June 3, 2011

The ABC Evening News, circa 1969-1970

For some reason, I've found myself watching a good number of news videos on YouTube lately, which (as you might expect) means a lot of them will probably find their way to the blog. They're fascinating to watch not only to show how much things have changed, but how much they've stayed the same.

Take these promo pieces for the ABC Evening News. Many of you probably haven't seen them before; not many people watched the evening news on ABC back in the day. The two news giants, NBC and CBS, had dominated coverage for years, with NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley leading the way up through the mid-60s, and Walter Cronkite steering CBS into first place by the end of the decade.

In response, ABC tried a number of things, all of them failures. John Daly (of What's My Line? fame) anchored the news up to 1960; Ron Cochrane was there through JFK's assassination; Peter Jennings, at 26, became the anchor in 1965, and was still there when the 15-minute broadcast expanded to a half-hour in 1967 (three years after the other two networks had done so). Bob Young, Frank Reynolds, and Howard K. Smith followed.  When Chet Huntley retired from NBC in 1970, ABC must have thought they had an opportunity to make inroads, and they hired Harry Reasoner away from CBS.  Later, they would team Reasoner with Barbara Walters in a disasterous match, before finally striking gold in the late 70s when Roone Arledge came from the sports side to take command.

The first clip here is probably from 1969, when Reynolds and Smith were the anchor team. Very fast-paced, quick-cutting, perhaps an attempt to demonstrate vitality in the face of the warhorses at CBS and NBC.

The second clip would likely be from 1970 or so, when Reasoner had come over from CBS to replace Reynolds. The graphics are quite similar, the music connotates the seriousness of news. This news means business!

The point here is not just to take a look back, although that's always a lot of fun (and a great timewaster). But look at the headlines that the 1969 clip uses: Congress and taxes are right at the top; for Vietnam and Cambodia, you can substitute Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel and Egypt are still in the news. Back then "Liberation" stood for women's lib, but today it could be gay marriage. The USSR is called Russia today, but they still dominate world affairs, as does China with the world economy. The Mideast is still a complete mess, "Ecology" is now the environment and it's even bigger than it was then, and how many predicted abortion would become as dominant as it is today? The economy, Holy War, politics - the whole friggin' thing is still the same! Some of the old issues have disappeared, replaced by new ones, but what's sobering is that for the most part we're still fighting the same battles we were fighting 40 years ago.

That's not really meant to sound depressing. What it really means is that history is what it is, as is human nature. The danger is that utopians try to tell us that the world's problems, or at least some of them, can be solved, when history tells us they probably can't. Lyndon Johnson thought he could wipe out poverty in ten years, Richard Nixon declared the economy could be managed to ensure continued growth, Jimmy Carter tried to bring peace to the Mideast in our time. Oftentimes the social engineering policies of the government produce the very problems they were designed to solve, or at least create ones that hadn't been foreseen.

Of course these issues are still with us. Nature, and the news cycle, abhors a vacuum. It doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try to solve our problems - indeed, we must - but there is no such thing as heaven on earth. So when you look at these clips and think how little has changed, ask yourself this: should we really be surprised?

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