THE TWO BOOKS at hand represent opposite views
on the overwhelming power of television news. Newswatch by ABC executive producer Av Westin is a professional's attempt to provide an even-handed guide through the history, technology, personalities and daily grind of big-time broadcasting; yet I found it less than reassuring. Stephan Lesher's Media Unbound is a curiously light-hearted diatribe against the distinctive excesses in the electronic medium. Lesher charges television with compounding all the sins of his old trade, the "intrinsically capricious" business of journalism. There may be some healthy warnings here, but all in all Lesher's tocsin is not alarming.
We are accustomed now to thinking of television as the main source of popular news, and still the 1980 presidential campaign marked a sharp and worrisome turn, in the virtual disappearance of print influence. Remember 1980? No scoops. No hot columnists. No running story to be savored in the detailed narrative of daily papers. No Woodward and Bernstein. No Hunter Thompson either. No text that mattered. No "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" headline in the Daily News. Not even a Playboy interview. No memorable endorsements--except, where I live, the Boston Globe's blessing on the two candidates (Anderson and Carter) who lost both Massachusetts and the nation.
The 1980 campaign unfolded entirely onthe TV screen, from Roger Mudd's interview with Ted Kennedy to Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" rebuff in debate with Jimmy Carter. Notably, in between were the John Anderson campaign (TV imagery for print-minded voters) and Henry Kissinger's drive to nominate Gerald Ford to a "co-presidency"--launched and very nearly consummated, it seemed at the time, in Walter Cronkite's convention booth in Detroit.
This, then, is the opinion-making marvel that Westin and Lesher would explain to us, in such different tones of voice.
Westin's authority is that of a network executive who grew up with the business. He is the producer of the ABC news magazine 20/20. Along the way he was in on the first Telstar satellite broadcasts to and from Europe. He put Mike Wallace on the CBS Morning News and produced CBS Reports with Fred Friendly. He refereed on-air battles between Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner on ABC Evening News, and he helped Roone Arledge conceive ABC's three-headed successor, World News Tonight. Westin's manner, alas, is that of an aging boy wonder, delighted to report that the early promise of his medium and his career has been confirmed.
Westin is expert and interesting on many details of television technology--including Don Hewitt's "double chain" method of film editing and Fred Friendly's theory of studio lighting. The trouble is it often sounds as if he is chronicling the development of a hardware industry--aviation, perhaps. Westin treats the broad matter of TV's political impact by observing narrowly that TV prosecutes corrupt politicians more effectively than print does. "The rascals were turned out more frequently," he writes, "because their inadequacies or criminality was on display." The book is full of such smug, simple claims--about the networks' openness to women and blacks, for example, about the virtue of "popular" news ("even one more interested viewer means one more informed citizen").
Westin's book is designed in part as a practical course for would-be professionals, but he reveals standards here that the industry should not be advertising. "Good television writing comes first from a decent vocabulary," he instructs. Ten pages later he writes of the need for good pictures: "Minimumly, (sic) the correspondent and the cameraman must have a clear understanding of what the opening shot should be. . . ."
He is rightly critical of local news on commercial television--the happy talk and the hairdos, the look-alike news anchors who don't know the local politics or local pronunciations in the "markets" where they happen to be working. Yet Westin, to my surprise, is just as ready to insult the intelligence of his viewers. In building up the entertainment value of 20/20, he writes, "we assume that most of the people we are reaching have 'zero knowledge and zero interest' in the subjects we intend to cover. More than likely, many people who tuned in . . . do not want to work to understand what we are talking about." Did ever a newspaper or magazine editor think such a thought, much less confess it? I cannot believe Don Hewitt of CBS's 60 Minutes would say such a thing either. In the end Westin voices a feeble faith in television's miracle: "People do not read as much as they should," he concludes, "and they are dependent on the crutch of television, which has rendered them passive. There is no doubt that television news is the lazy person's way of keeping informed."
Stephan Lesher's book is an exuberant assault on most of Westin's pious assumptions. Lesher does not see much objectivity or fairness in TV news; he surely does not believe in the "wisdom" ascribed to the likes of Walter Cronkite, whom Lesher charges with political usurpation for his anti-Vietnam "Special" early in 1968. "The chutzpah of a Walter Cronkite or a Frank McGee, without portfolio, telling millions of people that, to quote Oscar Hammerstein II's King of Siam, 'what they do not know is so,' is certainly unsettling; the awesome size of the medium through which they tell it is downright scary."
Lesher, formerly a Newsweek correspondent and now a public relations consultant in Washington, believes that journalism has always been an "inherently imprecise, subjective, seat-of-the-pants business, relying entirely on personal judgment and opinion." Electronics has made it much worse: "the difference is that the boys and girls in the proverbial bus really are riding a rocket ship."
Lesher's tone is that of a bright and garrulous reporter at the back of the bus, or rocketship, mocking his competitors' stories. His favorite target is 60 Minutes, which he both loves and hates. He takes apart and re- edits any number of famous 60 Minutes scripts: he argues that Mike Wallace asked the wrong questons of Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert; that Harry Reasoner stretched the evidence of mismanagement against Illinios Power. But his criticism, all told, is not much more than irreverent copy-editing. Lesher does not see either corporate or reportorial ideology at work in the general mischief of journalism; the problem with news is just that competitive pressure forces sloppy work into print and onto the air before it is finished.
Lesher's own technique comes to seem a lot like 60 Minutes itself. There is a lot of direct-quote "actuality" in his book, a lot of loud bullying and some good phrase- making. But there is not much originality here, or systematic attack. Lesher acknowledges that he has applied more than once to do promotional work for 60 Minutes.
His manifesto wants real anger and real humor, too. Thre is no hint of an insight as pithy as the line attributed to Philip Schlesinger that somehow found its way to my office wall. "News is the exercise of power over the interpretation of reality." Nowhere does Lesher nail down the charge that abuses in TV news are essentially different from, or worse than, those of print journalism. When it comes to belaboring the modern American media, I prefer Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit, written after Dickens' tour of 1842. In the novel young Martin's first impression of our country, as his steamboat docked in New York, was delivered by the newsboys.
"'Here's this morning's 2 New York Sewer!' cried one. 'Here's this morning's New York Stabber! Here's the New York Family Spy! Here's the New York Private Listener! Here's the New York Peeper! Here's the New York Plunderer! Here's the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here's the New York Rowdy Journal! Here's all the New York papers! Here's full particulars of the patriotic loco foco movement yesterday in which the Whigs was so chawed up, and the last Alabama gouging case, and the interesting Arkansas dooel with bowie-knives, and all the political, commercial and fashionable news. Here they are! Here they are! Here's the papers, here's the papers!' "
Moments later Martin Chuzzlewit is accosted by the grandiloquent Colonel Diver, editor of the New York Rowdy Journal. "It is in such enlightened means," Colonel Diver explains, "that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent."