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NEWSWATCH by Thomas Griffith: Happy Is Bad, but Heavy Isn’t Good

4 minute read
Thomas Griffith

NEWSWATCH

Out there in local television land, the past two years have seen a proliferation of “happy talk news” shows that are a demeaning parody of news coverage. In studios that look like mod courtrooms, people of aggressive charm bounce one-liners off each other in ways that trivialize the news and diminish the raw impact of the filmed dead on a Beirut street. This is news as spectator sport. Confident young women or quippy males in tweed jackets review plays, films and concerts they are ill-equipped to judge. Joshing between anchor man and weatherman makes it hard to remember tomorrow’s forecast. The fear of boring the viewer makes the discussion of city budgets and school boards incomprehensible—as they may well have been to the “reporter” himself.

“One of the frightening things that is happening in local TV news is that it’s becoming successful,” says William Leonard, a veteran television newsman who is now CBS vice president in Washington. As he told a group of Nieman Fellows at Harvard recently, local TV news used to be “provided grudgingly so you wouldn’t lose your license.” But the amount of news has lately been increased substantially because news shows now often provide half of a station’s revenue. The resulting rivalry for ratings and hours reminds Leonard of the shoddy newspaper-circulation wars earlier in the century. Says he: “The stakes are high enough that there is grave danger of journalistic considerations going right out of the window.”

The good news is that the happy-talk news fad is waning; many stations are cutting back on their corn. “It’s only a style, and styles go out of style,” says Sam Zelman, whose ABC station in Washington has recently hired a respected ‘ network reporter, David Schoumacher, as anchor man. But the bad news is that some stations have replaced happy talk with unhappy talk, tabloid-style, producing a constant trafficking in emotions, like closeups of people in pain being lifted into ambulances. This nightly distorted accumulation of police-beat misfortunes makes any city look like a disaster area. Items are tailored to the attention threshold of the least patient viewer. That is what happens when entertainment values outweigh news judgment.

Will entertainment values also prevail in network news when Barbara Walters takes her anchor spot on ABC in the fall? Not necessarily. Walters has shown herself a strong, no-nonsense interviewer. At NBC she had the clout to summon the powerful, and the assurance not to be overawed by them; such a role would suit her better than merely reading the news. Moreover, on all three networks, news is viewed with real responsibility. The big three among network anchor men—Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Harry Reasoner —scorn show-biz gimmickry. At most, these personally cheerful fellows can be accused of cultivating those reassuring mannerisms of gravity and neutrality that make them trusted. The news snippets they read are as soberly chosen as they would be on the New York Times.

Many in television are ex-newspapermen and, being aware that an entire half-hour newscast would not fill even one newspaper page, are apologetic for the superficiality and skimpiness of what they do. They hope to see network news shows extended to a full hour. Perhaps they should relax a little: in four minutes a night, they are not going to make anyone knowledgeable in Keynesian economics. All forms of journalism have their own point of satiety. Richard Salant, president of CBS News, says that Cronkite “has often said, but never meant” that he longs to end a broadcast by saying, “For further details, read your morning newspaper.” Why shouldn’t Cronkite mean it? For, of course, no one can hope to be well-informed from television news alone, even if many millions in this democracy try to be.

Television people often describe their news, defensively, as a supplement to print. It is more than that, and print purists who feel no need to watch television news regularly are victims of complacent ignorance. They may complain that television’s brief glimpses of public figures emphasize personality over substance, which is true; yet, particularly in moments of stress, character does come through onscreen. By simply reading about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or John Connally, would anyone have the vivid sense of these men that so many Americans now have? This is what television news does best. The question is whether it should try to do more: whether a medium that must first satisfy the restless eye is best suited to serving the reasoning mind. Can the camera-that-talks ever hope to be as thorough in putting across ideas and issues as the printed word, which the undistracted mind can concentrate on? Each to his own best role.

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