If we could be Frank, it should still be about the news and not the newsman


An acquaintance of mine and former TV reporter way back when told me the story of his first crucial encounter with Reuven Frank, a legendary news producer at NBC.

My friend had compiled his first video reportage for broadcast, some protest or other somewhere -- it was the 1960s -- and he had peppered the footage and interviews with his own interpretation of events.

As the piece wound up, Frank, from the row behind, tapped him on the shoulder and, in his famously soft voice, said, "Son, no one gives a damn what you think."

My acquaintance went on to cover Vietnam and even was wounded, though there were no newscast stories on his unfortunate encounter with the Vietcong or about anything else that happened to him as a reporter.

I was reminded again of this "Frank" admonition when Walter Cronkite died last month. He too was of that old school, where the story mattered more than the personality or the opinions of the journalist telling it.

That's not to say Cronkite didn't have opinions, or that they didn't occasionally obtrude. The act of taking off his glasses again and again, or wiping away that tear on Nov. 22, 1963, his gasp of astonishment upon the first moon landing, or the irritation in his voice over Nixon's attempts to muzzle the press all added to the texture of, and helped humanize, the news he was delivering.

But by and large, Cronkite was an anchor, even-keeled and avuncular, and that's what the country seemingly needed and expected through those convulsive times.

Much has changed since Rush and Bill and Keith and Anderson and Jon and Glenn have fractured the fraternity of network evening newscasters.

Not only have newsies proliferated furiously -- diminishing the regard in which any single one is held -- but Frank probably would not recognize, nor countenance, the extent to which journalists, especially TV and radio ones, have become opinionated and opinionmakers in their own right. For heaven's sake, some even suggest that Rush Limbaugh these days is the de facto leader of the Republican Party.

Perhaps there never was such a thing as a neutral stance on important issues; certainly today balance is perceived as, well, increasingly boring. Objectivity is a debunked concept, and what the important issues are today have shifted, or at least widened dramatically: There's more on TV about child predators, illegal aliens and "birthers" and less about politics and next to nil on international affairs. There's more focus on personal foibles and faux pas -- think President Obama's comment about Cambridge police "stupidity" or Hillary Clinton's irritated utterance in Africa about her husband -- so much so that journalists themselves are oft heard exclaiming on air, "Why are we covering this?"

We can't just blame cable. The lines between the news and entertainment divisions at the Big Three broadcasters really began to blur during the mid-'80s, when all changed hands and new corporate owners demanded a more bottom-line, ratings-conscious approach to newscasting.

News also is subject to the creeping relativism of our age in that nothing is black or white but simply the color you or your group say it is. No longer are things, in Cronkite's words, "the way it is." They're simply the way such-and-such a personality selects and dissects it, or perhaps, in a slightly more cynical view of it, how the corporation behind said personality does.

Thus, the media often become the story as we are treated to nightly skirmishes on cable, not so much between opposing forces in Afghanistan or Iraq but between, say, Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. The potshots between the commentators got so bad back in the spring, escalating occasionally to accusations of bad corporate behavior on the part of each's "parent" -- News Corp. and GE, respectively -- that top brass from the companies purportedly stepped in to have the volume lowered. (A new skirmish, however, flared up this week.)

Obstreperous antics sometimes are fun to watch, and both showmen pundits know how to entertain, but often we're left with more heat than light. Anyone who thought Obama would usher in an era of post-partisan, coolly polite discourse on the airwaves and in public assemblies hasn't been watching the town halls devoted to health care reform. If watching the news easily can become about reinforcing prejudices rather than enlarging minds, how can we be surprised?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying TV news today is categorically worse than in Cronkite's time. But it's certainly sliced and diced in different pieces, some more savory than others. I relish, for example, the greater emphasis on such public-interest sectors as health and medicine, which rarely were part of the news agenda during the '60s or '70s.

As for war coverage, the traditions of my friend are being carried on by an equally brave though small cadre of reporters. I'll just single out CNN's Michael Ware, an Aussie in an oft-sweaty T-shirt, whose trenchant reports dramatize what it's like in Iraq or Afghanistan and how shifting the sands are in that region.

He might very well not even know who Reuven Frank was, but Ware is among those whose stories convey the messy experience of war and don't devolve into pieces about himself. Some good traditions have stuck.