August 21, 2013

When the news was the news

The other night I was watching the network news – or at least the news was on, in the workout room of our apartment complex; I can’t say I was really watching it, but it was within my field of vision. The sound was off, but because the modern news broadcast can’t survive without having a third of the screen covered with graphics, I was easily able to figure out the gist of the stories.

I didn’t catch the lede, but as I glanced at the screen I was able to see the other major stories in the first half of the broadcast. There was a story on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his decision on so-called “conversion” therapy for homosexuals, followed by the latest in the A-Rod steroid scandal, a story on another person being attacked by a bear, a feature on America’s most infamous speed traps, and a bit about Dick Van Dyke being rescued from a burning car. Granting that the first story could well have been about the unrest in Egypt, everything else pointed to a newscast that could just as well have been done by Mary Hart as Diane Sawyer. It was almost entirely soft news, driven by personalities, with the emphasis on newsmaker-as-celebrity.

Contrast that newscast with this rare footage of the January 25, 1968 broadcast of the ABC Evening News with Bob Young. (It may not be the entire broadcast, but at nearly 18 minutes it’s well over half of the show.) The bulk of the newscast concerns the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea in the wake of the Korean seizure of the Pueblo, starting with news of President Johnson’s call-up of National Guard reserve forces, including interviews with reservists and an analysis of Johnson’s response by White House correspondent Frank Reynolds, then seguing to an overview of the United States’ military options – including the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike – by Bill Downs. Howard K. Smith follows with a hawkish commentary, in which he warns the North Koreans that Americans have never been ones to back down from fighting for what they think is a righteous cause. Young gives the closing numbers from the Wall Street (over 12 million shares traded!), followed by a summary of recent fighting in Vietnam, Tom Jarrell reporting on civil rights from Mississippi, and wrapping up with an unrelated news story from Louisiana.  But don't just take my word from it - see for yourself.

As the broadcast shows, the accent is on hard news and talking heads – in fact, it could easily have been a radio broadcast, with Reynolds summarizing comments from various administration officials rather than showing footage of them speaking, and Young reading several Vietnam stories with no video accompaniment save a map superimposed over his right shoulder. Some of this could be a result of ABC’s relatively miniscule news budget, but a good deal of it relates to the slower, more in-depth pace of the broadcast.

The detail given on each story is another departure from the headline-oriented broadcast of today, in which viewers are often encouraged to check the network’s website for more information. In fact, on first seeing this excerpt, my wife couldn’t believe it had all come from one newscast and not a compilation of several reports. It’s also interesting to see the casual, commonplace way in which the Communists in both Vietnam and Korea are referred to as “the enemy,” while American troops are “our” forces. It’s an astonishing lack of cynicism, reminding us of a time in which newsmen recognized that they were Americans as well as journalists.

Bob Young himself could be thought of as a “no-frills” broadcaster. He’s not concerned with coming across as warm and fuzzy, or to bond with the viewer; he’s there to read the news, to communicate it as clearly and professionally as possible.

I alluded at the start of this piece to Mary Hart, the former co-host of Entertainment Tonight, for good reason.  In Glued to the Set, Steven Stark makes the point that the success of programs such as ET, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition led the network evening news shows to "ape" these shows to the extent that by 1993, "for the first time, news about the entertainment industry and its stars became among the Top Ten most heavily reported subjects on the evening newscasts."  As newsmakers become celebrities, Neil Postman says, "both the form and content of news becomes entertainment."

I wonder – do you think that, in today’s short-attention-span culture, the average TV viewer could sit still through a 30-minute newscast like that, with no shouting, no flashy graphics, no quick cuts from correspondent to correspondent? Do you think they’d be interested in a broadcast that devoted most of its time to foreign affairs? Would they have the curiosity or the interest in serious news stories, and would they have the intellect to understand them? Of course, we've discussed the evolution of television and popular culture enough that you and I both know the answers.

Watching this broadcast is yet another reminder of the evolution of our society, and the way in which television operates. It’s a look back at the days when the news was the news, and we all had the time to assimilate more information at a slower pace. It was a time when viewers felt they knew more about what was going on at the end of the broadcast than they did at the beginning. In short, it’s a time that’s long gone, and probably never coming back.

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