Journalists, like surgeons and second basemen, generally do what they do better than they talk about what they do. But journalists talk a lot about their craft, sometimes disquietingly, as in the case of Van Gordon Sauter, president of CBS News, as reported by Ron Rosenbaum in November's Esquire.
Sauter was converted from print to television journalism by a moment in Mississippi. In 1964, three civil-rights workers were missing, and Sauter saw an old black man in a boat dragging for bodies, "and you just knew from looking at the expression on his face that he knew those kids had been murdered.
"So I started writing right there and I devoted my first six paragraphs to depicting that situation, the color of the water, the total ambiance. I was feeling absolutely elated until suddenly I turned around and there, at the other end of the bridge, was a TV crew with a mobile truck getting film of that same guy in the boat and I suddenly realized that no matter how good a writer I was, that TV crew possessed that moment in a way I never could."
Well, Faulkner had a way of possessing such scenes, but, yes, television has its own way, and there are more cameras than Faulkners. But there is an unsolved, perhaps insoluble, problem of television journalism: a camera is a deficient news-gathering instrument. It is used most naturally and potently not to transmit information but to convey scenes, some of great emotional impact.
Scenes can be informative; information can have emotional impact. But it is one thing for emotional impact to be a consequence of reporting. It is something else for an emotional response to be the aim of journalism.
Rosenbaum discerns at CBS a "theory of moments." He quotes Dan Rather saying, "Van keeps saying we need stories that reach out and touch people. Moments." Sauter says:
"The kind of thing we're looking for is something that evokes an emotional response. When I go back to the (control room), I tell them, goddam it, we've got to touch people. They've got to feel a relationship with us. A lot of stories have an inherent drama, but others have to be done in a way that will bring out an emotional response."
Rosenbaum describes this as "the exaltation of the emotional communion of the 'moment,'" and he wonders: "Feelings. Emotions. Relationships. Reach out and touch. . . . Is this the evening news or some kind of encounter session?"
Intentionally eliciting emotional responses is a legitimate function of literature. But of reporting? Changing minds -- and hearts -- is an explicit aim of much of what appears on editorial and op-ed pages of newspapers. Furthermore, good reporting about all sorts of situations can stir all sorts of feelings. But if journalism becomes a quest for "moments" the point of which is to provoke emotions, then journalism becomes avowedly manipulative. Pursuit of such "moments" involves editorial judgments that are problematic and, at bottom, political. They are judgments about the emotions viewers should have, and how to cause viewers to have them.
I am associated with ABC News, but not with its "World News Tonight." I rarely see evening news programs because at 7 p.m. I am too busy subduing children to watch reports about other violent conflicts. I do not know whether ABC or NBC attempt to trigger emotions with "moments." But the technology of television may drive television journalism in that direction.
Compared with the English language, a camera is a crude, superficial instrument of communication. It generally deals with surfaces. Pictures -- of police dogs attacking civil-rights workers, of Vietnamese clinging to helicopter skids, of a bankrupt farmer watching his land auctioned-- can have extraordinary impact. They tell us things, and can pack a larger punch of truth than all but the rarest writers can pack into prose. But when there is an attempt to elicit emotional responses to reality, it is time to ask: is this journalism, or literature carried on by camera, or political agitation?
Given the camera's capacities and television's time constraints (there are 22 minutes of news in a 30-minute broadcast), there may be a temptation to make the most -- the most emotional wallop -- of every moment. But in a world of conflict, suffering and scarcity, there is no shortage of emotions. It remains unclear how television, a slave to the camera, can best serve a society in which the public generally has a high ratio of passion to information.