Jornalism’s Camelot

Published 11:05 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Responding to a suggestion that the 50th anniversary of the launch of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” would make a good story, the producer at another network declined, saying, “It doesn’t fit our demographic.”

That one sentence separates today’s “journalism” from that represented by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley when they began a program on NBC, Oct. 29, 1956, that would launch broadcast journalism’s Golden Age. The show was the brainchild of the late Reuven Frank, whose memory will also be honored Friday, Nov. 3 in New York at a special ceremony in NBC’s Studio 8-H.

Why should anyone care if they didn’t live through that time? Because it was a time when ideas mattered. Is this memorial event simply a trip into the land of nostalgia for the dwindling numbers who worked with, or at least observed the work of these men and their accomplished colleagues? Or does it remind us what real journalism looked like before advertisers and bean counters began ruining it?

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NBC White House correspondent Sander Vanocur, who covered the Kennedy administration, recalls there was far more substance on the news in those days: “Sound bites sometimes lasted 50 seconds or more; now they are often reduced to nine seconds, or less.” And the focus wasn’t on stories that advertisers wanted in order to reach viewers 18 to 34. “We had two epic stories then,” Vanocur recalls. “They were the Cold War and civil rights.” Now we are preoccupied by Madonna and missing blonde women.

When Huntley-Brinkley premiered, the program was a mere 15 minutes long (12 and a half minutes of news and two and a half minutes of commercials) When the program was later expanded to 30 minutes, management and reporters debated whether there would be enough news to fill the time.

Correspondent Herbert Kaplow recalls a half-hour special he was part of during the 1960 West Virginia primary election that saw John Kennedy defeat Sen. Hubert Humphrey and all but solidify his nomination for president. It is unlikely any broadcast network would do such a show today, or if it did, that it would attract any sponsors.

NBC recently announced it is reducing its number of employees, including newsroom staff, by 700 people. Kaplow recalls then-NBC News president Robert Kintner’s commitment to news because of Kintner’s journalism background. Today’s network presidents have no journalism experience. Their main concern is that their news divisions make money and story selection is made, in part, to please sponsors, something that never would have happened in the days of Huntley and Brinkley. Kintner told the news division to do solid news and the entertainment division would make money. Now, news too often resembles entertainment, and the public suffers.

Jack Perkins was a “writer” for Brinkley, which was something like being a painter for Michelangelo, because Brinkley wrote his own copy. He says of the Huntley and Brinkley types and what they represented, “We don’t have them anymore, the erudition and lapidary writing of David, the intoned authority of Chet. What we have is different and in some ways better (the technology), some ways worse (the pandering to celebrity and the mundane).”

Perkins blames Don Hewitt of CBS News for beginning the decline: “He started the trend by showing that prime time, or in his case, near-prime time news (”60 Minutes”) could make a lot of money. So before we knew it, network news divisions, which had always scorned the prostituting ‘journalists’ of the supermarket tabloids, began emulating them. If it could work in prime time, it could work in news time.”

When a great and accomplished person passes from the scene through retirement or death, some like to say, “There will never be anyone like him again.” That is true of Huntley and Brinkley, not because there are none to equal them, but because management no longer wants their type. You can see why by reading some of Brinkley’s books or watching tapes of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” when you visit New York’s Museum of Broadcast Communications or Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive in Nashville. These guys had class and conveyed credibility and authority.

Huntley and Brinkley flourished during broadcast journalism’s Camelot. For younger journalists, like me, who knew them and were inspired by them, we not only miss these men; we miss what they represented. In our self-centered, consumer age, their kind are unlikely to pass our way again.