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.

Several years later Atlantic correspondent James Fallows lobbed some criticisms of his own at the broadcast journalism world. In “Why Americans Hate the Media,” he expressed concern that the attitude of journalistic detachment now being cultivated to excess by TV journalists could create a troubling disconnect between journalists and viewers. By way of example, he described a 1987 episode of a PBS series called Ethics in America, in which a difficult moral question was put to broadcasting personalities Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. They were asked to imagine they were covering a war and were embedded with some enemy combatants. If, while traveling, they stumbled upon an American unit whom the enemy would surely ambush, they were asked, would they act as journalists and cover the story, or would they try to warn the soldiers? Jennings instantly replied that he would warn the soldiers. But Mike Wallace derided Jennings’s answer, insisting that the wellbeing of the story was more important than the wellbeing of the story’s subject. Embarrassed, Jennings rescinded his first answer. Both men were then sharply criticized by a panel of politicians and military officers, who reminded them that the soldiers they would have let die would not have let Jennings or Wallace face the same end if the roles were reversed. 

Fallows also pointed out that the kind of substantive information that the general public wants to know about its politicians—what will each candidate do about gun control, for example, or programs for at-risk kids?—bears little relation to the kinds of questions journalists actually ask. Fallows pointed to one typical on-air interview with Senator Kennedy.

When Edward Kennedy began giving his views about the balanced-budget amendment, Rather steered him back on course: “Senator, you know I’d talk about these things the rest of the afternoon, but let’s move quickly to politics. Do you expect Bill Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for re-election in 1996?”

Fallows noted that this widening gap between what the public wants and needs from its broadcast journalists and what those journalists actually deliver has led, over the years, to a growing cynicism and disillusionment. Journalists, he pointed out, have fallen far in the public’s estimation:

Since the early 1980s the journalists who have shown up in movies have often been portrayed as more loathsome than the lawyers, politicians, and business moguls who are the traditional bad guys in films about the white-collar world.… Movies do not necessarily capture reality, but they suggest a public mood—in this case, a contrast between the apparent self-satisfaction of the media celebrities and the contempt in which they are held by the public.

Americans, it seems clear, are ready for a change. As for whether CBS anchor Katie Couric holds out, the answer remains to be seen.

Presented by

Molly Finnegan is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In