The rise and fall of television news: no more father figures
By Jon Rappoport
When network television news was created in the late 1940s, no one in charge knew how to do it. It was a new creature.
Sponsors? Yes. A studio with a desk and an anchor? Yes. A list of top stories? Yes. Important information for the public? Yes.
Of course, “important information” could have several definitions—and the CIA already had a few claws into news, so there would be boundaries and fake stories within those boundaries.
The producers knew the anchor was the main event; his voice, his manner, his face. He was the actor in a one-man show. But what should he project to the audience at home?
The first few anchors were dry sandpaper. John Cameron Swayze at NBC, and Douglas Edwards at CBS. But Swayze, also a quiz show host, broke out of the mold and imparted a bit of “cheery” to his broadcasts. A no-no. So he was eventually dumped.
In came a duo. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. NBC co-anchors from 1956 to 1970. Chet was the heavy, with a somber baritone, and David was “twinkly,” as he was called by network insiders. He lightened the mood with a touch of sarcasm and an occasional grin. It worked. Ratings climbed. Television news as show biz started to take off. At the end of every broadcast, there was: “Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David.” The audience ate it up. They loved that tag.
However, rival CBS wasn’t standing still. They offloaded their anchor, Douglas Edwards, a bland egg, and brought in Walter Cronkite, who would go on to do 19 years in the chair (1962-1981). Walter was Chet Huntley with a difference. As he grew older, he emerged as a father, a favorite uncle, with an authoritative hills-and-valleys baritone that created instant trust. Magic. A news god was born.
Despite many efforts at the three major networks, no anchor over the past 40 years has been able to pull off the full Cronkite effect.
The closest recent competitor—until he was fired for lying and exiled to the waste dump at MSNBC—was Brian Williams. Williams artfully executed a reversal of tradition. He portrayed the youthful prodigy, a gradually maturing version of a newsboy who once bicycled along country roads, threw folded up papers on front porches, and knew all his customers by name. A good boy. A local boy. Your neighbor under the maple trees of an idyllic town. Cue the memories.
By the time Williams took over the helm at NBC, television news was decidedly a team operation. There were reporters in the field. The technology enabled the anchor to go live to these bit players, who tried to exude the impression they were actually running down leads and interviewing key sources on the spot—when in fact they could just as well be doing their stand-ups from a hot dog cart outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the home studio of the network—because most of their information was really coming from inside that studio.
Nevertheless, the team was everything. The anchor was a manager, and his job was to impart an authentic feel to every look-in, from the White House to Paris to Berlin to Jerusalem to Beijing to a polar bear on an iceberg.
And local television news was blowing up to gargantuan proportions. Every city and town and village and hamlet seemed to have its own gaggle of hearty faces delivering vital info of interest to the citizenry. Branding and shaping this local phenomenon evolved into: FAMILY. Yes, that was the ticket. These bubbly, blown-dry, enthused, manic news and weather and sports hawks were really “part of the community.” News was no longer shoveled high and deep with an air of objectivity. “Aloof” was out. Share and care was in. What that had to do with actual news was anyone’s guess, but there it was. “Hi, we’re your team at KX6, and we feel what you feel and we live here with you and we know when the roads are icy and the wrecks pile up on the I-15 and our friends the cops arrest someone for cocaine possession and when the charity bake sale is coming up to pay for [toxic] meds for seniors at the nursing home and when your cousin Judy passes away we mourn as you do…”
News for and by a fictional collective.
A caricature of a simulacrum of an imitation.
The discovery was: the viewing audience wanted news as a cartoon.
The problem is: this model deteriorates. The descending IQ of the news producers and anchors and reporters undergoes a grotesque revolution. Year by year, broadcasts make less sense. Even on the national scene, NBC hands its prime anchor spot to Lester Holt, who plays the old Addams Family living corpse, Lurch.
ABC, always looking for a new face, goes all in with David Muir, a Sears underwear-model type.
CBS counters with a youngish cipher, Jeff Glor, after ridding itself of Scott Pelley, who, true to his on-camera persona, might show up on The Young and the Restless as a lunatic surgeon doing operations without anesthetic.
The networks are losing it.
It’s a sight to behold.
Cable news is even worse. The longest surviving anchor is Wolf Blitzer at CNN. Wolf’s energy level tops out as a man in a tattered bathrobe, in his kitchen, chatting with his cousin while they play checkers.
Meanwhile, independent online news comes on like a storm.
Turns out it fills a need that has been there since the beginning of television.
You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but between those two extremes, there are millions and millions of people who recognize the so-called real news has been fake for a long time.
They’ve left that bubble.
The artfulness of network news has disintegrated and failed.
Pop goes the weasel.
Major media long ago built their wall. The wall protects everyone from bloated corrupt government institutions, mega-corporate partners of government, and major banks, to street thugs. Now, as these media fail to magnetize minds as in days of yore, the wall is crumbing. Therefore, what is behind it is being exposed.
More importantly, people are coming to see their thoughts and constructions of reality are imports, not their own. The tonnage of pictures fed to them, along with voiceover, were forgeries.
WHAT IS, was the business of the news. That business has lost its traction.
To some, this amounts to bubbling confusion. To others, it is a fresh clean breeze blowing through an empty house, which imagination can remake in more bracing forms.
The future is open, unscripted.
A new day, if we recognize it.