It has occurred to me, lately, that I – who as a child sat on the living room floor before a black-and-white television eagerly awaiting the afternoon appearance of Nancy Dickerson and the nightly pronouncements of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley – had not been watching any broadcast news programs for many years. I have been away from televised news – except for breaking stories - at least since Dan Rather touted his new joint-anchorage with Connie Chung by gulping to assure President and Mrs. Clinton that "if we are half as great as you two, we'll take it and walk away winners." Although I was, on the evening of that broadcast, a liberal Democrat, I recall an urge at that moment to reach down my own gullet and heave up both my lungs, and I never looked back.
To be fair to Rather (who was another early hero) his obsequious buffoonery was not the sole reason for my desertion from the nightly news. As a mother with young children, in a household which purposely did not keep a television near the kitchen, the show's scheduling interfered with supper or baths or – later – various practices and rehearsals. And compared to the upstart 24-hour cable news offerings, the idea of "appointment" news-watching seemed stale and quaintly old-fashioned, like rocking chairs on the front porch – nice to have around, but somehow there was simply no time to use them.
By the time my kids were old enough that I could resume the voracious consumption of news and news-by-products, my politics had changed, my focus had changed. I flipped through network and cable news shows and was turned off by all of it – by Dan Rather's uncertain grin, and the dusty-looking unknowns at CNN, and the bubble-lipped mud-wrestling babes at FOX. Televised news seemed either moribund or yappy or designed for the attention span-impaired, so I clicked off the television and clicked on the Internet. In short order, I there began not simply to consume news, but to roll around in it like a capitalist wallowing in a pile of hundred dollar bills, and I didn't give televised news another thought.
So, when Public Eye invited me to contribute a guest post on their programming, I thought it might be wise to spend some time with the watery smile of Bob Schieffer and the CBS Evening News. A blog-snob, I expected it to be painful. I was wrong.
The show is hobbled by the constraints of time – when you only have 22 minutes to skim the big stories every report is as penetrating as a prop-knife, and the focus in necessarily victim-and-villain heavy with assurances that tomorrow will be another grim day. Within those constraints I rather liked the way Bob Schieffer would segue from story-to-story by growling "keep on it!" at whoever was making their report. He comes off like a curmudgeonly old uncle who needs to keep those young whippersnappers on their toes.
As a conservative who has supported the ongoing efforts of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was happy to see the nightly "Fallen Heroes" segment of the broadcast, which each night moves into a commercial with highlights on the life and loves of one of our fallen soldiers – it is a bittersweet thirty seconds. One is happy to see the respectful short profile, but saddened by the loss of such vibrant young life. After watching for several nights, I found myself agitated, however and feeling just a bit manipulated. Losses in war are always tragic, but I wondered why the program couldn't use another commercial break (there are plenty of them) to show us a corresponding 30 second highlight of a productive soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, mouthing "Hi Mom," and exhibiting his pride in his unit's accomplishments. Such a segment might go a long way toward answering charges of slanted reportage, and it might assuage the grumblings of many troops who complain that media coverage of their efforts is unrelentingly and needlessly negative.
"The Home Front" is currently another nightly segment of the broadcast which – for the next two weeks – will feature Sharyn Alfonsi traveling across the country, from South Carolina to California, exploring American thoughts and feelings on the war effort. Her treck began at the Marine Boot Camp at Parris Island, where Alfonsi asked young recruits why they had enlisted and what they expected to find beyond their basic training; her report was a showcase of youth and optimism. Alfonsi was respectfully impressed with the commitment she saw, and she admiringly professed that the grueling marine training displayed "a lot of heart" on the part of the recruits.
Alfonsi's second report, however, brought us to Fort Benning, Georgia, and we were shown the glum and anxious children whose "dads and even some moms" were serving overseas. While it is certainly necessary to be aware that the children of soldiers face a peculiar sort of suffering, the piece was grim. The focus was on kids whose parents were overdue, whose orders had been changed, and the suggestion seemed to be that the children were becoming jaded and giving up on ever seeing their mothers or fathers again. Once more, I felt a little manipulated. My heart ached for children, but I couldn't help thinking, "wait a second – some of these kid's parents must have come home, right? Do we get to see them? Do we get to see the moms and other family members who are living with these children and working hard to help them cope with missing a beloved parent? Is there not a single child in Fort Benning who feels pride in what his or her parent is doing?" The whole piece had a distinct patina of tragedy, abandonment and hopelessness. The children were shown only in their school – institutional – environment, which gave the impression that there were no warm homes, no family meals, no kisses and tucked-in-beds in their lives. When the piece covered the children saying goodbye to a gym teacher who was being deployed, the abandonment theme was complete. "Even the teacher…" was leaving these kids. Did I say the piece was grim? Beyond grim, it was two minutes of unrelieved hopelessness. That children miss their parents at war, and live with some anxiety for their safe return, is very sad, indeed, and completely newsworthy, but to portray them as bleak, untethered little balls of misery, having no resources, seemed tremendously unfair to their parents both here and away, and somewhat exploitative.
I found my anger on behalf of those children rekindled the next night when Alfonsi, now in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on 12 anti-war protesters – some of them veterans – demonstrating on a corner. Recalling that only the day before Sharyn Alfonsi had interviewed Ft. Benning children who clearly stated they found such protests troubling, I thought it was a bit raw. That a dozen people, some veterans - including one enlistment recruiter - situated in the deeply "pro-war" South are against the war effort could be newsworthy. But this report focused on recruiter guilt, the churlishness of war supporters ("have you been spit on?") and the patriotic pedigree of protesting to "bring the troops home," and never asked a protester what he or she thought might be the immediate result of such a pull-out.
Having first profiled young recruits headed to war, and then the children who await the return of their parents, this third piece in the series had me wondering if Alfonsi planned to spend the next two weeks attempting to prove to Monday's heart-filled recruits that their choice to serve was causing nothing but pain and division, and that nothing positive could come of their actions.
That might be unfair to Alfonsi, and I am not trying to be. As I said earlier, the constraints of time preclude in-depth reports. But it is as easy to select subjects who tug the heart and dispatch woe as it is to find a cheerful soldier and a waving flag. Too much of either image will descend into rank propaganda, which stops telling the whole story. In an era of deep division, responsible news organizations that still have the public trust might want to aim for the sort of balance which airs both sides and remains detached.
Having been away from televised news for so very long, I find I will have to make time to check in again and see which way tonight's report goes. Hopefully, I will not need to quell a gag reflex and turn off the TV; I think that perhaps I will not. Little in the CBS Evening news seems distressingly obsequious, these days. But should I find it all rough going, well…there's always the Internet.