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The Day TV Journalism Died

By Arthur Solomon, writing for CommPro:

We soon will be approaching June 1, the birthday of the death of TV journalism. And Americans who care about truthful, factual, accurate news should still be in mourning.

People who grew up during the age of cable news might not know that once upon a time, TV journalism was not only well respected but also served as a watchdog, uncovering excesses of government officials and illegal actions by businesses. Today, political coverage on TV resembles parasitic zombies, the undead, whose life blood is rehashing news largely uncovered by major print pubs, notably from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

The most famous of the TV journalists – in the era when TV news reporters actually covered and investigated the news – were Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, both of who helped shape American history and both of who were on the CBS TV network.

On his March 9th,1954, “See it Now” program, Murrow, who was already famous for his radio broadcasting from London describing the Nazi blitz, brought to the American public the  ruthlessness and lies that for several years made Sen. Joe McCarthy one of the most feared politicians in Washington. It was Murrow’s expose of McCarthy’s tactics on national TV that was the beginning of the end for the senator.

On CBS, Walter Cronkite changed the way many Americans thought about the Vietnam War, when, after retuning from a trip to the war zone, he told what he witnessed during a one-hour special, “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” that aired on February 27, 1968. (Revisionist historians now claim that Cronkite, who for years was hawkish regarding Viet Name, advised the American army to admit defeat. He did not. He told his viewers that the stalemate could only be broken through negotiations.) After the telecast aired, President Johnson supposedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” and a few weeks later he said he would not run for a second term as president.

Morley Safer, another CBS TV newsman, is credited with changing the way war is covered on TV, when in 1965 during his reporting from Vietnam he reported about U.S. marines torching Cam Ne, a village occupied by old men and women and young women with babies during a search and destroy mission. Most TV viewers know Safer for his long tenure on the “60 Minutes” news magazine program, unaware of his ground-breaking Vietnam War coverage.

Of course, there have been many other moments that TV journalists served the pubic by bringing the truth that governments and businesses wanted to keep secret. But none, in my opinion, changed American history as much as Murrow. Cronkite and Safer did.

Great television news reporting lived until the networks curbed the independence of the news division and thought of them as profit centers. (For a fictionalized, but largely accurate, version of how TV news divisions became subservient to the entertainment executives see Paddy Chayefsky’s famous movie, “Network,” which was redirected into a London and Broadway play .During an interview in the November 25 New York Times, Bryan Cranston, star of the London and 2018 Broadway productions, said, “If you’re not skeptical, you’re naïve. If you believe everything that you see on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, you are gullible. You can’t just go to one source. Because now the news is a news-entertainment program.”) And how right he is.

The death of reliable TV news began when CNN went live on June 1, 1980. In 1996, MSNBC (on July 15), and Fox News (on October 7) hammered the final nails into the legitimate TV news coffin. It wasn’t too long after that the network news shows, while still having much larger audiences than their illegitimate cable off-spring, lost their clout to the cables and their 24/7 flawed newscasts, featuring talk show hosts, who express opinions regardless of facts, pundits, who disguise personal opinions as true analysis of situations, reporters who repeat whatever politicians tell them verbatim, as if it was “Breaking News” without knowing details of a situation, or even if the comments are fictional,, and producers who rely on the morning newspapers – mostly the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post – for story lines. (An example of cable talent not knowing details about what they’re reporting occurred during the Florida recount of the 2018 election. A CNN anchor said, “What a mess.” It took a person who actually is a political expert and knows the election law to correct the host by saying, “That’s the law in Florida.”) In my opinion, the mess is when cable political personalities don’t know what they are talking about.

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