Frank Nicholas Stanton (March 20, 1908 - December 24, 2006) was an American broadcasting executive who served as the president of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for a quarter of a century. Along with William S. Paley, Stanton is credited with the significant growth of CBS into a communications powerhouse. He was also known for his keen sense of corporate style that ranged from the standards he espoused as a broadcasting executive, to the design of everything from the company's headquarters to corporate stationery.
Stanton was decisive and passionate in his pursuit of the development of broadcast journalism. He was instrumental in developing televised presidential debates, which continue to be one of the primary vehicles by which the American public makes their decisions regarding presidential elections. Stanton argued that freedom of the press should apply equally to broadcast media as to print, resisting the efforts of Congress to oversee and control broadcasting after the airing of the controversial documentary The Selling of the Pentagon. While exposes of corruption, government and otherwise, provide a valuable service to society as a whole, broadcast media must also be held accountable. Unfortunately, many of those involved do not adhere to sufficiently high standards. Stanton, however, was responsive to problems, as evidenced by his canceling of quiz shows following scandal. Thus, his legacy stands as a great statesman of broadcasting.
Frank Stanton was born on March 20, 1908 in Muskegon, Michigan to Helen Josephine Schmidt and Frank Cooper Stanton. He attended high school in Dayton, Ohio. He then attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, receiving a B.A. in 1930. He taught for one year in the manual arts department of a high school in Dayton, and then attended Ohio State University, from where he received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1935. He also held a diploma from the American Board of Professional Psychology.
Stanton married childhood sweetheart Ruth Stephenson in 1931. The couple had no children.
He served as the president of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) between 1946 and 1971 and then vice chairman until 1973. He also served as the chairman of the Rand Corporation from 1961 until 1967.
Following his retirement from CBS, Stanton served as chairman of the American Red Cross from 1973 to 1979. He received many honors, including election to the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Soon after earning his Ph.D., Stanton joined the research department of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). During World War II, he consulted for the Office of War Information, the Secretary of War, and the Department of the Navy, while serving as a vice president at CBS.
Stanton led the fight for color television. On June 25, 1951, Stanton appeared on an hour-long special, Premiere, with Robert Alda, Faye Emerson, Ed Sullivan, Arthur Godfrey, William Paley and others to introduce the CBS color sequential system of color TV. The CBS system was not compatible with existing black-and-white TV sets, and the FCC ultimately chose the RCA system of broadcasting color TV.
The CBS "Eye" logo, designed by William Golden based on a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign as well as a Shaker drawing and first drawn by graphic artist Kurt Weiss made its broadcasting debut on October 20, 1951. The following season, as Golden began to prepare a new logo, Stanton overruled him: "Just when you're beginning to be bored by what you've done is when it's beginning to be noticed by your audience." The CBS eye is now an American icon. While the symbol's settings have changed, the Eye device itself has not been redesigned in its entire history.
Stanton played a role in the infamous controversy involving Arthur Godfrey, CBS' top money-earner in the early 1950s. Godfrey insisted that the cast members of two of his three CBS shows, a group of singers known as the "Little Godfreys," refrain from hiring managers. When one, Julius LaRosa, hired a manager following a minor dispute with Godfrey, Godfrey consulted with Stanton, who suggested he release the popular LaRosa, then a rising star, on the air – just as he had hired him on the air in 1951. On October 19, 1953, Godfrey fired LaRosa on the air, without giving LaRosa any indication that this was coming. The move caused an enormous backlash against Godfrey. Stanton later told Godfrey biographer Arthur Singer, author of the book Arthur Godfrey: The Adventures of an American Broadcaster, that "Maybe (the recommendation) was a mistake."
In the 1950s, television burst into the mainstream and the medium proved to be a powerful influence on American society. At the same time, competition with the Soviet Union for technological superiority contributed to a national reverence of intelligence and knowledge. Against this backdrop television quiz shows became popular. Questions asked on these shows required substantial knowledge across a broad spectrum of cerebral topics. The spectacle of people achieving huge financial success through the exercise of brain power was riveting to a nation that revered intellectualism as well as wealth. However, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that contestants of several popular television quiz shows were secretly given assistance by the producers to arrange the outcome of a supposedly fair competition. Stanton discontinued the CBS quiz shows immediately.
While Edward R. Murrow's 1958 speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) is often praised for its call for a deeper commitment among broadcasters to public service, Stanton in May, 1959 (speaking before his graduate alma mater, Ohio State) also voiced his own commitment to public affairs. He promised that the following year, CBS would air a frequent prime-time public-affairs series, a series which later became CBS Reports. A few months later, in an October 1959 speech before the same RTNDA that Murrow had addressed in 1958, Stanton promised there would be no repeat of the program deceptions embodied by the quiz show scandals.
Stanton organized the first televised presidential debate in American history. After an eight-year effort, he finally managed to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to suspend Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 for the election in 1960. Section 315 stated that equal air time must be given to all the candidates; Stanton, however, was only interested in debates between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The first debate was held and televised in the CBS studio in Chicago. After the debate, Stanton met with Richard J. Daley, the mayor of Chicago, who was impressed by Kennedy's performance.
The debates, however, ceased after the 1960 election, as Lyndon B. Johnson avoided debating in 1964, and Nixon, widely perceived to have made a poor impression on television viewers in 1960, declined to debate in 1968 and in 1972. Thus televised presidential debates did not resume until 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford, perceiving he was behind in the opinion polls, agreed to debate challenger Jimmy Carter.
As president of CBS, Stanton's greatest battle with the government occurred in 1971, focused on the issue of freedom of the press with regard to broadcast media. The controversy surrounded "The Selling of the Pentagon," a CBS Reports documentary, which exposed the huge expenditure of public funds, partly illegal, to promote militarism. The confrontation raised the issue of whether television news programming deserved protection under the First Amendment.
Accusations were made that skillful editing has distorted what key interviewees had actually said. Against threat of jail, Stanton refused the subpoena from the House Commerce Committee ordering him to provide copies of the outtakes and scripts from the documentary. He claimed that such materials are protected by the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. Stanton observed that if such subpoena actions were allowed, there would be a "chilling effect" upon broadcast journalism. The Selling of the Pentagon and the decision of congress to reject attempts to cite Stanton for contempt based on his refusal to submit to the subpoena, was a milestone in the development of the television documentary. The message was clear: "the networks could not be made to bend to government control in the technological era."
For his efforts in that situation, Stanton was awarded one of three personal Peabody Awards (the others coming in 1959 and 1960). He also shared two other Peabodys that were awarded to CBS as a network.
Stanton retired from CBS in 1973.
Stanton was instrumental in developing televised presidential debates, which continue to be one of the primary vehicles by which the American public makes their decisions regarding presidential politics.
Stanton was revered both as a spokesman for the broadcast industry before Congress, and his passionate support of broadcast journalism and journalists. Former CBS News President Richard S. Salant—widely considered the greatest-ever chief of a network news division - himself praised Stanton as a corporate mentor and statesman.
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