You may know the name from George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck," where he was played by Robert Downey Jr. In any case, he was a significant figure at CBS News for many years.
The official word: Joseph Wershba, a television producer and reporter whose work for Edward R. Murrow on the famous “See it Now” segments about Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Lt. Milo Radulovich helped expose and end the 1950s communist witch hunt known as the “Red Scare” has died. Wershba, also one of the six original 60 MINUTES producers, succumbed to complications from pneumonia Saturday (14) afternoon in North Shore Hospital on Long Island, with his wife Shirley at his side. The pioneering newsman was 90 and lived in Floral Park, N.Y., where he resided for two years after leaving Manhasset Hills, N.Y., where he lived for 47 years.
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"Joe Wershba was a wonderful man who was a pioneer of broadcast journalism, without the notoriety of his more celebrated colleagues Ed Murrow and Don Hewitt,” said Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 MINUTES. “He loved this organization and almost everything he touched became part of the foundation for CBS News, including 60 MINUTES.
Wershba’s career spanned more than 50 years and included a prolific output of print and electronic journalism, none more famous than the “See it Now” television segments that were among the very first examples of the new medium’s power. He was the on-camera reporter and field producer for Murrow on the 1953 “The Milo Radulovich Story,” exposing the U.S. Air Force’s move to discharge a reserve officer because of his family’s indirect association with Communism. Thousands of letters overwhelmingly supporting Radulovich flooded CBS and the program’s sponsor, Alcoa, after the broadcast. Newspaper editorials followed; the media began to pay attention to the innocent victims of a zealous crusade led largely by McCarthy to ferret out communists in America during the Cold War. Wershba also worked on the 1954 report on McCarthy that, harnessing the senator’s own words, inflicted a mortal blow to the movement and its grand inquisitor. That story became the centerpiece of the Best Picture-nominated 2005 film, “Goodnight, and Good Luck.” Robert Downey, Jr., played the role of Wershba in the film about Murrow and his CBS News team’s joust with the “junior senator from Wisconsin,” amid corporate pressure from Murrow’s boss, CBS Chairman William Paley.
Wershba then left CBS News to pursue freelance documentary and print work before joining the New York Post in 1958, where he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s early days in New York City. He worked at the newspaper as a reporter and feature columnist until 1964.
After his stint at the Post, he returned to CBS News as a producer, working on many documentaries under the “CBS Reports” banner. Right away, he won the American Bar Association Golden Gavel award and a Hillman Foundation award for “Gideon’s Trumpet: The Poor Man and the Law,” a 1964 Special Reports feature.
While working in the documentary unit, he was chosen as one of the six original producers for 60 MINUTES, which debuted in 1968. Wershba worked at 60 MINUTES for 20 years, playing a key role in building the program into a perennial top-10 broadcast that was America’s number-one program twice during his tenure. He won two Emmy awards for his 60 MINUTES work. The first, for “What Happened in Tonkin Gulf,” was for his 1971 investigation with Morley Safer into the incident that began the Vietnam War. Another story with Safer, a profile of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek called "Teddy Kolleck's Jerusalem,” won a 1978 Emmy. Other memorable segments he did, also with Safer, include profiles of Pete Rose, photographer Yousef Karsh and Western author Louis L’Amour.
“Joe was an old school reporter and a wonderful travelling companion,” said Safer. “His only hobby was collecting. He collected books and people, especially people. In all the years we worked together I never heard him utter a single cynical phrase. He was also a great patriot, in the best sense of that much abused word.”
He retired from CBS News in 1988 and, with his journalist wife, Shirley, ran a production company that worked on documentaries for clients including the Walt Disney Company and Cronkite-Ward productions, Walter Cronkite’s production company. The Wershbas also helped research Cronkite’s memoirs, performing an integral role in the publication of the best-seller “A Reporter’s Life,” by Walter Cronkite.
Wershba joined CBS News in 1944 as a radio news writer, his first paying job in journalism. Soon he became editor and then news director of WCBS Radio, the CBS-owned radio station in New York. He was sent to CBS’s Washington Bureau as a radio correspondent in 1948, where he worked on the Murrow-Fred Friendly “Hear it Now” series, the radio precursor to “See it Now.” When the series went to television, Wershba was named one of the series original field producers. In Washington, he met Cronkite, with whom he worked on air in early television news at the CBS local affiliate, WTOP.
Earlier in New York, from 1947-‘48, he and CBS News colleague Don Hollenbeck co-edited a radio feature that critiqued the nation’s newspapers, “CBS Views the Press,” the first critical series of its kind.
Joseph Wershba was born in Manhattan on August 19, 1920. Journalism interested him from an early age and he became the sports editor of the “Lincoln Log,” Abraham Lincoln High School’s newspaper. He graduated from that Brooklyn high school in 1937 and attended Brooklyn College for three years, where he was an editor of its newspaper, “The Vanguard.” Brooklyn College honored him several times later in his life, with, among other distinctions, a lifetime achievement award. After leaving Brooklyn College in 1940, he worked for a short time before being drafted into the U.S. Army. He was discharged in 1944 as a 1st Lieutenant.
He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Shirley, nee Lubowitz, whom he met on the overnight shift at CBS. Their subsequent secret marriage is depicted in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Her character in the film was played by Patricia Clarkson. He is also survived by a brother, Charles; a daughter, Randi, and her husband Robert Kornreich; a son, Donald, and his wife Haven Colgate; plus two granddaughters, Emily and Faith Wershba.
The family will hold a graveside service on Tuesday, May 17 at 1:30 PM at Pinelawn Memorial Park and Gardens in Farmingdale, N.Y. CBS News will announce a memorial at a later date.