I was born in ‘56, so I was a seven-year-old in 2nd grade, when we all got marched out to the classroom they crammed all of us kids into—the staff had a TV set up (no small doings in ’63) so we could all watch news coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination. That was my first sense of a world outside of my neighborhood, my first sense of witnessing a change in our civilization—and it wasn’t the Zapruder tape of the actual event—it was Walter Cronkite talking into the camera. I, of course, was ever afterward to take as gospel anything sent my way by the medium of network news which was, itself, just a-borning.
TV reporters such as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley were well-respected and almost universally trusted, and they did things differently back then. For instance, whenever you were about to see something amusing, something not strictly newsworthy, the on-camera reporter would make a prolonged point about the following images being just that—amusing, but not strictly newsworthy. Back then, the TV news broadcasts were the networks’ way of fulfilling the FCC requirement that public airwaves be used in the public’s interest. The whole arrangement was new enough that network heads weren’t about to mess with the almost-PBS-type tenets of the news-reporting broadcasts.
One can see that is quite a distance from what we have now—news as consumer product—and the effects are also visible in this last week’s reportage. Everyone was focused on the ‘anniversary’ of the assassination, which amounted to little more than a re-airing of the incessant, traumatized broadcasts of the news reports of that awful day and a liberal slathering of Zapruder psych-trauma footage in an almost music-video-like strobing. But what I couldn’t help notice was that there was no reporting for those couple-or-three days of intensive ‘JFK’.
Apparently, taking a five-minute slot at the top of the hour was sufficient to deliver what the cable-news channels ordinarily spend 24 solid hours dispensing. I wonder exactly what they left out?
I’m just joking—you and I know exactly what was left out—the political tennis match, of which these channels have become the ball, was deemed skip-able for a few days. Also, we weren’t all being distracted by fervid speculation upon the possibility that a news-event-in-progress will go this way or that way. These things waste the time of busy people and fill the time of idlers—that TV news has been forced to accept the yoke of commercialism is a very sad loss for we of the TV generation. I stop in with Gwen Ifill or BBC World News, and I skim the NY Times most days. I only watch CNN and MSNBC as comfort food, when I’m just tired and want to know what’s up, out in the world.
And it’s too bad that I had to witness this epiphany while being bummed out about the ‘50th anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination’ being all over TV all weekend—no one of us who saw it live really wants to dwell on it any more than we have to—plus it constantly reminds me I’m fifty-seven, and that’s no help to me, I don’t know about other people. But I took away an important proof: even the Cable News channels know that their programs are a waste of time—and that will help me save some of my own.