No, CBS Didn't 'Invent' Original TV Reporting

Debunking CBS's flashy new ad campaign

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CBS News is mighty proud of itself and its newish nightly news anchor Scott Pelley. So proud, they just unveiled a new ad campaign taking the somewhat arrogant line that they "invented" original TV reporting. Behold:

What is original reporting? It’s finding your own facts, seeing them first hand; telling the story no one else will — or can.

It’s not just reporting what others are reporting. It’s substance over showmanship. It’s what we do at CBS News every Sunday, and every day of the week. But hey, it’s not like we invented original reporting on television. [Cut to an a black-and-white image of an old "60 Minutes" set] Oh wait; yes we did.

Unfortunately, the first televised news program was in 1939 and was broadcast by NBC host Lowell Thomas. CBS News wasn't founded until 1948 when it launched its first regularly scheduled TV news program The CBS-TV News  in 1948, hosted by Douglas Edwards. Though Thomas wasn't a particularly motivated TV news anchor, as his 1981 obituary in The New York Times notes, he did get there first:

Mr. Thomas had broadcast for NBC the first televised news program in 1939. But as television flourished, his primary loyalty remained with radio, and his audience did not diminish significantly. “They want to hear the news, not see the person who is reading it,” he said.

Now the Tiffany Network may have a point that its Edward R. Murrow-infused broadcasting team far surpassed the quality of any of its rivals at the time. But isn't the most valued aspect of journalism its accuracy, not who's been doing it longer? In an e-mail conversation, Aaron Brown, the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University who teaches a course on the history of television news, suggested that the network should let its legacy speak for itself. "When I think of how the business developed it was CBS that drove it," he said. "But to say it invented original reporting... well that seems a stretch or at least impossible to prove." Omar Sofradzija, an adjunct journalism professor at Michigan State University, said the network is dreaming if it thinks this is a clever tactic to win over audiences. "Whether a media organization was born now or decades ago, it's really all about what it's doing today," he said. "People don't care whether you got it right 60 years ago, they care if you're getting it right now. Pan Am used to have a hell of an airline but who are they helping?"

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