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TV News In 1974 - Terrible then - Bliss By Comparison? Past Daily Reference Room.

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Somebody once said the definition of hitting a bottom was when you couldn’t lower your standards fast enough. I have often thought we’ve hit that bottom in 2012. A lot of people thought we hit that bottom in 1974. In comparison, Television News was superior in 1974 to almost anything we have on TV now. But in 1974 it was a far cry to what TV news was like in the 1960’s. And in the 1960’s we had the famous Newton Minow “Vast Wasteland” address about the appalling condition of TV in general, and news was lumped in there with the rest. So as much as I’d like to say TV news has always been bad, has always focused on the sensational rather than the substantial, I think it’s safe to say we’ve hit ground Zero for the time being. It may get worse in the future; there is always that possibility. And even though we think now that it can’t possibly be any worse, it can always offer a few surprises and take us a few more notches down. Not saying that’s going to happen for sure – but all signs point to it getting a lot worse, rather than a lot better. So in 1974 they were convinced TV news had reached its nadir. And it was such a cause for concern that NPR devoted an hour of its Town Hall Meeting Of The Air to the subject. New York Times Correspondent Harrison Salisbury, Journalist David Halberstam, former FCC Chairman Nicholas Johnson and former head of CBS News Sig Mickelson were called on to discuss the subject on November 3, 1974. The audience consists of Yale University students (where the Town Hall was held) who ask a number of pointed questions. Bruce Burke (Student): “I kind of wonder about the whole notion of the Fairness Doctrine. As I understand it, the Fairness Doctrine tends to apply to hard news broadcasts . And it seems to me that, while the Fairness Doctrine to apply to Editorial type content would in fact be a wise thing, considering the immediacy of the impact and the availability to other speakers outside those of the Network organizations. It seems to me questionable for the various networks to be monitored, by either private organizations or others as to the fairness content of their hard news broadcasts. I was wondering what the speakers would think about the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine as it concerns hard news. Sig Michelson: “I think the Fairness Doctrine is about as required for the human being as a tail, which we long since got rid of when we quit living in trees. I think as long as our broadcasting is operated on the basis of a trusteeship principle which was written into the Federal Radio Act back of 1927 and under the Federal Communications Act of 1934, that the licensing process in of itself is quite adequate to keep a reasonable degree of fairness as long as the broadcaster is a trustee of the public interest. On the other hand, I think it’s a very dangerous commodity as Mister Whitehead tried to use it in his speech out in Indianapolis in 1973 when he suggested that this was a wedge, a weapon the local stations could use to force the networks to knuckle down with their news broadcasting. I think it’s a very dangerous weapon and I would like to see it eliminated, and I’d like to see us go back to where we were before 1949, and operate on the Trusteeship Principle and maintain our fairness on that basis. Bear in mind that this is before the wave of deregulation during the Reagan years gutted the FCC, converted entire networks into propaganda outlets, turned the Fairness Doctrine into a worthless piece of paper, obliterated newspapers, dismantled Broadcast News Divisions, converted the Trusteeship Principle into a very bad joke and replaced much useful news with team coverage of celebrity rehabs. In short, made anything you could use pretty much impossible to find. And it’s only gone downhill from there. But it took a long time in coming. Not overnight as some say.
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our discussion on politics and the media will be led by three persons who have very special qualifications in this field. The first is David Halberstam, the author of the best and the brightest and a student of power relationships existing in the news business, between the news, business and political institutions. The second is Nicholas johnson, an outspoken critic of the media and a farmer, federal communications commissioner. And the third is sick. Mickelson, past president of CBS News and a professor of journalism at Northwestern University. Uh, the first to speak will be David Halberstam an thank you Harrison and unaccustomed as I am to being sponsored by Yale University and Mobile oil. I'm nonetheless delighted to be here. The subject is very important one because I think we are living in an age comparable to a time at the invention of movable type for better for worse. Most of what we know as political reality has been changed by the kind of overwhelming process of technological pressure change. And I think the coming of the news shows on television and politics in general has changed us. We are not what we were, we are not what we are today and it's going to change faster and faster on the subject of the new show. I think the first thing about them is very important for most of America for the first time in their lives, there is a good front page, Maybe nothing much more but a good front page. Nonetheless. Uh, there's not maybe a page two and we maybe need and sometimes I have a feeling that they raise as many questions as they answer. There's not enough context, not enough explanation, but the front page nonetheless. Although as they say, if moses handed down the 10 commandments On the nightly news show, it would be said moses today that gave the 10 commandments, the two most important of which were the second thing is a television television for better for worse, has become a presidential vehicle that it becomes that has diminished the Congress part of it, the Congress's own fault diminished the party system and that the president, for a variety of reasons, has been able to make it his, he can go on and he can whenever he wants, he can get access when he wants, he can travel and it will follow him, he can put his Ziegler or Nessen on, it is his vehicle to an astonishing degree and we have yet to learn how to slow that down. And if we are going to balance out our democracy is terribly important that we begin to bring countervailing pressures through the medium, which now has become his. And I don't think it's by chance that I think it has led to a grandiosity, a sense of grandiosity in the last two presidents and in fact helped to carry them to reach further than perhaps they might have one other point I wanted to make. And that is if the networks as they are now today are the prime source of news for americans and that is in many ways, no matter how good a show how professional Cronkite and chancellor, the men who worked with him. That is in many ways a disturbing thing because news Is not the prime function of the networks, it is still about five or 7% of their reality. It is not like the New York Times where the news and the judgment of news and the carrying of news is really in fact 95% of the rest of reason Detrol for the networks. It is really a small thing, in fact, mostly they think at the higher executive level, it is something that can only cause them grief and pain. So let me make those in my opening remarks and would be delighted to respond related to what you have on your mind. Mhm. Thank you, David. Mr johnson, thank you. It's uh it's very difficult to pick one subject out of all that might be talked about in a period of 3 to 5 minutes. What I'm going to try to do is take off 15 areas that we might talk about during the course of this hour. And if any of you are interested in any of them, I'll be happy to explore them later. Let me say at the outset that with David that the news is probably TVs finest hour or half hours the case may be. Uh and I think when we tend to focus television criticism on news, we're really missing the mark. Nonetheless, there is tremendous power to the evening newscast, uh, and television in general, in shaping candidates, products, issues, governmental policy. Presidents watch the evening news programs and they shape their days in order to make the evening news programs. I think it is regrettable that no network news executive was willing to appear on this show, although many were asked to do so. I think they are more sensitive than they need to be having said that news is the best thing that Tv has to offer. However, does not exhaust the subjects that we might discuss about television news and here are some one. We can talk about the relatively little amount of time devoted to the news. The need for more regularly scheduled news, public affairs programs in prime time and comparisons to other countries. Really put us to shame two
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