Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Book Review: That's the Way It Is

That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America
Charles Ponce de Leon
University of Chicago Press
352 pages
ISBN: 9780226472454 (cloth)
ISBN: 9780226256092 (ebook)
May 2015

Reviewed by Jonathan Ebinger

The history of television news in America is not a small topic. In many ways it is a history of America. Of who we are. And what we’ve done. Or at least what we’ve done over the last half of the 20th century. And then some.

That’s The Way It Is walks us down this memory lane. It covers most of the major stories over the years. But it’s not as much a book on TV News as it is an assessment of the news. It reminds us about the business of news on television. And that news is a business. So whether it’s the advent of cable news, the prominent role of network anchors, or the powerful position that local news still maintains in our communities, we are cycled back with regular reminders of the role of the public, and the market, in helping to decide what we see, and what is presented to us each day on air.

Cal State Long Beach historian Charles Ponce de Leon dips in these topics, among others, in this readable history. Though he regularly cites the Federal Communication Commission as a significant influencer on how television news is delivered, he repeatedly reminds us that news is not so much a public trust, as it is a private business. And with the exception of PBS, about which he spends a chapter documenting the history of public broadcasting, he delivers on that reminder, noting how each network would jockey to either get ahead of another, or stay ahead of a third. Or how CNN would come to compete not only with the traditional three news networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC, but with the likes of MTV and ESPN as well. A final chapter that leads into the role of the internet tries to extend this further, but a history that attempts to discuss the future is a history best left unwritten.

In an appropriately titled chapter ‘News you can use’ we learn how the network news model, one that still exists over a generation removed from it’s creation, evolved from once being in the hands of a few men based in NY to what we have today, with corporate ownership and stock value all in play.

While this book is very much about the evolution of TV news, and who managed the business, and who anchored the shows, and which shows led the ratings race, and which federal rules led to the creation of programs, and how technology advanced delivery, and which executives battled which news managers, and ultimately, which corporations bought which news divisions, it is a history that virtually any among us can follow, and appreciate.

Regardless of how one views television news today, we understand it maintains a role in our consciousness. Whether you’re one of the few still watching an evening newscast, or among those who sustain local news as the most popular news delivery medium in the country, or perhaps someone who sees the news parody programs on cable as more than mere entertainment, you call upon TV news as the baseline for how you access visual news media. There are certainly many other methods to see content these days, but news still processes the media and presents it to us in a relatively palatable and certainly understandable way.

And that’s precisely how Ponce de Leon presents the past 70 years of visual media. Whether it’s the early days when network news barely reached beyond an elite few in New York, or the significant role that TV News had at political conventions in the 50’s, or in covering the 1960 Presidential debates, or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s, or the war in Vietnam, or the space race……you get the picture. Television was there, evolving alongside us as we learned to accept the form, and then demand more from it for our more discerning taste.

But tastes change. And by the end of the 20th century, those of us old enough to remember recall the wall-to-wall coverage of a handful of salacious stories. And near the end of the book, it’s this reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky saga that helps bridge us from where news was, to where it has been going since. With it “the line in the sand….that had begun to blur in the 1980s and early 1990s and was particularly erased during coverage of the O. J. Simpson case – was completely obliterated. The networks, cable news channels, and tabloid infotainment programs now covered the same stories, often in very similar ways. Incipient trends in reporting and production dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, once held in check by the scrupulous exercise of ‘professional news judgment’ and the dictates of the FCC, sprouted and blossomed with alarming speed.”

Today, relatively few in the business would disagree with this dour view. With few exceptions, it’s harder today to distinguish between media than it once was.

While this is primarily an academic work, complete with extensive footnotes, Ponce de Leon’s research provides us with moments that advance beyond what interests scholars and news producers.  He cites a memo written in the late 1960’s by then NBC News President Reuven Frank, calling for tv news to deliver a narrative within which “every news story, without sacrifice of probity or responsibility, display attributes of fiction……structure and conflict, problem and denouement, rising action and falling action, a beginning, middle, and an end.” This nugget explains more than just tv news. It explains who we are as news consumers, and how producers, reporters, and anchors hew to this tenuous link in order to bring us in to the viewing tent, and then hold and at times even command our attention. 

Much has changed since the early days of news. Yet the words of Reuven Frank ring true, more than we would like to imagine. And reading this engaging history reminds us that despite the look of the newscast, or despite the anchors hairstyle, or the length of her skirt, there’s still a common thread that carries us from the black and white news coverage of the 50’s to the 24/7 full color always live cable coverage that we have today.

Jonathan Ebinger is a former network news producer who spent 10 years with ABC News Nightline. He teaches journalism at The George Washington University, and hopes today’s journalism students do not repeat the errors of their predecessors.