Tag Archives: CBS

Six National Media Treasures

Capture ribbon of companies

Six outlets represent the remaining glories of American mass communication.

In the 1960s and ’70s the nation was filled with a host of powerful and diverse media companies.  Honors to the top home-grown media giants were often deserved, including those that went to CBS, RCA/NBC, MGM, Disney, and Warner Brothers, to name a few.  But the media landscape has dramatically changed. CBS, for example, sold many of their holdings, including CBS Records and CBS Publishing, then downsized their news staff. The company liquidated many of their crown jewels for cash. Others similarly trimmed social and political documentaries, and shifted the focus of news toward “want to know” rather than “need to know” stories.

The companies that remain are often quite big (i.e., Comcast/Universal/NBC).  And many have contributed to what seems like a new golden age of television. But most of the media giants lack the extraordinary public interest commitments that once made their parent companies essential.

The six outlets mentioned here represent some recent or remaining assets in  a very different media world. The list is clearly more suggestive than exhaustive, but each organization is probably irreplaceable.

NPR_News_logoNational Public Radio. Spending time in Britain in the late 70s, I recall thinking how much I would miss BBC Radio 3 and 4 when I finally had to return to the States. BBC 4 especially included a full range of programs that included newscasts, interviews, and quiz shows. The entire network was and is a reminder that radio can still command our full attention. One favorite was Desert Island Disks. With the kind of decorum only the British can muster, celebrity guests talked about the music they would take with them if left stranded on a desert island. It was amazing how many rockers wanted to have Mozart in their backpack.

My sense gloom about returning was short lived because, by that time, a group of far- sighted programmers such as Bill Siemering were stitching together grants and staffs to create the proximate equivalent of BBC 4 in the United States. It would be called National Public Radio. Over time, its mix of news and music programming  saved radio from the format-music purgatory to which most stations had been relegated. More importantly, NPR has re-seeded a once barren public radio landscape, which now flourishes with offerings from local stations as well as networks like American Public Radio.

NPR is enormously popular with listeners, especially in the morning.  And while some of its news coverage is facile, it has given the nation a much more personal form of informational programming than its public television counterparts. PBS’s Newshour can be hopelessly staid and overstuffed, a function of a recurring pattern of hosting official and journalistic sources who talk mostly to each other. NPR is far better at representing the perspectives of a broader spectrum of Americans. And it does it for a fraction  of the cost required to produce an hour of television. For the  good of the republic, we would have to reinvent the network if it disappeared.

library of congressThe Library of Congress.  With this magnificent library its hard to know what to love first: the Thomas Jefferson building at the center of its campus, or the sheer idea of its comprehensive collection. If you’ve missed it, the Jefferson building on Independence Avenue behind the U.S. Capitol is an architectural gem. It’s easy to see why it is often called the most beautiful structure in the country.

And then there’s the library’s many missions. Started from Thomas Jefferson’s book collection, the library became the de-facto repository of the nation’s cultural output.  We rightly cherish digital media for their storage capacities and portability. But there’s something special about a series of public spaces that have preserved the products of the nation’s publishers. Beyond books there are also vast troves of films, millions of photographs, manuscripts and early recordings, plus a searchable database that could occupy almost any enthusiast forever. To get a taste of its internet offerings, visit their main website at http://www.loc.gov/.

tcm logoTurner Classic Movies. Cable offers many ways to view films. But few channels have carried out their mission with greater class than TCM, which is a part of the Time-Warner empire. Turner runs older films as they would have been seen in theaters: with no commercial breaks, no expensive cable packages for access, and a certain respect for film as the nation’s preeminent  cultural form. A constant viewer will see quite a few mediocre releases. But they will also be offered a range of screenings that no film school or library could possibly match. Add in interviews with top directors, DPs, actors and others, and this durable channel is an unmatched and accessible repository of American film. TCM stands out amid the cacophony of commercial television.

pixarPixar. Under John Lasseter this animation studio now owned by Disney has wholly reinvigorated the narrative possibilities and visual language of the family film. Not only are Pixar movies consistently social and progressive, but they have been constructed with unusual inventiveness and wit. It would take a cold heart to resist the charms of Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, and a host of other features. Most have been cast with unusual care, using terrific voice actors including Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, John Ratzenberger, and Billy Crystal, among others. In a form that now usually segregates its audiences into tight demographic units, Pixar holds on to the old-fashioned but valuable idea that some filmed entertainment can still charm nearly everyone.

google searchGoogle Search. If bigness has its costs, of which privacy is one, it also has its virtues.  Any internet search engine is a powerful tool.  Google’s is particularly effective at managing the task of finding needles in haystacks. It’s ease of use makes it possible to forget the old and laborious process of searching individual bibliographic sources. The sheer ability of Google’s servers to search the internet’s network of networks is surely the greatest feat of information management humans have ever devised.

I can vouch that no item is too minor to be overlooked. There’s a gruff book review in a minor journal that follows my name around the web like a badly trained dog on a very short leash. Google never forgets.

new york times logoThe New York Times. Many urban centers are the homes of effective news organizations that still publish daily papers and online versions.  That’s true of Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Newark, Atlanta, New Orleans and a number of other cities. But there are only a handful of organizations that have the necessary staff to cover national and international news. One is the Associated Press. The other is the New York Times.

With about 1300 reporters–far more than other American news outlets–The Times has mostly maintained its status as one of the world’s great news gathering institutions. We know this in part because it is the de-facto agenda-setter for a lot of other print and video news media. Still controlled by the Ochs and Sulzberger families, The Times has been able to resist the pressures of markets that require other news organizations to maximize profits by cutting editorial staffs. To be sure, The Times is not immune to declines in the newspaper reading habit. Advertisers are also less loyal to older media forms. And most quarterly reports to the paper’s (non-voting) stockholders show worrying trends, such as decreased revenue from the sale of display advertising.

What does this indispensable resource give us?  It is better than most outlets in covering trends, national political news, publishing and the media industries, the arts, and the human consequences of the global economy. It’s investigative journalism is also a national asset, especially examining the work (or inactivity) of federal agencies, and the long-term prospects of key policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.

The Times is not perfect. But it is the best American journalism organization we have. The nation would be noticeably poorer without the illumination it provides.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Review of Radio Utopia by Matthew C. Ehrlich

Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest, by Matthew C. Ehrlich (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) ISBN-13: 978-0-252-03611-8 (hardcover), for the Journal of Mass Communication and Society.

 

Matthew Ehrlich’s excellent study of radio after World War II is a reminder of the old joke partisans of the medium would tell their colleagues in television.  The two forms have some things in common, goes the punch line, “but radio’s pictures are better.”  And never more so than in the period between 1946 and 1951: the narrow band of years when radio was the beneficiary of networks flush with cash, and motivated to support a nation battered by years of war.  Ehrlich’s book (the winner of AEJMC’s Tankard Book Award in 2012) is a meticulously researched history that focuses on mostly familiar names that we now associate with the early years of broadcast journalism: William Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Lewis Shayon, Fred Friendly and others.  The stories of more obscure figures are told as well, among them, accounts of work by Ruth Ashton, Lou Hazam, and Morton Wishengrad.  At CBS Ashton broke through network resistance against women in substantive positions to produce a program called “The Sunny Side of the Atom.”  Hazam produced a series of NBC programs on the prosaic aspects of what it means to be “home.”   And Wishengrad had the perilous assignment of writing a series of three programs about “communism” that were endlessly second-guessed down to just one.  Since these were perilous times for left-wingers in broadcasting and the arts, the conclusion that Wishengrad’s effort was a mostly unhappy experience is perhaps the greatest understatement in the book.

If this detailed study offers a corrective to other narratives about this early period, it’s perhaps by more centrally placing Norman Corwin at the vanguard of early documentary production.  Most of us think of Corwin as a pioneer in broadcast drama.  But his early days at CBS were mostly consumed in the thrall of building a new world order that would bury fascism and reclaim the promises and social covenant of the New Deal.  The documentary series that were undertaken especially at CBS were ambitious, including Corwin’s One World Flight, which dared to incorporate taboo recorded sound from far-flung corners of the world.  The series captured moments from a generously-funded tour, and was intended to take the strangeness out of contrasting cultures.  Corwin interviewed miners, artists, scientists and ordinary people on the street.  A common theme in all of them was a distaste for fascism and colonialism.  But it was the grinding poverty of India and the Far East that posed the greatest challenge to repackage with any kind of hope.   As with Shayon’s later The Eagle’s Brood—a series focused on the rising fear of juvenile crime—the programs were earnest and melioristic; Ehrlich’s over-arching thesis emphasizes the desire of producers and program-makers to face post-war problems with optimism, and with an eye on searching for hopeful governmental or organizational solutions.

Of course, against this modest level of broadcast progressivism was an increasing American susceptibility to fantasies of internal subversion.  No one writing a history of this period could ignore it.  And Ehrlich generally gives Counterattack and Red Channels their due, perhaps in more neutral language than they deserve.  He ably recounts the spread of the poison of Red Channels from advertising agencies to the networks, and notes that a loyalty oath required of CBS employees soon followed.  Shayon is quoted to the effect that the venerable Murrow didn’t come to his defense, or speak to him again after he was fired because of blacklisting.  Never very happy with his management duties, Murrow apparently accepted the necessity of the oath to stave off the loss of even more talent.

One surprise of this study is how many of these programs in the late 1940s were fully scripted.  Radio documentaries were more akin to docudramas, even when the participants in the discussion where subject matter experts who were surely capable of extemporizing on their specialties.  So a 1946 program about the atomic bomb, Operation Crossroads, included notables like Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, and Albert Einstein.  But Ehrlich notes that the “cast engaged in scripted dialogue with a group of ordinary citizens specially assembled for the program.”  The pattern continued later in CBS is There!, and still later in the long running Here it Now.  If we wonder today why electronic news remains centered on the convenience of reporters and anchors, this kind of safe predictability confirms a pattern nearly as old as the medium.

In the final chapter Ehrlich broadly assesses and summarizing reporting styles and other norms of the period.  It’s a brief chapter, and mostly positive about the commercial networks’ efforts in “democratic empowerment.”  The F.C.C.s 1946 “Blue Book” on the public service obligations of broadcasters looms large here as a motivating “stick.”  But it would have been interesting to venture into an admittedly more speculative discussion about how journalistic styles have changed, and how documentary as an electronic form has weathered the years.  In some ways it seems as if the casting and scripting of programs common to the 1940s seems to have become the method of “reality programs” today.  Except, of course, those programs document nothing so much as our narcissistic times.

Against the journalistic hunger for stretching the minds of listeners especially at CBS were the guiding hands of William Paley and Frank Stanton.  Stanton was the researcher and inventor (along with Paul Lazerfeld) of an early precursor to dial-group/audience analyzer technology widely used today.  He established the research ethos at CBS, but Paley gave it its strategic function.  “Sustaining” and unprofitable programs were fine to a point.  But he made it clear that CBS would cede no ground in the search for audiences to its richer entertainment rival, NBC.   So the legendary struggle between news and entertainment that we now associate with Paley and the team of Murrow-Friendly was actually set as early as 1948, when the CBS Chairman cautioned Corwin that news needed to be able to compete.  As Ehrlich notes, this era of experimentation with radio as a window onto our civil life would not last long.  Network rivalries were entering a new phase that would include the potentially lucrative addition of television.  The older medium that gave us images in our imagination would soon have to compete with a new one that required more from production staffs and arguably less from its audiences.

 

Gary C. Woodward

The College of New Jersey