Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
June 24th, 2017
Earlier this month, more than a hundred former members of the ABC News London bureau got together there to renew old friendships and recall old war stories. It was a time of great pleasure. But inevitably it was touched with regret over the greatly diminished role of such once major news operations.
The London bureaus of the American broadcast networks came of age with Edward R. Murrow and his now legendary reports on CBS Radio as WWII began in 1939. Murrow's descriptions of the death and destruction caused by the German luftwaffe's "blitz" of London in 1940, brought the war into the homes of millions of Americans, in ways which had never before been done.
By the time America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Murrow had gone a long way in explaining to Americans why they had a major stake in the outcome of this conflict. Thereafter, London would become the center of international news coverage for the American broadcast news networks.
I became a foreign correspondent in the mid-sixties. While I was initially based in Paris, I often had assignments which took me to London. And working out of both places was a thrill for a young reporter who had grown up amidst the sounds and stories of wartime Europe.As it happens I spent most of the next two decades in either the Mideast or Washington. But in 1984 I went to ABC's London Bureau as senior foreign correspondent. At the time it was second to none to any foreign news bureau of any American news organization.
Under the innovative news president Roone Arledge, London was given a central role in the evening news as Peter Jennings anchored an international news segment, which became a significant part of each broadcast. Peter would eventually become the sole anchor out of New York, but his interest in international events helped London continue to play an important part in foreign news coverage for all of the network's news programs.
During my time, ABC had its own three story building in central London, near British networks BBC and ITN. We had state of the art equipment, access to all of our foreign bureaus and virtually all sources of television news material world-wide.
There were more than 200 people working in the bureau then- reporters, producers, researchers, camera and sound techs, editors, engineers, executives, accountants, charming British receptionists and a tea lady.
In covering stories of international importance or interest, money appeared to be no object. Chartering airplanes or helicopters was common place- even an occasional 707 according to one desk editor at the reunion, who arranged one to get a large news team to Monaco when Grace Kelly died in a car accident.I once proposed a trip to South America to cover the referendum which would end the Pinochet regime in Chile and to go into the Amazon rain forest to examine preliminary reports of its on-going destruction. These stories would require numerous people and considerable time (more than a month in the field it turned out.) They would also would be very expensive. But the trip was approved and the management was ultimately pleased with the results - in part because we were doing original reporting from a part of the world which normally got little attention on American TV News. I never heard how much that cost, but it had to be well into six figures.For many complex reasons about which books have already been written, those days are no longer with us.The three networks, once the window on the world for 50 million Americans, lost their monopoly with the fragmentation of news which came first with cable and then the Internet. The big three, although they continue to serve around 20 million, mostly aging or elderly Americans, are mere shadows of their former selvesIn the case of ABC News that once dominant London Bureau described above, is now housed in some rented space near Heathrow airport with a staff of a couple of dozen or so. There are good and brave people among them and they do their best. But they have nowhere near the resources the bureau once had to cover the world in depth.Yet does it really matter? The CBS commentator Eric Sevareid once said, "It is not our job to tell the American people what to think. It is to tell them what they might think about." At first glance that may seen elitist, But not if you believe, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, that the future of American democracy requires a reasonably informed electorate.
It is in that context that I think it matters that an increasing number of Americans don't know or care about what is happening in the rest of the world. Hence Trumpism.But beyond telling them how many people have been killed in the latest terrorist attack in (fill in the blank) there should be a constant effort to provide at least some understanding of why this is happening - something far too often missing.However one other thing also occurred to me as I looked out over the sea of faces of my former London colleagues during our recent reunion. There appeared to be about many women as men. There were Americans, several Canadians- but more Brits and Europeans and numerous Asians.There were Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus and at least one Bahai.While I hadn't previously given it a lot of thought, it came to me that the news stories we produced and broadcast each day carried the finger-prints of an extraordinarily diverse group of people - different genetically, spiritually and culturally- who quietly, and certainly without proselytizing, helped shape each others' views of the world. I believe that was of enormous benefit to the quality of what we ultimately reported. And more than anything else, that unbiased global view, may be what we are missing most today.
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