Thursday, October 9, 2008

When Honorable was Normal

In the 70’s a group named Player recorded the song “Baby Come Back.” The song’s nostalgia factor has been pushed aside by commercialism: the tune is now used in an ad as a plea… by a mop. I saw it while watching the news and thought, “How appropriate”. Not for swabbing tears over fleeting youth, but to clean up the mess that’s replaced the reliable news of my childhood.

“If it bleeds, it leads." Sad, but true. Yet in the past, at least we knew what caused the bloodshed and suffering on the evening news. Anchors defined the problem so we might find a solution. Most of today’s bloody news consists of “reporters” verbally carving each other up and spitting out opinion instead of fact. Humanity and truth have been pushed aside for higher ratings. Everyone complains about media coverage of…well, just about everything. No one reports the facts any more. No one is willing to dig deep to uncover the truth, put it on the table and challenge, “So John Q. Public, what are you going to do about it?” Edward R. Murrow’s sign off is probably more appropriate today than it was in his own time, “Good night. And good luck”.

Ever since that mop commercial began to air, I keep hearing that song in my head. Except instead of “Baby” I hear…”Tom Brokaw come back. And bring Uncle Walter {Cronkite} too. The truth is missing and we just can’t live without you.”

I admit it. I grew up in a NBC household. Hard as it is for some to believe, there were only three networks then. And no remotes. Just children assigned the task of changing the channel as their fathers yelled, “Don’t turn that dial so fast! You’ll break it!”

The news was on 3 times a day. There were no annoying logos at the bottom of the screen competing with that stupid ticker which has made Americans unable to focus on just one thing. No, we had “We interrupt this program for a Special Bulletin”. That voice made your heart race because those interruptions were rare. Generally reserved for earth shaking news, that simple sign made it feel as if the world had stopped revolving to hold its breath.

NBC was home to Huntley and Brinkley. Their sign off was as succinct as their reporting. “Good night David. Good night Chet.” Yet it was oddly comforting. Huntley, the older father figure, told you in no uncertain terms what would happen if Congress spent all their allowance and came back to you looking for more. This was not judgmental. It was simple fact. Brinkley might’ve been younger but he enunciated clearly, so that all the facts were obvious. Tom Brokaw was probably the last of the NBC anchors I trusted to tell me the truth. All of it. When he “retired” it felt like a close friend had died.

Whereas Huntley and Brinkley kept us factually on point, Edwin Newman ensured we were informed and grammatically correct. He wrote the book Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? I inherited an autographed copy. It’s one of my most prized possessions. It’s not a stuffy grammatical guide, it’s insightful and witty. It ought to be mandatory reading for most of today’s “reporters”.

Garrick Utley, whom I feared would die of fatigue rather than a stray bullet, explained Vietnam to me. From Vietnam. His words often made the government angry, but that’s what happens when you tell the truth. The whole truth. He painted a realistic picture that even 12 year old me could comprehend.

I thought White House correspondent Sander Van Oaker had the coolest name. It commanded authority and respect. Just like the man. I saw him interviewed several years ago. The “reporter” snidely questioned how Van Oaker et al could’ve missed all those women in the White House visiting JFK’s bedroom. Van Oaker’s reply was illuminating. “We did see it. And it is the only time we literally turned our heads and looked the other way. We did so, not out of respect for JFK or the office of President, but out of respect for Mrs. Kennedy and the children.” Gee Reporter Guy, can you spell “integrity”? If not, see Edwin Newman.

The last reporter who captured my heart didn’t have every hair in place. In fact, he was balding. But he had, as my grandparents use to say, “a face you could trust”. Fred Francis looked you in the eye and stated what had happened. Not what he thought might have happened or what he would’ve done instead. Oh sure, I saw a twinkle in those big brown eyes once or twice at the irony of what he reported, but he never verbally crossed the line. Are you taking notes, Chris Matthews and Keith Obermann? When I read that Francis retired this year, I wanted to cry. I can’t think of anyone currently on the gazillion news networks, with you 24/7, that I'd miss if they forgot to come to work. In some cases, I’d move that annoying corner logo OVER their face.

Cue music.

So Tom please come back. Bring Edwin and Garrick too. Sandy and Fred may have gone gray, but their gray matter never stopped working.

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