Legendary news producer Joseph Wershba passed away on Saturday, May 14th at the age of 90. Wershba, who decided to become a journalist at a very early age, began his broadcast career in radio, and transitioned to television at CBS News, where he worked on See It Now (where he was part of the core team to expose McCarthyism), CBS Reports and 60 Minutes.
Here are a few excerpts from his 6-hour career-spanning Archive of American Television interview conducted by Jeff Kisseloff in 1997:
Joseph Wershba on the genesis of See it Now
It was what we had on the first broadcast. Open with something that nobody had ever seen before, which was two oceans live in the same time frame; the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Eddie Scott was, and the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay, which was live. Murrow said, “Ed, will you give me the uh, the Brooklyn Navy Yard?” And he said, “coming right up! There it is.” Murrow said, “well, this is the first time we’ve ever seen two oceans live.” You know, small potatoes today, but very big. It was like the landing on the Moon. The coaxial cable had just been opened for many of us to go by cable to the west coast. Before that, it wouldn’t have been done. And Murrow’s introductory line, “this is an old team on a new job.” Meaning, CBS, his colleagues and Fred Friendly using uh, and entirely new mode of communication, and we hoped to use it and not abuse it, which referred to his own feelings about what the news was about.
Joseph Wershba on preparing See It Now’s historic program on Senator Joseph McCarthy
We looked at the program, it was cut. Ed [Murrow] went around the room, What do you think? The editors were all for it, scared. The cameramen worried about their jobs and things like that. My position was, it all depends on what you’re going to say at the end of this broadcast. Because, if you just run what we have looked at, the people who think McCarthy is a great man, will think he is doing the Lord’s work. And the people who are fearful of him and hate him will think he’s more fearful and more hateful than they ever knew. What are you going to say? And, instead of telling me to go mind my business, he said, “Well what I’ll say is that, if none of us ever read a book that was different, if none of us ever joined an organization that somebody thought should be outlawed, if none of us ever had friends who, who were suspect of something or other, we’d all be, all be just the kind of people that Joe McCarthy wants. The whole country’d be that way.” But he said it even more, I don’t have it down word for word. He said it powerfully, he’d been thinking about it all along. And I said, “Well Mr. Murrow, it’s been a privilege to have known you.”….I felt that this was the greatest thing that I’d, in my personal life, had ever come across. We’re standing at Armageddon, ready for war, and we could easily have been destroyed. Just McCarthy coming back, ripping us apart.
Joseph Wershba on the legacy of CBS News president Fred Friendly
I don’t like what’s happened in recent years in an attempt to downgrade Fred’s contribution. I will say to my last breath that without Fred we wouldn’t have had the impact that we had on See It Now. That Fred helped give Murrow the means whereby Murrow could make the mark that he wanted to.
Joseph Wershba on his work as a producer on 60 Minutes
See It Now was the mother lode, it was the fount of all these magazine shows. The first one to come along which I’m proud to say I also worked on. I spent twenty years with 60 Minutes, I was one of the founding producers. That’s a title that is a showbiz title, but it meant a reporter who went out, got all the details, came back, conferred with the correspondent who was doing four other stories at the same time, wrote up the outline, placed the questions, told them what answers he can expect, and if they got a different answer, how to approach the next question. That’s what a producer does.
See his CBS News obituary here.