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American Today

Television and Film

Cronkite and Bliss: One Pro to Another

By Tom Price

Photo: Walter Cronkite and Ed Bliss

Ed Bliss sits behind Walter Cronkite at the introduction of the half-hour CBS Evening News. (Photo courtesy of Ed Bliss)

 (This story was first  published as “The Pro” in the fall 2000 issue of American magazine.)

As American television viewers got their first glimpse of a half-hour newscast September 2, 1963, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was, of course, front and center. But another man—mostly bald with a perimeter of dark hair, wearing heavy black rimmed glasses, was hunched over the same desk as Cronkite but farther from the camera, scribbling on the sheets of paper in front of him.

Ed Bliss Jr., news editor of the groundbreaking broadcast, had been made part of the set, helping to project a note of newsroom urgency and reality. A world map hung on the back wall, further asserting the image of CBS News as authoritative. To the map, Bliss had added one piece of whimsy—the name of Shaowu, China, the isolated town in which he had been born to American Congregationalist missionaries Edward and Lois Arnette Bliss, on July 30, 1912.

Ed Bliss Jr.’s on-screen career didn’t last beyond the first year of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, which was by then becoming the brightest jewel of American broadcast journalism. But his career off camera has been long, distinguished, and not yet at an end. It has stretched from that Chinese town with no electricity, no motor vehicles, and no running water, through newspapers, radio, television, books, and education. He founded AU’s broadcast journalism program in 1968, then became a consultant to a variety of news organizations following his retirement as a professor in AU’s Department of Communication in 1977. Today, at age 88, living in Alexandria, Virginia, he is writing two books while awaiting the December publication of a third, and preparing to market a fourth, which he already has completed.

The career did not kick off so brightly, however. Though a Yale University alumnus might usually expect to choose among attractive job offers, Bliss graduated in the heart of the Depression in 1935, when even sons of the Ivy League struggled to find employment.

Bliss had followed his father to Yale and into pre-medicine. But, since going to work for his high school newspaper, his first love had been journalism, “and I thought I’d better do what I love.”

“I applied (unsuccessfully) at the New York Times to be a copyboy,” Bliss recalls. “I [tried] the Herald Tribune. [Then] I worked my way up the coast to the Hartford Times, the Hartford Courant, the Springfield Republican.

After exhausting New England’s options, Bliss turned his attention to Ohio, where his parents, back from China, were living in Oberlin. Driving his father’s black Ford Victoria sedan from town to town, Bliss visited newspaper offices in Bellefontaine, Akron, Canton, Lima, Cleveland, “Everywhere you could think of.”

In each town, he stopped at a drug store, looked at the local paper, then visited and asked for a job.

His 32d stop was in Bucyrus, a name he couldn’t pronounce (it’s Bew-sigh-rus). The small daily newspaper had just lost its one local news reporter, and Bliss got the job.

The Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum offered “a wonderful basic education, says Bliss. He learned to cover police and courts and was allowed to write a daily column on a variety of subjects from entertainment to “sounding off on international affairs.” But bigger challenges beckoned. And, in 1936, he moved to the Columbus Citizen, to write obituaries in the morning and do general assignment reporting in the afternoon.

He loved working at the Citizen, with one exception—an assignment writing a morning newscast that the newspaper prepared for a Columbus radio station. “I didn’t like getting up at two in the morning and being at work at three,” he says. Happily for him, the radio assignment lasted just three months.

In early 1943 while still working in Columbus, an agent showed the first three chapters of a book Bliss was writing about his parents to the W. W. Norton publishing house, which invited him to meet with a senior editor in New York. While not promising to buy the finished product, the Norton editor encouraged Bliss to keep writing what was the germ of the volume that finally is being published this year, over a half century later.

Bliss took advantage of the New York trip to visit a friend who was working at CBS radio. The friend spoke of a job opening created when a writer entered the Army. And Bliss leaped at the opportunity.

Having lived his first nine years in China, Bliss had an intense interest in international affairs. He loved to listen to Edward R. Murrow and the other great CBS radio correspondents. Now he might be able to work with them. He applied for the job, took a broadcast newswriting test, and passed.

“You never know when a disappointment is really something that’s going to help you,” he notes. “Writing that newscast in Columbus was the only reason I was able to pass that test at CBS.”

The World War II years were the most exciting of times in radio news. Newspapers weren’t as timely. Television was a dream. Americans tuned their radios for reports of the fate of the world. And CBS deployed a legendary crew of correspondents.

Bliss became night editor during the Korean War and was named writer-editor-producer of the daily Edward R. Murrow with the News radio broadcast in 1956. His first work in television was as associate producer of Murrow’s year-end specials, which were simulcast on radio and television.

“He would call all the correspondents together from around the world to talk over what happened in the year and what the foresaw in the year ahead,” Bliss explains. “It was wonderful.”

When Murrow left CBS to head the United States Information Agency in 1961, Bliss became an associate producer of Fred Friendly’s weekly television documentary series, CBS Reports. Then Cronkite asked Bliss to help make history  as editor of the first 30-minute newscast. Bliss found Murrow easy to work for. Friendly was “close to genius,” demanding, “awfully difficult to work with,” but “very, very good, and he worked himself just as hard as he worked you.”

He loved Cronkite.

“Cronkite respected editing,” Bliss says, which is one of the reasons the editor appeared on camera during the early versions of the 30-minute newscast. “He took all the little things very seriously. If somebody wrote about a group of people making a journey and being almost there, he’d cross out ‘almost’ and writing in ‘nearly’ because ‘nearly’ was distance and ‘almost’ was degree.” But he also didn’t overreact to a subordinate’s mistake.

The signature ending to every Cronkite broadcast was: “And that’s the way it is, Friday, September 20, 1968,” or whatever the date happened to be.

“One night that wasn’t written into the script, and Cronkite didn’t even get the month right, let alone the day,” Bliss recalls. “And, you know, he just laughed when he got off the air.” Afterward, “I made sure the first copy assigned every day was to write ‘That’s the way it is’ and the date.”

Bliss speculates that his move into education resulted from “a kind of midlife crisis.”  “I was happy” working for Cronkite, he said. “But I was asking myself: ‘Is this all there is?’ I had always wanted to teach,” probably because of his parents examples. “My mother was a teacher all the time. My father actually taught in a one-room schoolhouse for a while to pay back his education expenses.” As a missionary doctor, he essentially was a medical and religious educator as well.

Bliss revealed these thoughts to CBS correspondents Eric Sevareid and Charles Kuralt. A few months later, Sevareid informed him that American University was looking for someone to open a broadcast journalism program.

“I loved teaching,” Bliss says. He is proud of the education awards he received, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ Distinguished Teaching Award and the Association for Education in Journalism’s Distinguished Broadcast Journalism Educator Award.

He attributes his teaching success to “my enthusiasm for the subject and because the students knew I was doing my damnedest and they knew I loved them.”

Bliss is proud of his former students—but not of the overall state of broadcast journalism.

He speaks approvingly of Bob Edwards of National Public Radio, who keeps a picture of Edward R. Murrow at his desk because “he wants that reminder about sticking to standards.” He admires Ken Middleton, who lost a job in Louisville when he couldn’t raise ratings enough, but was praised by the Louisville Courier Journal because he was “always up front” and “never dodged a difficult question or situation, not even about his own departure.”

Communications technology has improved enormously since Bliss’s days at CBS.

“We’d have to get the film from England by plane, and it would be 24 hours late” by the time it hit the air, he recalls. Now, live broadcasts from the most remote spots on the globe are commonplace. And the Internet enables reporters to communicate and gather valuable background information much more thoroughly and quickly.

Bliss was “so tickled to see Ted Turner succeed” with the CNN news empire. But he also worries that the proliferation of cable and satellite channels are fragmenting the national community that the three major networks once nurtured.

“You’re getting a lot of people who know more and more about the field they are interested in,” he says, “but less and less about other fields that are very important.”

Bliss is most concerned about the goals and standards of broadcast journalism now.

In the golden days, he says, broadcasting executives looked to their news departments for public service and prestige. The news wasn’t expected to return big profits.

“The genie came out of the bottle when the realized they could make bucks with it,” he said. “Now, each person in a position of authority at a station or network feels duty-bound to make money for the owner.”

The result, Bliss said, is news programming focused on ratings—and thus entertainment—at the expense of real news. And it’s not limited to broadcast journalism, he notes. Print media are more titillating and frivolous than they were in the past.

At age 88, Bliss wears steel-rimmed glasses that match his hair and moustache. His wife of 60 years, Lois, died of Alzheimer’s in July; the last time they went out to an event together was when the Ed Bliss Newsroom was dedicated at AU’s School of Communication in 1996. He lives in what can be referred to as a retirement community. But it’s hard to argue that he’s really retired.

John Wylie and Sons is about to publish Bliss’s biography of his father, Beyond the Stone Arches: An American Missionary Doctor in China. He has completed a memoir of his boyhood, tentatively titled Tom Sawyer in China, which he will shop to publishers after Beyond the Stone Arches is established in the market

He started a book with the working title CBS News: The Glory Days, about “the way it really was” inside the news department day-to-day: “You know, the kid who was the copyboy who came in every night with a fresh apple pie because his dad was a baker in Brooklyn. The hotel next door where they didn’t pull the shades. The very interesting announcers.”

And “I just have to write the account of my wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s.”

“It would be a little book,” he says. “And it may not be published. But I have to do it.”