Fred Patterson Graham (1931–2019)
Journalist Fred Graham was the dean of television news Supreme Court reporting in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Building upon his tenure as the U.S. Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, and as law correspondent for CBS News, Graham pioneered television coverage of the nation’s highest court. Later, he became involved in the launch of cable television’s Court TV, where he continued to report and offer analysis of the American legal system and legal issues in the United States.
Fred Patterson Graham was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on October 6, 1931, to Otis and Lois Graham. His family included an older sister and two younger brothers. He received his early education in Texarkana (Miller County) before his family relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended West End High School, graduating in 1949. The recipient of an academic scholarship, he attended Yale University, from which he earned a BA in 1953. Following graduation, Graham joined the U.S. Marines, where he served as both an infantry and intelligence officer in a tour of duty that took him to both Japan and Korea. Upon his discharge in 1956, Graham attended law school at Vanderbilt University, from which he received an LLB in 1959. At Vanderbilt, he served as managing editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review and earned membership in the Order of the Coif. Following a year at Oxford University in England as a Fulbright scholar, where he earned a Diploma of Law, Graham returned to Nashville and, in 1960, went into private practice with the firm of Trabue, Sturdivant and Harbison.
In January 1963, Graham left private practice and moved to Washington DC, joining the staff of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, for which he served as chief counsel as well as legislative counsel for the subcommittee’s chairman, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. In October of that year, Graham moved to the executive branch, becoming special assistant to Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz. In addition, he served as deputy chief counsel of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity until he left the Labor Department in February 1965 to join the New York Times as Supreme Court correspondent. After a seven-year stint with the Times, Graham left print journalism for television news.
As the law correspondent for CBS News from 1972 to 1987, Graham covered the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the legal profession, pioneering television coverage of the third, but least understood, branch of the federal government. He also served as the substitute anchor on the network’s Sunday news show Face the Nation, as well as Nightwatch and CBS Morning News, and broadcast weekly radio commentary, “The Law and You.” Graham’s tenure at both the New York Times and CBS News coincided with some of the most important, if controversial, judicial decisions in American history. In covering stories such as the Warren Court’s extension of the protections afforded criminal defendants, the Pentagon Papers case, abortion rights, and the Watergate scandal, Graham helped shape the nation’s understanding of a changing legal landscape, as well as the role of the Supreme Court in the nation’s governmental system.
The 1980s saw major changes in the television news industry, as coverage moved in a more visual direction. Court-related topics, however, did not lend themselves to visual depictions, a problem exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s refusal to allow television cameras into its courtroom. With Graham’s on-air time at CBS dropping dramatically, he left the network in 1987 and moved back to Nashville, where anchored the local news on WKRN, Channel 2, for two years. He then took advantage of another seismic change in the television landscape, the development of cable television, and played a role in the development of Court TV. There, Graham served as its chief anchor and managing editor beginning with the inaugural broadcasts in 1991, hosting both daily trial coverage and the analysis program Open Court.
Over the course of his career, Graham was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, most notably the George Foster Peabody Award as well as the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. In addition, he authored four books, The Self-Inflicted Wound (Macmillan, 1970), Press Freedom under Pressure (Twentieth Century Fund, 1972), The Alias Program (Little, Brown & Company, 1976), and Happy Talk (W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), as well as countless articles that appeared in a wide range of publications.
Married to Skila Harris, Graham was the father of three children. Graham was a founding member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the inaugural recipient of their Distinguished Service Award in 2012, an award that was then renamed the Fred Graham Distinguished Service Award. He died on December 28, 2019, in Washington DC, where he had lived for many years.
For additional information:
Graham, Fred. Happy Talk. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
McFadden, Robert D. “Fred P. Graham, Legal Affairs Reporter and Court TV Anchor, Dies at 88.” New York Times, December 28, 2019. Online at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/28/obituaries/fred-graham-dead.html (accessed October 26, 2021).
Rosenthal, Thomas B. “Fred Graham Puts Message in Another Medium: Books.” Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1990. http://articles.latimes.com/print/1990-03-19/entertainment/ca-520_1_fred-graham (accessed October 26, 2021).
William H. Pruden III
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