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Time Inc. Accused of Using Reporters' Group to Push Film : Murrow Docudrama Splits Journalists

December 07, 1985|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

More than one journalist involved has wondered what Edward R. Murrow himself would think about all this--some of the most luminescent names in the news business spatting in public over whether a press advocacy group should screen a TV "docudrama" on Murrow's life at a Washington fund-raiser.

Some say a docudrama, a theatrical re-creation of actual events, would have appalled Murrow, the man credited with pioneering network television news standards. Others think an intramural quarrel that appears to pit journalists--and the commercial interests--of one corporation, CBS, against those of the film's producer, Time Inc., would have embarrassed him.

Cronkite May Quit Group

The dispute has so escalated, however, that it already may have harmed the group involved, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, one of the most effective advocates of press freedom. CBS newsmen Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, whose company is a major financial contributor to the committee, have hinted that they might resign from the group if the film is shown.

CBS newsmen are not alone in objecting. "I think Murrow would have thrown up at even the possibility that someone would do a docudrama about him," said Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff.

"I don't know what the issues are, and I don't really care," said Mike Royko, a member of the Reporters Committee's official steering committee, who abstained when asked to vote on the matter recently. "But, if I could vote now that I know Rather and Cronkite are against it, I'm for it."

The tempest began several weeks ago when Time magazine Washington correspondents David Beckwith and Hays Gorey suggested that the Reporters Committee screen a new film about Murrow's life, called "Murrow," at a fund-raising event for the organization. The film was produced by a Time subsidiary, Home Box Office.

Dissent in News Division

The film concerns Murrow's career at CBS in the early days of television and focuses on the conflicts between commercial profit and journalistic integrity at CBS. At a time when the network has just posted its first quarterly loss in 32 years, is suffering from internal dissent in the news division and is facing charges of liberal bias from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.), Reporters Committee Executive Director Jane Kirtley knew the idea would prove controversial.

After viewing "Murrow" privately, however, Kirtley and her executive group decided to poll their steering committee, a prestigious group of 30 journalists, including such figures as the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, ABC's Peter Jennings, TV journalist Hodding Carter, Hentoff of the Village Voice, Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Al Hunt and Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson. A majority vote, Kirtley hoped, would settle the matter.

The vote was 16 to 10 to go ahead, and plans were set to hold a fund-raiser Jan. 9 at the National Press Club. Two employees of Time Inc. on the committee, Beckwith and Gorey, abstained. NBC anchorman Brokaw was opposed to the screening. ABC's anchorman Jennings voted for it.

Far from settling matters, the vote, tallied last week, provoked deep rancor. One committee member charged that CBS "is trying to suppress this film . . . because it raises new challenges to CBS' credibility." Another journalist denounced his fellow committee members for "leaking to the press." Some reporters refused to comment; others asked for confidentiality.

Dan Rather Upset

Rather, who was so upset that he called Kirtley from the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Geneva, privately discussed resigning from the committee after the vote, some committee members said.

Cronkite, when asked whether he, too, might consider resigning, told the Washington Post last week: "Maybe that's the easiest thing to do."

Cronkite refused to elaborate on those remarks. Rather also refused to comment for publication--either on the dispute or the possibility of his resigning.

Even before the Reporters Committee was involved, "Murrow" had been the subject of tumultuous gossip at CBS News, where staff members circulated bootleg scripts and prints of the film. Employees were twittering about the depictions of such CBS pioneers as Murrow, former Chairman William S. Paley and former President Frank Stanton. It was noted, for instance, that actor Dabney Coleman, best known for playing insincere and manipulative executives in such films as "Tootsie" and "9 to 5," played Paley. Daniel J. Travanti, the earnest and virtuous Capt. Furillo on TV's "Hill Street Blues," is Murrow.

Accusation Against Time

When the Reporters Committee wandered into the picture, Rather charged that Time Inc. executives were using the press group to promote their sister company's movie, an accusation of newsmen bowing to commercial pressure curiously similar to the issues depicted in the film.

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