NEW YORK – Longtime broadcast news executive William J. Small, who led CBS News' Washington coverage during the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and Watergate and was later president of NBC News and United Press International, died Sunday, CBS News said. He was 93.
Small, whose career spanned from overseeing the news operation at a small radio station to testifying in Congress about press freedom, died in a New York hospital after a brief illness unrelated to the coronavirus, the network said.
During a six-decade career, Small supervised, guided and in some cases hired generations of some of the best-known reporters and anchors in television news, among them: Dan Rather, Eric Sevareid, Daniel Schorr, Connie Chung, Diane Sawyer, “60 Minutes” correspondents Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl and “Face the Nation” anchor Bob Schieffer.
“He was heroic and steadfast, especially during Watergate, when it seemed we were getting angry calls from the White House every night," Stahl said in a statement. "He made us want to be better — and nobody wanted to disappoint him.”
Small hired the current CBS News president, Susan Zirinsky, to her first job at the network when she was 20. She remembered Small as a “hero to journalism” and said, "every one of us carries Bill Small’s legacy with us — it’s the core to who we are as journalists.”
Small, born in 1926 in Chicago, broke into broadcasting after fighting in the Army in World War II, including stints as news director at WLS-AM in Chicago and WHAS-TV in Louisville. Less than a year after he arrived, the Kentucky station was honored in 1957 as the nation's top news operation by the organization that is now known as the Radio Television Digital News Association.
Impressed by Small's work in Louisville, CBS executives hired him in 1962 to be assistant news director of the network's Washington bureau. He was promoted to bureau director within a year and "put together a TV News bureau the likes of which Washington had never known,” reporter Roger Mudd wrote in his 2009 book, “The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News.”
Early in his tenure, Small presided over the network's coverage of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, scrambling cameras to the White House and Capitol Hill and turning a station wagon into a makeshift broadcast truck so they could get live pictures from Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s home.
Small didn't leave the bureau for four days, “from the shooting to the burial,” he told The Associated Press in 2013. “When I finally got home, I asked my wife, `What was it like?′ She said, `There was no one on the streets. Everyone was watching television.’”
Kennedy's assassination marked a seminal moment for television, then still in its nascence, as a source of news and solace — from CBS anchor Walter Cronkite's tearful announcement of the president's death to live, wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery.
There would be others on Small's watch, including clashes over civil rights legislation, bitter divides over the Vietnam War and the 1972 Watergate break-in that prompted myriad legal and journalistic inquiries into President Richard Nixon's involvement and ultimately led to his resignation.
“Backed by the mystique of Murrow’s CBS and his own uncanny judge of talent, Small helped attract a stream of reporters, analysts and producers whose learning, talent, skill and experience were without precedent in news broadcasting," Mudd wrote, calling him a “sophisticated judge of journalistic horseflesh.”
Small remained in charge of the Washington bureau until 1974, when CBS moved him to a senior position at its New York headquarters.
The promotion put him next in line to become president of CBS News, but after he testified before Congress in 1978 urging strong limits on police entering newsrooms, the network instead assigned him to be its chief lobbyist in Washington.
Small defected to NBC in 1979, becoming president of the network's news division and hiring away several CBS reporters, including Mudd and Marvin Kalb. In 1982, he became president of the UPI wire service.
Small and his late wife, Gish, had two daughters and six grandchildren. He is the author of two books on the role of the media in politics and society, taught communications and media management at Fordham University and was on the sociology faculty at the University of Louisville.
Small spent the last decade of his career as chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hands out Emmy Awards for television news and documentaries, retiring in 2010.
In 2014, the organization honored Small with its lifetime achievement award. In its presentation, it recognizing him as a television news icon whose work in Washington was "paramount in the dramatic evolution of network news that continues today.”