The Respectful Eyes of America

Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw before giving a eulogy for Gerald Ford at Washington National Cathedral.
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw before giving a eulogy for Gerald Ford at Washington National Cathedral. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Television can still rise to the occasion when the occasion warrants.

Yesterday's coverage of the funeral of former president Gerald Ford found network correspondents and technicians on their best behavior for the most part, the solemn beauty of the ceremony at Washington National Cathedral virtually forcing them to exercise restraint and good taste.

What might be called TV's networks of record -- ABC, CBS, NBC and cable's CNN -- covered the proceedings from early morning, following the casket from the Capitol, down the Senate steps, along Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House and then to the cathedral, where "eulogizers," as CBS's Katie Couric called them, paid tribute to the well-liked 38th president.

As the big and more established networks conveyed a kind of official aura, NBC's quirky cable outfit MSNBC offered more flavorful and colorful, but still respectful, coverage. Chris Matthews, anchoring with Keith Olbermann, at one point told viewers -- as cameras scanned the famous faces of those gathered in the cathedral -- "These are Washington people. For better or for worse, this is the Establishment you're looking at right here. This is the A-list of the people who run this city."

Matthews dares to say what other people are thinking but refrain from saying -- for better or for worse.

Couric and many of her colleagues on the big networks committed the common error of talking over scenes that did not require any talking -- or, to the contrary, called for quiet. When the choir and band performed "America" and other patriotic songs, Katie and crew kept up fairly constant chatter. Over on NBC at the same time, presidential historian Michael Beschloss unfortunately was directed to yak away, ignoring the music in the cathedral.

ABC anchor Charles Gibson showed the most tact and discretion, limiting his remarks to things viewers actually might need to know. Gibson, of course, has more authority and experience behind him as anchor and correspondent than either Couric or NBC's Brian Williams. Not that Williams lacked for intelligent comments; he just perhaps made too many of them.

Incredibly, CBS cut away from the ceremony in the cathedral to show viewers excerpts from an interview that President Ford had given correspondent Phil Jones -- in 1984! Ford, discussing widespread protests erupting in the country when he took office, said he hoped "voices were lowered" under of his calming influence. Bob Schieffer then quoted the "voices lowered" remark -- while the chorus and orchestra played "America the Beautiful."

All this talk of lowered voices could lead a viewer to talk back to the correspondents and anchors: "Lower yours, for heaven's sake."

Worst of all was an NBC commentator who interrupted the choir singing "America the Beautiful" to repeat a story he'd read in the New York Times -- about the Fords' dog having pooped on a White House carpet. "There are so many stories like that," the reporter said -- and so many more opportune times to tell them.

The CBS coverage was marred by a director's or producer's insistence on dividing the screen up in boxes, with a large amount of space taken up by "The Death of a President," the title CBS gave its coverage. The network seemed to be waving its own flag in viewers' faces, while ABC tried to keep its logo and other extraneous material to a minimum.

The pictures, after all, were beautiful as the sun poured down on the city. The honor guard, lined up in two columns on the Senate steps, cast dramatic, striking shadows in the early-morning light. Later, the cathedral looked regal and imposing in a master shot of it sitting on a high point in the city.

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