restricted access 2. From the Law Office to the Broadcast Booth
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30 Sports is human life in microcosm. —Howard Cosell Reflecting on the era in which he became a sportscaster, Cosell wrote: “Great changes in technology were coming; an increase of leisure time; the exodus to the suburbs to escape from the great cities. The whole pattern of society was changing, and sports would become even more important.” In these changes he saw an opportunity to inject himself into radio and television. Noting how the integration of African Americans into white-dominated sports had changed the way those sports would be experienced, he added: “A whole new set of smoldering problems would emerge. Could we keep giving the country line scores as news?”1 Here are encapsulated the dual forces that would shape the character of Howard Cosell’s career as a broadcaster. On the one hand, Cosell, like nobody else in sports broadcasting before or since, had an understanding of the relationship between sports and the larger social forces shaping the late twentieth century: the rise of commercial culture, transformations in the nature of work and leisure, revolutions in racial politics, even the feminist movement and the challenges it posed to the gendered status quo (though this last only occasionally, and in spite of his own significant sexism). So keen was his understanding, in fact, that he often belittled athletes, team owners, franchise-hungry municipal governments, and any other individual or institution that, to Cosell’s mind, overemphasized sports. What is more, he had a social conscience, and was willing to stand up for causes that were of no immediate benefit to himself or his social class—most notably civil rights for African Americans. 2 From the Law Office to the Broadcast Booth 31 from t he law office to t he broadcast boot h On the other hand, this same passage from Cosell also hints at another force that would propel Howard Cosell to fame: an almost insatiable ambition. Here, and in many other places as well, he not only connected sports to important social forces but also claimed to have a unique ability to understand, and fearlessly report, these connections to a public that was not always ready for the truth. This lack of modesty is vintage Cosell, but it also underscores a level of determination that kept him pursuing a broadcasting career long after most would likely have decided to quit. Even in his earliest years as a sports reporter, these two aspects of Cosell’s character—social conscience and ambition—would come into conflict with each other. More than defining a personal story of tortured conflict, however, they reveal the political and social turmoil that surrounded the early decades of television. During the 1960s, producers and executives struggled to create and air programming that fulfilled an advertising and entertainment function but that also addressed the often violent social transformations and conflicts that were covered on their networks’ evening news programs. The tension between Cosell’s political ideals and his professional ambitions, between his insightful reporting and his rhetoric, as well as his quest for fame and adoration, parallel the larger tensions within the medium of television itself. I focus in this chapter not only on Cosell’s early career but also on the political and social contexts it which it developed—most notably the “culture of unity” that was part of the “cultural front” of the 1930s and 1940s; the emerging opportunities for urban working-class European ethnics within the new culture industries that emerged with broadcasting after World War II; and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. In many respects , such experiences were common among young Jewish writers, directors, actors, and entertainers of Cosell’s time. What made him special was the way he brought these to the world of sports broadcasting. Interviewed by Baltimore area radio sports broadcaster Ted Patterson in 1968, Howard Cosell pontificated in the third person about what made him a unique, and sometimes disliked, figure among televised sport announcers: The public has very mixed views about Howard Cosell, and the public always will because the public grows up the way you grew 32 chap t er 2 up [speaking to Patterson], and the way you are now and the task that you’re pursuing here, and the research you’re doing. Sports is something very dear and very special for you, very much apart from real life. . . . You see, the big things in sport today, because of the nature of...