The 1967 Aftra Strike

Images below found in Stand By! – February/March 1967. My mother can be seen in the first picture at top right, second from left.

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Anchors Away: Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite and the 1967 AFTRA Strike

Socolow, Michael J., Journalism History, Summer 2003
Extract of an article found at Questia

In March 1967, the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) called its firstnationwide strike. Although almost all programming on the national television networks ceasedproduction, the evening newscasts continued to be broadcast. NBC’s Chet Huntley crossed thepicket line, calling AFTRA a union “dominated by announcers, entertainers, and singers.” Hispartner, David Brinkley, refused to work, and CBS’ Walter Cronkite also supported the union.The strike represents a pivotal yet often overlooked moment in broadcast journalism history. Itcreated the perception of tension between Huntley and Brinkley that would play a role in the“CBS Evening News” surpassing the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” as the nation’s most highly-ratedevening news broadcast in 1967-68.

On the evening of March 29, 1967, most of the approximately 10 million regular viewers of the“CBS Evening News” probably were surprised at seeing the unfamiliar face of a twenty-nine yearold CBS corporate executive peering out from the screen. Ernest Leiser, the executive producer ofthe “CBS Evening News,” had spent that afternoon auditioning several members of the CBS Newsmanagement team to fill the anchor’s chair. Each took a turn reading a four-minute script in thebrightly lit studio. None matched the delivery or screen presence of Arnold Zenker, the programmanager for CBS News, who earlier that same morning had delivered the morning news over theCBS-TV network. Leiser called Zenker at home and told him to report back to the studio, and afew hours later he began reading the day’s top stories to the national television audience.Nowhere in that evening’s script did he mention the fact that the program’s regular anchorman-Walter Cronkite-was out on strike. When the American Federation of Television and RadioArtists (AFTRA) called a strike against the networks that morning, he immediately supported theunion and walked out.1

The idea of a celebrity television news anchor participating in a labor action seems absurd today.Even in 1967, the notion of broadcasters earning more than $100,000 a year striking againsttheir management was considered strange at best, laughable at worst. As U.S. News and WorldReport noted, “never had the country seen anything quite like it.”2 Although the era of thecelebrity journalist had yet to fully bloom, viewers and critics alike shared skepticism that a TVanchorman could be considered a member of the working class. In reporting on this unique laboraction, the press often stressed its more humorous aspects. Newsweek joked that “Eugene Debswould never have believed it,” and on the strike’s second day, the New York Times reported that“Today” show host Hugh Downs was chauffeured to the picket line “in a Cadillac limousinesupplied by the network.”3

The 1967 strike was an important moment in the history of television news. It raised definitionalissues about the social and political status of celebrity anchormen, and it offered the notoriouslyhabitual evening news audience an excuse to change the channel and alter the ratings dynamicbetween the most popular programs. Yet while the significance is clear, the strike has beengenerally ignored in the scholarship of television journalism. In Edward Bliss’ comprehensiveNow the News, the strike received two sentences in 470 pages of text.4 Historians have generallyfollowed the lead of the journalists involved, who downplayed the strike’s impact. Rememberingthe strike in a 1995 interview, NBC’s David Brinkley called it “pointless and quite silly.”5

However, in his 1995 memoir, Brinkley admitted that somehow, in a difficult to define manner,the strike led to the end of NBC’s leadership in the evening news ratings competition. His boss atthe time, Reuven Frank, had concurred in his 1991 memoir, Out of Thin Air.6 Because the strikeaffected the ratings dynamic between the two most-watched evening news programs, it was apivotal moment in broadcast history. (Full article continues with paid subscription at Questia).

This was a bit of history that I remember. The strike was ultimately settled with a new contract, but I recall my mother telling me about her days on the picket line.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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