‘Cronkite Remembers’ Details the Birth of TV Journalism

I had a pretty lazy day yesterday – the kind where you sit around and watch a lot of TV.

What I watched was (most of) an eight part series on the Discovery Channel called Cronkite Remembers.

The show featured the late Walter Cronkite talking about the major news events he covered during his seven decade career in journalism. But, more than just a history lesson, Cronkite – known as the Father of Television News – discussed how the media coverage of these events changed with technology. It was a fascinating series that I highly recommend you check out. Here are some of the highlights that really jumped out at me.

On the advent of television – Cronkite said, “journalists were looking for new ways to use the tube. We felt the spontaneity of TV could potentially reveal new facts about the character of public figures. Here, we were able to ask them questions for which they’d not prepared and not only would we have have their answer, but also their physical response to it. You get a lot more out of the interview when you can see their body language.”

On media training politicians – particularly Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, “We even trained them on how to look good on TV. Just little things like sitting in the front of your chair to avoid slouching and not leaning on the desk with your elbows to avoid hunching and how to talk to the camera like it was just another person.”

He talked about some of the lessons learned and drawbacks to reporting breaking news in the early days. “When I first read the report on the wire that shots had been fired at the Kennedy motorcade, I began yelling, ‘let’s get on air! let’s get on air right now!’ But we couldn’t because the cameras had to be placed and warmed up, something that just didn’t happen in radio. We learned our lesson that day to always be ready in the moment.”

On the impact of live reporting, “What television gave us that radio and newspapers never could was the visual impact of the live event. To be able to watch events unfold as they happened, together as a nation. It brought us together in a way newspapers and even radio never could. We broadcast for four straight days with no commercial interruptions during the Kennedy assassination and what we saw unfolding live before our eyes, we all saw together …  Live on TV, we saw the assassination of the assassin. I knew the news would never be the same again after that and television became the place to go for breaking news.”

Watching all of this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to how technology has so drastically changed reporting and news today. There was a fascinating moment in the series where Cronkite was talking about the zeitgeist when President Carter took office. He explained that the country was still reeling from Watergate and the loss of trust in government. He said President Carter wanted to remedy this by presenting a more “open and transparent” government. One way he did this was to hold an interview with Cronkite that was a call-in show. Citizens could call-in and directly ask questions of their President live on television.

This event was something I’d never heard about before and I wish that I had. What a truly incredible moment that must have been. For the first time, people all over the country had a chance to engage in a one-on-one conversation with a sitting President while the rest of the country watched at home. In a clip the Discovery Channel showed from the event, a woman from middle America called in and asked the President about farming subsidies and it was wild to watch President Carter sort of chat amiably with this woman. (They’d planned to do more of these interviews, but Cronkite explained that AT&T simply couldn’t handle the volume of calls).

Watching that clip, I naturally drew some parallels to our current zeitgeist and how President Obama is using the same words of transparency and employing new technologies today toward the same end with his YouTube town halls.

Mr. Cronkite also talked about how the advent of radio and later, TV, called for new definitions and laws around freedom of the press. Many of the issues he discussed sound quite similar to the issues we now face with the web and social media.

He discussed the impact of the visual image and how it forced issues to be addressed, “With TV, we were able to show the realities not the propaganda. When people saw the marches in Selma and how citizens were being brutally beaten – and they saw this live and unedited as it happened – there was no denying the truth of the story.”

It really made me wonder if we would have had a civil rights movement without television. Perhaps this is not a new sentiment, but for me, it was the first time I considered that had we not – as a nation – seen the marches, the speeches, the protests and abuses live as they happened, would our citizens and government have been moved to action?

Again, I can’t help but draw parallels to the social media revolution we’ve seen in Iran and how had it not been for that technology, we would have only seen the propaganda, not the truth.

Along those lines, Cronkite also talked about the heat he got for some of the more graphic images CBS aired during some of the more tumultuous times: monks setting themselves on fire and burning to death in protest, American soldiers setting fire to villages in Vietnam – the cameras panning over to the sobbing faces of women and children watching their homes burn. Of course, he defended the graphic nature by simply saying, “the truth isn’t always something we want to see, but it something we need to see.”

He also talked about the entertainment value of television as new technology. He discussed how political conventions transformed from a genuine caucus where anything could happen to a highly scripted and planned pageant that is “hardly newsworthy at all.”

This series was a truly fascinating glimpse into our history and the history of journalism in this country. The comparisons to where we are today with citizen journalists/bloggers, Twitter, social media, YouTube, iReport, uReport, etc. were truly uncanny. I highly recommend y’all check out this series and draw your own parallels … and let me know what you discover!

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