It is the NEWS or is it the WEATHER.
I was half listening to my radio floating background sounds, not paying attention to words but then the rhythm struck me. It sounded like a weather report. The stories weren’t weather reports. They were Drones and Wars, Google, Iran, Terrorists and Obamacare and NSA, Republicans and Democrats, Food Stamps and Congress and Legal Pot, Homeland Security and a shooting and protest and law suits won and lost and the christening of new Baby George in London.
I began writing news for CBS-TV in New York around 1980.
1981, a year of great change. Walter Cronkite retired because he reached 65, CBS deadline for careers. Dan Rather replaced him. Just 18 years earlier, November 1963, shockingly informal in shirtsleeves Cronkite went on camera to confirm John F. Kennedy’s death…following wildly stunning phone calls from a young, ambitious Texan reporter describing the assassination and aftermath. That reporter was Dan Rather in Dallas. I heard the news from strangers with British accents, I was in art school in London.
Bill Paley started and owned CBS, growing from radio to television, ran a tight ship, was a populist, loved broadcasting. Edward R. Murrow had been Paley’s primo force in news — growing in stature through WWII and beyond, and he cost CBS some sponsors while Murrow assaulted McCarthy. Paley steered clear of the newsroom, he thought news should be untouched by management. The reporters agreed. News never earned money, the station carried it at a loss. News broadcasts ran about 5 minutes, to 15 minutes to, finally, half an hour. The rest of a 12 hour station’s schedule was entertainment…Milton Berle and Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, variety shows, drama, mysteries, old movies. TV was an amazing invention but nobody knew how to fill all those hours. Still don’t.
Now this may surprise some reading what I’m writing out, but right into the 1980’s, broadcast news hardly counted a hill of beans. It could even be detrimental to careers, especially politicians. Newspapers ruled and ridiculed TV. There were 9 different newspapers on the street — and 2 times a day! — when I moved to NYC in the 1960’s. A handful of reporters, mostly sharp, industrious, sharing a love of story-telling and the English language, competitive and a bit seedy and not pretty. Not a single Miss America wanted to go into journalism and change the world.
Dan Rather was a photogenic force to be reckoned with when he landed at the Broadcast Center of the CBS New York City flagship. Dan wanted an hour on camera. It was a half hour show at 6 and 11 pm when he took Cronkite’s chair. Dan did some pressing; promised CBS’s boosted bottom line with big advertisers. He got his hour. But, surprising everybody, it took work to convince the public to hang in a full hour. And desperate ingenuity to fill the hour. Come on, it’s only the news. They have actually never succeeded.
News broadcasts broadened content. Revenues ginned up accordingly. The money provided bigger offices and new sets, more good-looking talent, some theft of real reporters from newspapers, and a continued effort to invent what the hell to do with all those minutes. Working (counter to change for the better) was an inside emergence — in equal measure — of internal control over what was considered appropriate to report to the American public. With growing arrogance they censored themselves out of interesting, informative, attention grabbing stories. But they still had a full hour with the newsroom camera turned on.
The weather used to not be covered. Nobody ever mentioned the weather. Then it appeared for one minute, for 60 seconds. A former beauty queen or retired semi-famous athlete sat at a desk and announced the temperature of the moment, prediction for the new dawn, the next midday, and night, from a handful of papers in front of them. Added guesses on rainfall. When a storm if en route might hit. Pleasant smile. Until some bright bulb decided to expand the weather reports — to fill up time they couldn’t find the news for.
That changed everything, though I’m pretty sure no one anticipated it would or could. Costly weather sets and screens, shapely weathergirls in great wardrobes walking in front of animated maps pointed to emerging disasters. And a most peculiar change in tone: Weather-voice hysteria. OH MY GOD IT’S GOING TO RAIN! Wind chill factor got invented. There was nothing lacking in fabuloso atmospheric to report and video with it. Where it was hottest and coldest and windiest and dryest and the farenheit and inches involved. Weather went from no mention on TV broadcasts, to one minute, to ten minutes. And became fifteen minutes…1/4 of the on-air television news. And the pretty-faced weathergirls competed newly with life-worn men in rumpled suits, who were Meteorologists. Now frequently both do the job.
Well, back to my original observation. The news now sounds (and looks) like the weather report. In the identical shrill hysteria announcing (in minutiae) news there is no reason to cover in the first place, by inch and fahrenheit, bent to some political motive, heavy on graphics. Stocks down! Murder up! Hollywood says! Soldiers die! Bomb! Terrorist! Train crash! Plane down! Bus Strike! Baby found! Washington DC Lost! Discussions! Courts! Economy!
Sky Is Falling. Now on iPhone and YouTube. Full circle switcheroo and weather indeed BECOMES the news with global warming enthusiasts, the weather’s a full day broadcast. Who’d a thunk it. We all just wanted some straight info. We know if rain’s coming by looking out the window and checking Uncle Fred’s knees. Look what we’re putting up with.