by Brule Eagan
I’ve often wondered how many times Ye Olde Towne Crier was told to shut his pie hole so people could get some sleep.
I’m sure it happened more than once. People just reach a saturation point with the news from time to time, and need a break.
I think a lot of us are there now, especially after this past month.
The news cycle seems to be growing shorter by the day. People are getting wound up. Many are already there. Some are past that stage.
How did this happen? How did we get here?
Let’s turn back the clock.
I don’t know how many colonial villages had town criers, but they all had their newspapers. They were a sideline business for printers at first, but with revolution on the horizon, they blossomed into self-sufficient entities. They were the cable news of the day, with opinion journalism provided by Thomas Paine and his fellow pamphleteers. They were not 24-7 operations, and the technology restricted the amount of news they could publish.
That was the status that stayed pretty much quo until November, 1920, when the Pittsburgh Post gathered the results of the Warren Harding-James Cox presidential election, and broadcast them to an audience of about a thousand listeners over the first radio station licensed in America, KDKA (which is still in existence).
Radio caught on, and with the advent of network radio, newsmakers found themselves behind batteries of microphones. For years, news was available to listeners daily, although it was not an hourly feature. Dramas, comedies, and music dominated the airwaves. Occasionally, the breaking story would get coverage, most notably the flight of Charles Lindbergh, the crash of the Hindenburg, and the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Incidentally, the Hindenburg crash was covered by reporter Herb Morrison of Chicago’s WLS, and the Scopes trial was heard by a national audience over WGN.)
The demand for more coverage paralleled the run-up to World War Two. The established networks were now running regularly-scheduled newscasts, but still not hourly. They were scattered throughout the day; frequently late in the evening. On-the-spot reporting took off with the war, introducing Edward R. Murrow to the national audience, which sat spellbound by his descriptive reports during the London Blitz. The reporters Murrow hired to work with him read like a journalistic litany of the saints: William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith; all became household names via CBS.
Yet they were not heard on an hourly basis, and they wouldn’t be until the early 1960s. That’s when radio’s Golden Age ended. NBC, ABC, and Mutual offered an hourly newscast. CBS cancelled all of their daytime soap operas, and began giving their affiliates an hourly newscast that was TEN minutes long.
So a demand was being created and filled at the same time. Yet due to the deliberate writing style of the time, coupled with analog technology, listeners were able to get a fuller account of a given story, making it easier to absorb.
Let’s talk about the writing for just a second. News was still a point of prestige for the boardrooms of the networks; they’d not yet given in to writing for the lowest common denominator. Reporters, correspondents, and anchors employed the vocabulary of the articulate and took it for granted that the audience knew what they were talking about (and if the audience didn’t, they could damn well look it up, which they did). Back to our lesson.
All-news radio was a budding format in the early 1960s. In the vanguard was Chicago’s WNUS, “1390, W-News” was the brainchild of its visionary owner, top-40 pioneer Gordon McLendon. There were four 15-minute newscasts on WNUS each hour, with the sound of teletypes banging away in the background, and fast-paced production and frantic promotional announcements. WNUS chugged along until CBS station WBBM started an all-news format of its own. By the time WBBM established itself as an all-news station, WNUS had become a music station, and faded away.
Yet WBBM wasn’t truly all-news, either; not at first. It still carried “Arthur Godfrey Time”, “Art Linkletter’s House Party”, and overnights, “Music ’Til Dawn with Jay Andres”. The news elements hewed to the style of the network — a deliberately-paced selection of stories, leavened with sports, business, and, of course, traffic and weather reports.
Television had come into its own long before, with John Cameron Swayze’s “Camel News Caravan” on NBC, and Douglas Edwards on CBS. Both network newscasts were 15 minutes long, and ran from Monday through Friday. ABC had a scant five minute newscast at 4:55 PM, anchored by John Daly. CBS was first to expand to 30-minutes in 1963, anchored by Walter Cronkite. NBC reached great success with Chet Huntley anchoring in New York and David Brinkley in Washington. ABC was last to join in a 30-minute evening newscast; it struggled to find an audience, and ABC wouldn’t really land one until the 1970’s.
Local television news was finding its way in those early days, too. Chicago viewers got their news from Fahey Flynn on WBBM (years before he went to Channel Seven), Floyd Kalber on WMAQ, Ulmer Turner on WBKB (now WLS), and a number of WGN radio announcers repurposed as TV newscasters for the brief and scattered updates they televised.
Still, restricted by style and technology, both network and local newscasts contained just a few stories told with greater depth, and were on only a couple of times a day. But the demand for more was growing.
The demand came from station management more than the audience. Television stations were discovering that newscasts could command a lot of advertising revenue, so they began beefing up their newsrooms, spent huge sums on technical equipment and professionally-designed sets, and hired broadcast consultants to find out what viewers wanted.
Chief among broadcast consultants was Frank Magid and Associates, whose “Eyewitness News” started on the ABC-owned stations and spread like wildfire across the country. Soon, everyone had at least one station presenting what critics derisively called “happy talk” newscasts, and each of those stations was a tremendous success. Reporters and anchors went from being bookish and stiff to major celebrities in every American city. Newscasts reflected the image, with more stories and a faster pace. Graphics dazzled viewers while being bombarded with pictures and words. Writers were encouraged to consider the lowest common denominator viewers, and write for them, which they did. Stations employing the consultants began making enormous sums of money. General managers kept Magid’s huge book of recommended procedures at hand, and treated it the way an Evangelical minister treated a bible. Radio audiences had largely shifted from AM to FM, and radio stations were doing quite the opposite, stripping their newsrooms in favor of playing as much music as possible, leaving the field to the all-news stations on AM. (Another lament for another time.)
Broadcast news had gone from being a service to a product.
That’s why you’ll hear lots of headline-sized stories over and over on all-news stations in large markets, aping the top-40 formula of “playing the hits”. TV has morphed into its own version, with stations now devoting several hours of each day to local news. For both, it’s a nonstop barrage of headlines, hitting the listener the way Ali pummeled a speed bag. The object is to keep you around for the next batch of commercials.
The traditional networks and cable news channels have adapted that formula. Gone are the days when the network news might have something in depth from Capitol Hill or Foggy Bottom or overseas. Come to think of it, gone are the days when the networks gave the occasional hour to their news divisions to report something of substance. Anyone remember “CBS Reports”? “NBC White Paper”? Anyone? Bueller? ABC didn’t have a similar showcase in those years because they didn’t have a deep journalistic bench, and wouldn’t until they made sports honcho Roone Arledge the head of news. Arledge gave ABC a fast-paced, tech-savvy newscast which held its audience spellbound, and shot them to number-one. (The original “World News Tonight”, anchored by Frank Reynolds in Washington, Max Robinson in Chicago, and Peter Jennings in London.)
And, other than “60 Minutes”, none of the networks is doing any prime-time news programs of any importance. And before you say it, “20/20” and “Dateline” are not news broadcasts of any importance. And “60 Minutes” ain’t all that anymore, either.
Then came cable news, and since you all know the basic history of that, I’ll stop the history lesson.
So everyone is just on edge and jet-lagged and O-D’d from the nonstop barrage of news and opinion journalism masked as news.
This is why a news consumer needs alternate sources of information. PBS and NPR are first-rate sources of news. Their lack of advertising enables them to get into greater depth, and provide more light than heat (although pledge week can be a nuisance).
Newspapers may be dinosaurs, but they still serve a purpose, at least on Sunday, when you can get into some depth at your own pace over breakfast and a pot of coffee (a quaint ceremony, I know, but still very civilized and comforting.)
Even the online version of the local paper is fine, as long as you’re taking the time to digest what you’re reading, and not letting yourself get caught in the crossfire. Same for news aggregators like HuffPo and Drudge.
Digital is where it’s all heading, anyway. Media conglomerates are in a dogfight to stake a digital claim. CBS seems to be in the forefront now with its digital news service CBSN. News à la carte is where the technology is heading.
One more observation:
If you have to watch cable news, try to restrict your intake to the reporting of actual news. Opinion shows are calculated to put you into a purple fury — even the hosts you agree with. Avoid them if you can. If you can’t, try to watch someone you can’t stand once in a while. You won’t want to watch again, and you’ll be reminded of what you’re against (assuming you already know what you’re for).
Then, pick up the remote, turn the damn thing off, and get out of the house. Go hear some live music. Go to a museum. Hang with friends. They’re as fed up with the information overload as you are.
“News is what I say it is. It’s what’s worth knowing by my standards.”
— David Brinkley