Flashbacks September 2006

Broadcast News

David Halberstam, James Fallows, and Nicholas Lemann on the rich past and uncertain future of broadcast journalism

On September 5, 2006, millions of Americans tuned in to see perky TV personality Katie Couric’s ascension to the CBS News anchor’s chair. Some have hailed Couric’s rise as a commendable step forward for women; she is, after all, the first female to serve as a solo-anchor on a national network news broadcast. Others have decried the filling of such a prominent news position with a figure from the entertainment-journalism world. Still others contend that the fusion of news and entertainment represents simply an inevitable next step in the evolution of broadcast news—and not necessarily for the worse. But as this collection of Atlantic writings makes clear, the American news media has long been in flux. Indeed, as times have changed, the ideals we’ve looked for in an anchor have shifted, and the motives and values of those stepping up to fill that role have changed as well.

In “The Power and the Profits,” a comprehensive article published in January and February of 1976, David Halberstam chronicled the history of CBS news, offering a look back at the figures who pioneered our ideals of what an anchor should be. Before the first bright smile or clean-cut suit appeared on the air, Halberstam reminded readers, there were only the disembodied voices of radio. He conjured early radio broadcasting pioneer Edward R. Murrow, whose rich voice and dramatic pauses (“This…is London”), along with his rigorous political commentary, made an indelible impression on listeners—especially with his live reports from Europe in the midst of World War II. Murrow, Halbersam emphasized, was “an innately elegant man in an innately inelegant profession.” His intellectual sophistication and his interest in imparting political ideas to his audience made him, Halberstam explained, as much an educator to the nation as a journalist. To a significant extent, Halberstam suggested, it was Murrow who “ma[d]e radio respectable as a serious journalistic profession” and, later, made television “journalistically legitimate too.”

When news broadcasting made the transition from radio to television, however, Murrow’s articulate political views became something of a liability. “[Television] moved people as radio never could,” Halberstam wrote. “The people who controlled the networks knew this and were uneasy, and in some cases, terrified.” It was a tense era of communist accusations and McCarthy censorship, and in recognition of this, Murrow tried to balance his intellectually and politically challenging programming with lighter fare. But CBS opted to steer a course away from him nonetheless. In the early sixties, when CBS went hunting for an anchor for its new, longer Evening News program, they chose Walter Cronkite, an “outsider,” rather than one of Murrow’s protégés.

[Cronkite] came through as straight, clear, and simple, more interested in hard news than analysis or deep meanings. There was little of Murrow’s introspection in him. Viewers could more readily picture Walter Cronkite jumping into a car to rush out and cover a ten-alarm fire than they could picture him doing analysis on a great summit meeting in Geneva.

Though less analytical than Murrow, Cronkite was by no means an insubstantial showman. He embodied an old fashioned, non-flashy outlook, and to viewers, Halberstam explained, represented “Mr. Average Citizen”—a man who would get to the bottom of what was going on each day, and tell it like it was.

In the years that followed, the broadcast news medium continued to evolve. In 1988, Nicholas Lemann reviewed a book by Ed Joyce, a former president of CBS news, which contained, Lemann notes, “many little image-deflating anecdotes about the on-air stars.” Joyce (“Grinding his axe joyously,” according to Lemann) attributed the ills of the new era of infotainment to the broadcast journalists’ relentless quest for personal fame.

[T]he stars have been pushing for goals that are essentially theatrical, not journalistic: more air time, better billing, constant adulation. They have used their supposed commitment to hard-news values as a smokescreen to cover a takeover of control of the news divisions…Entertainment values, if they mean better presentation of the same news, are good and if they mean softer stories and misleading, worked-up presentation techniques, then the stars haven’t really fought them.

Another of Joyce’s criticisms was that broadcast news seemed to have spawned a meta-category: news about news. Joyce described the way anchors at CBS played with press coverage about themselves  and even used the press to “wage internal warfare.” Joyce singled out certain on-air reporters for particular criticism. One of these, Lemann noted, was Dan Rather:

Rather, who often saunters in to work in mid-afternoon (according to Joyce) and whose real job is simply to read the copy he is given, is especially successful at making the press believe that he spends his days as a newspaper-style managing editor of the broadcast and as a watchdog of press freedom. Joyce says that Rather makes command decisions about story assignment and composition only when there's a newspaper reporter watching, and that he is … a master of the art of leaking energetically to further his interests and then proclaiming himself to be shocked and mystified by the nonsense the press is publishing about CBS News.
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Molly Finnegan is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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