The Magic Lantern  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   December/January 2005

The Magic Lantern   

Election night reminded us how wonderful television can be.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Easily the most frustrating moment of my editing career came in 1992, when I was deputy managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News. I was overseeing coverage of the scheduled execution of Robert Alton Harris, which, if it came off, would mark the resumption of the death penalty in California after a quarter-century. But all through the night and into the morning there were the predictable appeals and counterappeals. Would Harris wind up in San Quentin's gas chamber, or would he not?

About 2:30 a.m., we finally had to close the paper, saying in sizable headline type that we didn't know. By the time I opened that paper at home, say 6:30 a.m., Harris was stone dead, and every sentient Californian with a television knew it. A prisoner of my own deadline, I never felt more helpless or foolish.

So as I made myself stay up through the long night of election returns--otherwise known as "Waiting for Ohio"--I empathized with all those newspaper editors out there who were living my old nightmare. They had to close their editions saying the race between George Bush and John Kerry was "too close to call," when they knew damn well--as did all those millions of us in Insomniac Nation--that the president would prevail. And in fact, by the time those same papers hit the driveway, it was clear that he had.

Television news comes in for its share of criticism in this magazine, and not without reason. Our recent examination of how the industry uses its news stars to soap up elected officials and regulators, for instance, was as troubling as it was unsurprising (see "Lobbying Juggernaut," October/November). We knock TV for its addiction to crime stories, its "sweeps" travesties, its "SportsCenter" excesses, its retreat from city hall.

But staying up all night with Tim Russert and his whiteboard, channel-hopping from Fox to MSNBC to PBS to CNN to old standbys Tom, Peter and Dan, reminded me, again, what a wonder television can be. We take the good stuff for granted, but instead we should celebrate it.

Personally, for instance, I give thanks for CBS' "Sunday Morning," which for a generation has been one of the very best programs on the air. A true magazine, it offers something for everyone--from provocation to whimsy--and the viewer's intelligence is always assumed, never insulted. Charles Kuralt set its appealing and iconoclastic tone; his replacement, Charles Osgood, has respected that even as he's made the show his own.

I'm thankful for PBS. We tease it for its earnestness and pledge drives, but what would our world be without Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill, "Frontline" and "American Experience," Oscar the Grouch and Charlie the Rose?

I love C-SPAN and its genius of simplicity. In fact, thank God for the whole modern gumbo that is cable. Imagining life before the Weather Channel, Discovery Health, Nick at Nite, ESPN and, most indispensable of all, the Golf Channel, is like trying to remember life before air conditioning. Even the much-maligned Fox News is what it is, which today constitutes a kind of integrity. (Don't forget that for most of our history newspapers had strong political affiliations, too, and Dad lugged home the one closest to his worldview.) But really, Foxies, it's long past time to ditch the cynical "Fair and Balanced" slogan and adopt one closer to your reality. How about, "No Matter What, We're Right"?

I'm thankful for "The Daily Show." This political year it got as hot as Karl Rove, then endured the inevitable backlash. But Jon Stewart and his team of faux reporters really are funny as they serve up some of the sharpest satire on television--sort of like "Saturday Night Live" when it mattered.

And speaking of social satire, what if we didn't have "The Simpsons"? D'oh!

God bless Dan Rather. He reminded us this year that even the great ones kick the ball sometimes. But over half a century, whether traversing Afghanistan in mufti or challenging Richard Nixon or lashing himself to a tree in a Category 4 hurricane, he has put himself in harm's way to keep us informed. Whatever his politics, he has been a great journalist and a patriot.

Which brings us back to election night, and the kind of coverage that again reminds us how in moments of high drama, television is our national living room. We huddle 'round the magic lantern in the dark, watching events unfold in real time and hoping everything will be all right. And in part because we keep our anchors longer than we do our presidents, somehow everything is all right. In his final election as NBC News' mainstay, Tom Brokaw, with his Midwestern solidity, provided another real service to the nation.

Over the decades he has represented television at its best. And television at its best remains a miracle.

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