Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday February 15th, 2015

Many years before he became one of the most famous men of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill was a foreign correspondent (albeit, one wearing a British Army uniform.)  He was so eager to see military action that at his own expense, he once traveled for six weeks by boat and train to India, where Britain was, as usual, fighting to protect its Empire, It was in his account of a battle near the Afghanistan border, that he coined the phrase, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

Countless young reporters since, (including this one) have used the phrase to describe that unique feeling. In wartime watering holes for reporters – the elegant bar of the St. Georges Hotel in Beirut, Mandy’s in Tel Aviv, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Hong Kong or the Roof Top Bar of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon – close calls with death were a conversation staple. Many were even true. Many more were embellished.

 

I do not know NBC News anchor Brian Williams. If he exaggerated the closeness of his “close call,” in Iraq, he would seem to have lots of company among those who reported wars. However to state the obvious - there is a vast difference between alcohol-fueled tales told at least semi-privately, and reporting the news to millions of Americans on network television.

I have been acquainted with the first and second generation of network news anchors. I have been privileged to work with a number of them and two of them became close personal friends. Although no candidates for sainthood are among them, they were/are good and decent people. And of this I am certain- they all shared an acute awareness that their single most important asset was their credibility. They would not knowingly tell the American people something which they knew not to be true.

This may seem pretty basic, yet it is not. Just as in their early days, newspapers were notoriously unreliable and highly partisan, in its early days television news was susceptible to manipulation, especially to false film editing. Let me give you just one example.

During the 1973 Middle East War, a “celebrity” journalist from the ABC News affiliate in New York City showed up in Tel Aviv. He went off with his own crew for a day or two and returned with a completely edited piece that he wanted sent to New York during the network’s nightly satellite feed. His “story” showed this intrepid reporter under attack by unseen Syrian fire, supposedly in the Golan Heights, with the last scenes showing him crawling into his vehicle and driving off to safety. As this item was being sent to New York, the network producer in charge yelled - AND WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAMERAMAN? The fabricated report was quashed, I wish I could say the ”star” was fired. He was not. He’s bounced around for years, living off self-aggrandizement. The last I heard he was doing something for FOX News. Seriously.

From the fifties onward, the credibility of network anchors became inviolate – which was good for the TV news business and for the country. In the time of Walter Cronkite, (CBS) David Brinkley NBC/ABC and Howard K. Smith (CBS/ABC) most Americans- as many as sixty million each evening- got their news from one of the three networks. In those tumultuous times, network television news had its period of greatest influence, mainly because it rejected extremes, supported moderation and had as its symbols men of unquestioned integrity. They were not the creation of show-doctors working with focus groups and Q ratings, make- up artists and publicity departments.

And so in the immediate aftermath of John Kennedy’s assassination, when rumors that the Soviet Union was responsible provoked demands for military retaliation against Russia, the networks were able to discredit such dangerous thinking. During the Civil Rights battles of the sixties, network coverage of the racially motivated violence was a crucial factor in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 65. And in 1968, when Cronkite declared the Vietnam War a “stalemate” and called for the US to negotiate, “not as victors,” President Johnson responded to aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Five weeks later Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

That golden age of network television news has been gone for a long time. Cronkite died in 2009, but he had not been at his anchor desk for 28 years, having been one of the early casualties of the ratings wars. In the three plus decades since, network news has been totally transformed by technology, the social media and a business model that puts ratings/profits far above content. In my biased view, network news is now unwatchable. They start with the weather, and then go to the soft stuff. (Perhaps I should say the hard stuff. I was told that the Today Show recently spent most of a week, promoting the movie version of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Most commentaries on this subject inevitably note that Walter Cronkite was once the most trusted man in America. I was mildly surprised to learn this past week, that prior to the latest revelations that he exaggerated his combat experience, Brian Williams had been the 27th most trusted man in America. That’s quite good. But by Tuesday he reportedly had plunged to 885, joining one of the stars from the reality series Duck Dynasty. With his six month suspension that number will only get worse.
There was a time in network news, when there was a bright red line between news and entertainment. But that no longer exists and Mr. Williams’ success was significantly tied to his celebrity, which implicitly encourages padding your resume. Unfortunately, at this time when the American people have so little faith in any of the country’s institutions, they have evidently lost someone they thought they could trust. Bad for him- and for all of us



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