Bob Simon's Legacy: "No One Was Better at Setting Words to Images" (Guest Column)

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Bob Simon

The "skill required to calm down, think clearly, and write aphoristically is rare indeed — and one that modern digital video journalists should try to emulate," TV analyst Andrew Tyndall writes.

At the dawn of television news, a foreign correspondent had to file reports on film, which was then jetted to a laboratory back home for processing, ready to appear on air several days later. This meant that actual breaking news from abroad had to be read as copy by the anchor, and that the foreign correspondent's role was to provide non-time-specific background features.

The second phase saw a conversion from film to video, and transmission by satellite rather than jetliner. This phase allowed Ted Turner to assemble his global CNN brand. It allowed ABC World News Tonight to base Peter Jennings as its live anchor in London. And for the first time, breaking foreign news could be covered in real time on a nightly basis as easily as breaking domestic stories.

The third phase — the current one — sees a switch from satellite to the Internet, and from tape to digital. Lightweight equipment with better cameras and microphones allows for smaller, more agile crews. Broadcast correspondents are now living in the same world as VICE video and digital freelancers.

Bob Simon is most vividly remembered as the long-form reporter at 60 Minutes, his assignment for the final 15 years of his career — and rightly so. It was there that memories of him are freshest and where his audiences were largest. Funnily enough, although it represents the most recent phase of his career, 60 Minutes' stories turn out to resemble the features of the film era.

Simon's true claim to fame in the history of television news is as the preeminent foreign correspondent of the second phase, from-videotape-to-satellite, from his posting at CBS News' Tel Aviv bureau through the end of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, when the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts were still dominant, before the rise of the 24-hour news channels, long before there was such a thing as digital video.

Such was the enthusiasm at the network news for breaking foreign news during that period that Simon, and his rivals at NBC and ABC, would routinely file four weeknights out of five from Israel and the West Bank at the height of the first Palestinian intifada.

Desert Storm, the 1991 war to repel Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, should have been the sweet spot of Simon's career, when both he and the network television news divisions were in their primes. Chafing at the restrictions imposed on his reporting by the Pentagon, he and his crew set off into the desert to find their own stories and famously spent the war in an Iraqi torture cell instead. If his 60 Minutes career resembled the film era, this Gulf War episode resembles the dangers facing the modern gonzo digital era.

Sandwiched between Desert Storm and the Siege of Sarajevo — and now mostly forgotten — came the Marine Corps' so-called humanitarian invasion of famine-riddled Somalia in December 1992. Simon, naturally, was assigned to cover the war zone, and it was here that he demonstrated the chops that his Iraqi jailers prevented him from showcasing in Kuwait.

This is how the Tyndall Report described Simon's stylings in March 1993:

After one week the anchors went back home, but their presence had done the job, justifying the deployment of so many journalistic resources to such an unaccustomed corner of the world. CBS' veteran foreign correspondent Bob Simon took up the reins, and was there as the Humvees rolled to Baidoa, yet again proving to be nonpareil at his trade. A Simon sampler:

► At the feeding center, the children's salvation had come in the form of men dressed up like chocolate-chip cookies.

► The Marines rode down the road to hunger, to the town that starving children had put on the map — from the Halls of Montezuma to a room in Hell called Baidoa.

► As soon as the Marines move on the looters will be back. Villagers pleaded with Marines to stay with them — before the Marines moved on. At the end of the food chain is a guy with a gun.

► This country's only export is pictures of starving children, which it trades for bags of wheat.

The days of dominance for the evening newscasts are over. His successors at CBS News — the trio of Holly Williams, Clarissa Ward, Elizabeth Palmer — and Richard Engel at NBC have disadvantages and advantages compared with Simon. They report to smaller audiences and have less clout to shape the national news agenda; the occasional war zone danger that Simon's plight in Iraq dramatized is now ubiquitous, as the decapitations of freelancer James Foley and Japanese TV's Kenji Goto made brutally clear. On the other hand, today's digital correspondents have more agile equipment than ever; they can get closer to the action, can collect video in the most inhospitable of conditions, and are able to conduct interviews without encumbering crews and equipment.

These technical advantages have led to two innovative styles of reporting that were not available in Simon's heyday. The first humanizes a story: CBS' Arabic-speaking Ward, in particular, adds drama to her war reporting by adding the anecdotal intimacy of individual profiles. The second provides action: NBC's Engel likes to file video from the actual battlefield.

(In passing, we should note that this latter virtue of immediacy can easily turn into a vice, leading to showboating by the correspondent, making him the central character in his own reality TV show rather than observing and reporting on the actions of others.)

Despite these innovations, Bob Simon's legacy reminds us of a third way in which reporters impart immediacy and insight into their stories. The medium of video is, after all, properly an audio-visual medium. The audio component encompasses wild sound, yes, and sound bites by interview subjects, too. It also allows for narration by the correspondent. No one was better at setting words to images than Bob Simon. In the hurly-burly of battles, the skill required to calm down, think clearly, and write aphoristically is rare indeed — and one that modern digital video journalists should try to emulate.