Lessons from Our Forefathers in Media

There were only two viable television news choices in the early 60s, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC or the new kid on the block CBS’s Walter Cronkite. While Huntley and Brinkley would interject some sarcasm and quick wit into their broadcast, it was Cronkite who delivered the news in a much more straight forward manner.

Those were the “salad days” for network news. News radio was in its infancy, so other than a five or ten minute hourly newscast, television’s nightly news was the first shot at seeing what happened during the day, a full 12 hours before the daily newspapers would hit the streets.

And the news casts in those days looked very little like what you see today on CNN or even the networks. Hard news meant couriering a tape to a satellite uplink facility and then an editor and correspondent spending hours editing a package. So for example, the war footage in Vietnam was usually a day or two behind, because a courier would need to get the tape to Saigon and it would have to be airlifted to London or Toyko where it could be sent to New York on the “bird” as it was called. Live news, meant a still picture of the event or the correspondent and a television interview, live on air.

And Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley were relative novices at the medium. Trained in print or wire service style, the raw talent of these “anchors” was palpable as they were really learning themselves.

The nation’s respect for these gentlemen was genuine and well deserved. They were pioneers, but more importantly, solid journalists. They didn’t go on the air with rumor, nor stories that were tabloid fodder. They understood the critical role a network newscast played in the shaping of the nation’s agenda. Americans saw the assassination of Kennedy, the devastation of the Vietnam War and the reacted accordingly. The idea of broadcasting days of coverage of the death of Michael Jackson would have been laughable. And that’s because they put the top news of day in perspective for us, as only responsible journalists can.

So we think we’ve come a long way from those years. We now get news as it breaks on our iPhones and tablets, can watch it continuously on a host of networks. The problem is that news has become cluttered. Instead of perspective, we are deluged with breaking news which is fed into a steady diet of anything and everything to keep the news channels going. There is little packaging or prioritizing. The news channels still shape the coverage, but they do so with consumer-driven news like Michael Jackson death coverage or Paris Hilton live at the LA County lockup. Perspective is sorely missing.