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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

Zeus or Mere Mortal?   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Can the glory of legendary journalism gods be categorized as more mythology than fact? Are memories of the good old days blurred by the mists of nostalgia? Such would be the thesis of Andrew Tyndall's report in the fall issue of the Media Studies Journal.

Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors network television news, compared "CBS Evening News" of November 1968 to today's CBS newscasts. His report, "Climbing Down from Olympus," concludes that newscasts from the Walter Cronkite era are "almost unwatchable" for the modern audience accustomed to 1998 technology, advanced editing and shorter sound bites.

Tyndall also detects a change in the role of reporter: from conduit of establishment information to doubting analyst. "To a modern ear, accustomed to the noisy skepticism of the White House press corps, icons of television journalism, such as Marvin Kalb, sound timid and uncritical," he writes.

But, Tyndall writes, "These criticisms are, of course, unfair." He's not necessarily calling today's TV journalism better. "TV news is better now for the viewer," he says. Much of the change can be traced to technological improvements. "However, I don't think that accounts for all the differences," he adds.

While 1968 CBS newscasts contained analysis, it was not a part of reporters' responsibilities. Comment and criticism were left to commentator Eric Sevareid, Tyndall says.

While Kalb, now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, agrees that the public was much less prone to doubt government officials in 1968, he doesn't buy the correspondent-as-transmission-belt theory. Years ago, "the press, like the public, was not as cynical and therefore was not as apt to rip into government officials," Kalb says. "However, I think that you'd be conveying an inaccurate impression if that's as far as you went."

Kalb recalls the trouble Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon had with his analyses. "There were journalists who were quite critical," he says, "but we didn't personalize it." Journalists then found fault with policy, whereas today "it is a highly personalized form of reporting" characterized by "editorializing," Kalb says. "Attitude and edge" are highly prized, he continues. "I find that very sad."

Tyndall disagrees, saying the reporter's job in '68 was "to transmit what governmental officials said." Today's newscasts give the viewer a "more nuanced report."

Modern editing has also tightened the "Evening News." But Kalb isn't praising the advent of eight- or nine-second sound bites. Citing a study that found the average sound bite length during the 1968 presidential campaign to be 42 seconds, he says the dramatic shrinkage isn't "a good thing at all."

For his part, Tyndall isn't quite letting the current age of TV journalism off the hook. "Gone is Cronkite's avuncular authority," Tyndall writes. "Rather is now part news reader, part un-self-confident pitchman."