fair." Stanton also demanded a sharp line between news and entertainment programs -- a firewall.
Stanton backed strong, issue-oriented documentaries. He stood behind Edward R. Murrow's See It Now in 1954 when it exposed the tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He initiated CBS Reports.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Stanton kept CBS News on the air to cover the story for four days straight, all without commercial interruption. That coverage was important in keeping the country together at a critical time.
(Stanton understood the) imperative need that (broadcast news) be responsible and honest, free from personal bias -- accurate and fair.
One celebrated CBS documentary in 1971, The Selling of the Pentagon, reported on the U.S. military's massive public relations activities. The broadcast infuriated some members of Congress.
Stanton held his ground before a House committee, and risked going to jail for contempt of Congress, in order to protect broadcast journalism's First Amendment right to withhold its notes and "outtakes" from congressional scrutiny.
During the congressional hearings, Stanton spoke eloquently about broadcast journalism's rights. "Clearly, the compulsory production of evidence for a congressional investigation of this nature abridges the freedom of the press. ... The chilling effect of both the subpoena and the inquiry itself is plain beyond all question.
"If newsmen are told that their notes, films, and tapes will be subject to compulsory process so that the government can determine whether the news has been satisfactorily edited, the scope, nature, and vigor of their news-gathering and reporting activities will inevitably be curtailed ... a fundamental principle of a free society is at stake."
Although three committees voted to hold Stanton in contempt, the full House voted against sending him to jail, by a vote of 226-181. Frank Stanton has received innumerable awards, including five Peabody Awards for distinguished achievement and public service.
In 1999, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award as "the conscience of broadcasting." Also in 1999, an editorial in Broadcasting and Cable Magazine called Stanton "the greatest broadcast executive of all time."