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NBER the national educational radio network presents special of the week in late September of this year the International Convention of the Radio Television News Directors Association was held in Denver Colorado and one of the keynote speakers was the anchorman for the CBS evening news shows Walter Cronkite. His remarks were directed toward the ever increasing criticism of news and newsman Walter Cronkite. We've been so occupied answering the ill informed and the ill tempered criticism from outside. That might be a good time to stop and take a look from within. I'm somewhat sick and I'm mighty tired of this professional body of ours being constantly dragged into the operating room and distracted. A pro will swab the needle to see what makes it tick. I'm tired sociologist psychologist plant apologist educators parents
bureaucrats politicians and other special interest groups. Presuming to tell us what is news or where our responsibilities lie. Or maybe that I'm phrasing this a little bit wrong. It's not those who squeeze us between their slide and hold us under their microscopes with whom my patience has grown short perhaps a society probably should know the impact of television upon. There are aspects of it that need study so that people can cope with an entirely revolutionary means of communication. Those who disagree with their news coverage have every right to criticize. We can hardly claim rights of a free press and free speech while begrudging those rights for our critics. Indeed that would seem to be what some of them would like to do to
us. So believing it clearly cannot be the critics or the serious students of the TV phenomenon with whom I quarrel. I'm provoked more by those in our craft who are life. Why died young girls before the pitch man are losing sight of the pea under the shell. Of course we must expose the demagogues who would undermine this nation's free press from personal or partisan political gain. That's news and we should not withhold our cooperation from serious studies of the medium but we must not permit these matters to divert us from our main task or confuse us as to what that task is. But I don't think it's any of our business what the moral social political or economic effect of our reporting is. I say let's get on
with the job of reporting the news and let the chips fall where they are not. With us. I suggest we concentrate on our doing our job of telling it like it is and not be diverted from that exalted task by the apoplectic apostles of alliteration. I'm Or. Now telling it like it is isn't easy as we all know only too well. Some of the problems that plague us in broadcasting seem almost insurmountable. This question of time for instance. We do not have enough time to do a really thorough job of presenting the day's events. Furthermore we're never going to have an expansion of present
time allotments would help us improve our product by a quantum jump. If we had twice the time we now have on the Evening News we would cover a few more items than we do now. But primarily we would give slightly greater length to the stories that we do present now a single added fact a single additional quote. But almost certainly it would improve the perspective on the story and might indeed provide just a bit more of that precious commodity balance. A little more time we might want to eliminate one of the sources of our critics legitimate complaints. We're supposed to be professional and skilled communicators. I'm afraid we frequently find ourselves so compressing our reports as to almost define the viewer and listener to understand what we say. We attempt to include all the pertinent sides to a controversy but not infrequently we dismiss one argument or the other with a parent article phrase
on the question of fairness arises we can look back through the script all right and prove our objectivity and indeed if the report had been printed and in a in printed form my questions probably never would've been asked in the first place. But what our average listener actually heard or what he thought he heard or the impression he gained may have been something vastly different than that which we intended. We can we do guard against that of course but in the compression process forced upon us by the severe limitation of time the job is incredibly almost impossibly difficult. Just a little more time would help alleviate the problem. It's also true that true that our scope is severely limited by time. We've all heard the figures from a half hour broadcast we speak the number of words that are on two thirds of the front page of a standard newspaper will double our time and we still would have a news hole equivalent to barely one and a half pages
of a standard newspaper. And yet realistically we scarcely can look forward to any great extent and a great expansion or extension of our time in the front lies not with the intent of network or station management but for my eyes in the very nature of our media. The most avid seeker of nothing which is not likely to stay glued to the electronic box but the hours it would take us to really cover all the news of import on a given day. There's a tolerance level beyond which we cannot go but certainly we must be mirrored perhaps beyond that level with the local network evening blocks and in some markets of reach 2 hours or more. Ideally the news period each day would be an accordion expandable contractible table depending on the volume of news that needed to be covered. But with the present broadcasting practices this ideal is as remote as that of cramming all the news into one half hour or even an hour. Another area in which
we fall down and where I also am pessimistic is the matter of staff by Poulan survey and logic where the greatest news disseminating medium ever more people get more of their news from us than from any other source. And yet for all the responsibility that this entails we are grossly inadequate as news gatherers. The third area in which I despair is the most critical of all government control. As long as broadcasting is a licensed business we are free only by sufferance and freedom thus constrained is really not freedom of talk. To me. Thank you. Compared to what might have been. We have been remarkably under strain when men in high places speak of our accountability to the people.
That is the government when others introduce restrictive legislation on the regulatory body with life and death powers cause us to account for our news judgment on the highest court finds that we are not as free as the press under the First Amendment. We have cause for something more than idle concern. One cannot blame individual management with millions of dollars at stake for a certain timidity in the face of such threats. One can wish that the entire industry would fight back with more courage and even more would take the offensive strike off the change that today Hamas tomorrow could hang us. These questions of time and staff and government control are in part insurmountable and in the remainder not really within the competence of those of us charged solely with putting out the news. There
are however immediately within our area of responsibility. Some things we can do to improve our product. We all know so well the need for accuracy we need not dwell on that here. But let me ask you a question I frequently ask myself. Do we always live by the old precept get it first but first get it right where really is the advantage in being first. Having a lot of old newspaper problems of replaying extraditions transport complexities and street sales dictate a rather meaningless tradition of haste. Of course it's better to get the story on the night 6 o'clock rather than on the 11 o'clock or even tomorrow night 6:00 o'clock. But it isn't worth the chink in our reliability that it may cost the liabilities a handmaid of integrity. And here I fear that many of us are not as careful as we might be to keep our description and NBC marched.
It's beyond me to understand how anyone can believe in foster support or force a newsman to read commercials. This is the. This is blasphemy of the worst form a newsman has nothing that is not believable. And how can he be believed when he delivers a news item. If in the next breath he lands his face his voice and his name to extolling in words the public knows he never wrote a product or service that the public knows he probably has never tested. When a newsman delivers a commercial he puts his reputation for honesty in the hands of an advertising copywriter and a client whose veracity is sorely tried by the need to make a buck.
The. It's a definite goal of not impossible for the individual newsman I know who wants to feed his family and stand up to a management the demands that he indulge in this infamous degrading and destructive practice but I fail to understand why our professional organizations like this one should not take a firm stand and help enforce an ethic that should be fundamental to our craft. We should never be required. We should never be required to speak a word on the air that has not come to us from a reliable professional source. Our own reporters from the news services are from our own reporting and check in and out of lemonades advertisements handouts and even our own
organization sometimes extravagant puffery. There are other things we can do to hone our newscast to a more certainly objective and fair product. There are times when I grow edgy over our excerpting from a film speech or interview. We take a pertinent paragraph or two and if it seems somewhat out of context we try to redress the imbalance by abridged condensations of the speaker's other remarks that most of us would recognise that the speaker's own words in the filmed extract are likely to have far more impact and lasting impression than our few words which but the quotation in its proper framework indeed the purpose of such quick takes is to give our viewers our listeners a firsthand impression of the man. I wonder if we always do him justice. And yet I know no solution. But then again that rigid box that is our time period. Well these are some of our
faults and our problems and I would even suggest that the list presented here is a complete one. Each of you undoubtedly has his own list that I presented of all is not a form of me a call. It was presumptuous if not arrogant of me to even bring these matters before an audience which knows of them lives with them studied them ponder them far more than I I recited this candid let Naida put outsiders on notice though. That we know far better than our critics what's really wrong with our business. I didn't want anyone to. Despite our problems we're doing a whale of a job. What can we do with our allotted half hour time on evening television. Twenty items and an average newscast somewhat a paragraph long true but all with the
essential information to provide at least a guide to our world that day. Film clips in a way available to no other daily medium introduce our viewers to the people and the places that make the news. Investigative Reports pocket documentaries that expose weaknesses in our democratic fabric. Not enough of those but we are coming along. Feature Film reports that explore the byways of America and assure us that the world hasn't turned completely topsy turvy graphics that in a few seconds communicate a great deal of information clearly labeled analysis or commentary on the news. I think that's quite a package. We've expanded to an immeasurable degree in a measurable degree the knowledge of a great portion of our people who either cannot or do not read. We have expanded the interests of another. Also a sizable portion of newspaper reading has been confined to the headlines of sports pages in the comics.
We're going into the homes of the untutored the underprivileged and the disadvantaged homes that have never known a book or exposing them to a world they scarcely know existed. And while the advertisements in the entertainment programming what their thirst for a way of life they believe beyond them we show them that there are people and movements inside and outside the establishment that are trying to put these good things of life within their reach without any intent to foster revolution certainly by simply doing our job as journalists with ordinary diligence and an extraordinary new medium. We have awakened a sleeping giant. No wonder we have simultaneously aroused the ire of those who are comfortable with the status quo. The. Other side
of that coin isn't any shine here as far as our popularity goes. Those who are happily smothered in their easy chairs under picture windows of frame leafy boughs and flowering bushes in green grass resent our parading through their living rooms. The black and the bearded the hungry and the unwashed. To remind them that there is another side of America that demands their attention. It's human nature to avoid confronting the unpleasant. No one wants to hear that our boys are capable of war crimes but our elected officials are capable of deceit or worse. I think I can safely say that there are a few of us who want to report such things. But as professional journalists we have no more discretion in whether to report or not to report when confronted with the facts. And as a doctor in deciding to remove the gangland slayings if it happened the people are entitled to know. There is no condition that can be imposed on that
victim without placing between the people and the truth a barrier of censorship at once as fallible and corrupt as only self-serving men can make the barrier can be built by government overtly by dictatorship or covered only with propaganda on the political stump with harassment by subpoena with abuse of the licensing power or the barrier can be built by the news media themselves. If we permit our news judgment to be colored by God like decisions as to what is good for our readers listeners or viewers we're building a ferret no matter how pure our motives if we promote friendship with news sources to slow our Natural News reflexes we also build a barrier. If we lack the courage to face the criticism and consequences of our reporting we build barriers of all barriers that we might put between the people in the truth. The
most ill considered is the one that someone erected to protect their profits. You know all media under our precious free enterprise system. There are those who believe performance can only be measured by circulation or ratings. The newspaper business at its believers long before we were on the scene they practiced editing by readership survey. We will hold with greedy publishers found out what their readers wanted to read and gave it to them. A clear abdication of their duties as journalists and I would submit a nail in the coffin of newspaper believability. The date under the drum fire assault of the hysterical establishment in the painful complaints of a frightened populace. There are many in our business who believe we should tailor our news to console our critics. They would have us report more good news play down the war revolution social disturbance.
Now there certainly is nothing wrong with good news. In fact by some people's lights we report quite a lot of it. And then I pollution bill through Congress reports of the cost of living is going up as fast as it went up last month that's good news so I don't want to labor dispute the announcement of a medical breakthrough. Plans for a new downtown building. There isn't anything wrong either but the stories that tell us what is right about America. Remind us that the virtues that made this nation strong still exist and prosper despite the turmoil of change. I won. Give us the good news becomes a euphemism for don't give us so much of that bad news. The danger signal must be voiced and unfortunately in our business there's almost no escaping that one frequently means the other. It's possible that some of the lucky news directors have enough time allotted by your managements to cover all the significant news of your areas
much of it presumably in the bad category and still have time left over for a good news item or two. But for many of the rest of us and certainly for us on the network level that's not the case. The crowd in the happy stories would mean crowding out material of significance. Some of the good news advocates know this and this is precisely what they want to suppress the story of our changing society in the hope that if one ignores the evil that will somehow go away. Others of our audience are simply tired of the constant strife even as you and I would just like a little relief from the daily budget of trouble reminding them of the hard decisions they as citizens must face. But cannot they see Cannot we in our management that request good news see that the pander to the innocent seeking relief is to yield to those who would manipulate public opinion to
control our destiny. It is no coincidence that their methods parallel those adopted a half century ago by the Russian revolutionaries also seeking the surest means to bend the population to their will. You're not find bad news in the Russian newspapers or over the Russian air. There are no riots no disturbances of the public order no muggings or murders no train plane or auto wrecks. There are no manifestations of race prejudice no problems with discipline in the Red Army ranks. There are no cases of Mao fails in Sanaa public office other than those of course the government chooses to expose for its own political purposes. There's no dissent over the national policy. No argument about the latest weapon system. There's a lot of good news. Factories making their quotas happy life on the collective farm successes of Soviet diplomacy. And the best news of all for the Russian press difficulties in the United States. The system works
but it works without a free press and a serve big press a muckraking press Enter reverent press. The Soviet people are placid drawn as the Soviet establishment runs the country just the way it wants to run it since it's hard to know the real motives and others might get upset. Indeed it's hard sometimes to know our own motives and few are likely to admit that they would seek to suppress dissent from the establishment norms. It would be wrong to ascribe such Machiavellian connivance to the good news advocates. The only trouble is that the other most likely motive to profit from the new is by pandering to public taste is almost as free to seek the public's favor by presenting the news it wants to hear is to fail to understand the function of broadcast news in a democracy we are not in the business of winning popularity contests. We're not in the entertainment
business. We're not jugglers and dancers ventriloquists singers or actors seeking the audience's applause. It's not our job to please anyone except balconies perhaps. A an hour. Now this is contrary to the goal of almost everyone else who shares the airways with us and perhaps we should not be too harsh with those executives with the ultimate responsibility for station and network management. We're asking a great deal of them are 17 of the 18 hours or so of the average broadcast day. Their job is to win friends and audience. They and we live on how successfully they do this difficult job. But then we ask them to turn a deaf ear to the complaints of those dissatisfied with what we present in the remaining minutes of the day we ask them to be in a sense professionally
skitzo way and that would seem to be a lot to ask or wanted. IS IT SO MUCH TO ASK. After all another sense. As journalists we live this life of dual personality. There's not a man who can truthfully say that he does not harbor in his breast at least some prejudice bias strong sentiments pro or con on some if not all the issues of the day. Yet it is the distinguishing mark of the professional journalist that he can set aside these personal opinions and reporting the day's news. None of us succeeds in this task. In all instances we know what the assignment and the bit goals and we succeed far far more often than we fail or that our critics would acknowledge. Whatever the future holds we must redouble our efforts now to keep an already severe communications problem from becoming a crisis.
We all know the economic background of the present situation we in radio and television with our greater impact and our numerous outlets have forced many of our print competitors out of business. It's a rare American city today that has more than one newspaper and I think most of us will acknowledge that we are not a totally adequate substitute for the newspapers whose demise we have faced. As I said earlier we do a rather good job of what we do but we cannot supply the well to tell you the informed citizen needs to judge the performance of a city county or state. If we do our jobs thoroughly though we can be a super monitor on the Monopoly newspaper to assure to assure that it does not buy a plot. The priests are invited into birds and this is a major story. We can be that is if we are left alone to perform that essential journalistic function. The trouble is that we are not free we are government license. The power to make us
conform is too great to full rubber. My darling he actually lies there tempting me for the use of any enraged administration Republican or Democratic or want a cite. We're at the mercy of the whims of politicians and bureaucrats whether they choose to chop us down or not. And their existence of their power is an intimidating and constraining threat in beans. So we have on one side a monopoly press that may or may not choose to present the views other than those of the domineering majority. The other side I vigorously competitive but federally regulated broadcast industry most of whose air time is spent of current popular that is majority favor. This scarcely could be called to help the situation. There's a real danger that the free flow of ideas at the vitality of minority views and even the dissent the recognized authorities could be stifled in such an
atmosphere. We newsman dedicated as we are to freedom of press and speech and the presentation of all viewpoints no matter how unpopular must work together regardless of our medium to clear the air while there is yet time. We must resist every new attempt at government control intimidation or harassment and we must fight tenaciously to win through Congress and the courts guarantees that will free us forever more from the present restrictions. We must stand together and bring the power of our professional organizations to bear against those operators who fail to understand the function of a free press and speech. We must keep our own escutcheon so clean that no one who would challenge our integrity can hope to succeed. If we do these things we can preserve where it still exists
Special of the week
Issue 47-70 "Newsmen & Criticism"
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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