news through the looking glass
news through the looking glass
Faculty credits 20th year of all-news broadcasting with fundamental shifts in newsgathering
Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Twenty years ago this summer, during the Reagan-Carter race for the presidency, Cable News Network stepped up to home plate as the newcomer to the world series of television journalism.
In the rafters high above the Republican convention hall in Joe Lewis Arena, Detroit, correspondent Bernard Shaw made broadcast history in 1980 with his opening remarks -- "This is the Cable News Network sky booth, which is having its inauguration tonight, four stories high over the convention hall, not recommended for those who have a fear of heights " -- and set the stage for a new era in broadcast news.
Twenty-four-hour cable news had an instant appeal with the American public and a dramatic impact on the nightly network newscasts, CBS, NBC and ABC, when it was introduced by media mogul Ted Turner, chairman of the board and president of the Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting Systems. Intended to bring together the latest in video technology together with the first all-news format, CNN would offer the magic ingredients: an ability to cover events live, continuously, upside down and inside out. The introduction of 24-hour worldwide coverage changed the fabric of broadcast news.
"CNN changed the whole industry," said Joan Bieder, a senior lecturer of broadcast journalism in the Graduate School of Journalism. "Some of the changes were good, some bad, and many were inevitable."
The new medium, fueled by advances in recording technologies and satellite communications, was powerful in its ability to deliver news in real time, as human dramas unfolded any place in the world. It was to be the solution to diminished television news ratings, Turner proclaimed in a televised interview a month before CNN debuted.
"We intend to cover all the news all the time," he said, "and since we're going to be on for such a long period continuously -- we sign on in June -- and barring satellite problems in the future, we won't be signing off until the world ends."
The change sparked a world of new opportunities for television viewers.
"CNN helped change our viewing habits," said Paul Mason, a Berkeley professor of broadcast journalism who has gone on to a new job as an executive producer at ABC Network News. "News used to happen at 6:30 in the evening. It came on at a certain time and was served much like dinner. Now we can snack on it any time of the day. We don't have to wait for an appointment."
Powerfully told, often with raw, unedited footage, live news had the element of spontaneity and communicated at a visceral rather than purely analytical level in the early days. Jeff Greenfield, CNN senior analyst, noted during the network's 20th anniversary retrospective that unrehearsed reports on the scene, which stood out in this new era of live news, carried a lot of credibility.
A new biennial survey of the national news audience, published this year by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, reaffirmed that comment: CNN outrated the three broadcast networks as the most believable TV news source, an honor it has held for more than a decade.
Seeing is believing
Seeing was believing, especially in CNN's infancy.
No one could deny the believability of the Jan. 28, 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, for instance, thanks to CNN's live coverage.
The Challenger disaster was rated the top news story of a decade &endash; followed closely by 80 percent of the American public &endash; in a 1997 Pew News Interest Index of 500 news stories occurring between the second half of the 1980s and the second half of the 1990s.
Seconds after liftoff, at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, Challenger rolled into a high arc 10 miles above the Atlantic Ocean, moving east at close to 2,000 miles per hour on a frosty, 36-degree morning in Florida. The space plane, about the size of a DC-9 airliner, turned gently on its back and raced for the edge of space.
"Challenger, go at throttle up," Richard Covey, mission control director at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, radioed the crew of six astronauts and their guest, a school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire.
"Roger, go with throttle up," Dick Scobee, flight commander, crackled back over the transmitter.
At 58.5 seconds into Challenger's 10th flight, a small flame, cutting like a welder's torch, escaped the steel casing of the shuttle's right-hand booster rocket and flared brightly against a porcelain-blue sky. It swiftly devoured the side of the booster tank, spewing vapor from both of its hydrogen and oxygen containers, until it reached Challenger's flat belly. In a flash, less than 14 seconds after it had escaped, the shuttle blew to smithereens in one huge billowing ball of orange, blue and white flame.
After that, 40 seconds of deafening silence, then confirmation of the tragedy. "Obviously a major malfunction," announced a shaken public affairs officer over the loudspeaker. Cameras panned the faces of the horrified crowd. Pieces of Challenger's fuselage and the heavy structures of its engines and landing gear rained down on the Atlantic for an hour.
"It was the saddest thing for me to do as a journalist, to have to tell the public about the news," said correspondent Charles Bierbauer in one of many commemoratives shown during CNN's anniversary programming.
The Challenger disaster was one of those "big stories" that would play out over months, even years, of investigation. In the meantime, news directors and programming staff were becoming savvy to the boost in ratings from human tragedies of such magnitude.
The effects on Persian Gulf War coverage
Real-time reporting began to reshape news events themselves as the newsmakers began to realize that everyone was watching.
Most importantly, live broadcast news lifted the veil of secrecy in military conflicts involving U.S. troops, Greenfield said. For the first time, presidents, prime ministers, heads of state, defense department brass and the troops themselves could watch military interventions anywhere in the world, monitor enemy counterattacks by land or sea, and observe world leaders as they struggled to achieve peaceful resolutions.
The January 1991 war in the Persian Gulf, CNN's first opportunity to cover a major conflict, put viewers on the front lines of the battlefield as they witnessed antiaircraft gunfire riddling the enemy capital of Baghdad. Air raid sirens screamed in the background during the first news reports from three CNN field reporters.
"We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky," said Bernard Shaw, then a CNN correspondent stationed with a crew in a makeshift control room on the ninth floor of a downtown Baghdad hotel, in a 1991 segment aired during CNN's special anniversary programming. "All the street fights in downtown Baghdad are still on, but as you look, you see trails of flashes of light going up into the air, obviously antiaircraft fire. We're getting seeming starbursts in the black sky. We have not heard any jet planes yet."
Fellow correspondent John Holliman cut in, speaking in hurried and audibly excited tones. "(The attack) is due west of our position, and we just heard whoa, holy cow, that was a large air burst we saw. It was filling the sky."
"And I think, John, that air burst took out the telecommunications," correspondent Peter Arnett answered from another post nearby. "If you're still with us, you can hear the bombs now. They are hitting the center of this city."
" this feels like we're in the center of hell," Shaw responded.
"This was one of CNN's greatest moments," said Mason. "Saddam Hussein was able to watch his own city being bombed."
"One-hundred and seventy capitals around the world were watching in real time, every foreign minister, every president, every defense minister, all the people in those countries are watching, and also your enemy is watching," then-General Colin Powell, joint chief of staff during the Bush Administration, commented during another CNN commemorative segment.
"And then finally, because of the power of the information and the technology revelations, the troops who are actually going to do the fighting are also watching," Powell said. "It fundamentally changed the way that we managed a conflict."
The network's ability to cover wars inside enemy camps stirred controversy in the United States. The U.S. government questioned Arnett's patriotism and lit a fire over First Amendment rights. A controversial interview done by Arnett with Saddam Hussein broke new ground in the broadcast industry.
The good, the bad and the inevitable
But along with the inevitable &endash; live satellite broadcasting &endash; and its obvious benefits came the downside, Bieder pointed out. The push to get stories on the air as fast as they were unfolding also increased the likelihood that reporters would introduce more errors.
"The competition is always intense, whether it's with the other TV networks or the wire services or newspapers," said Wolf Blitzer, CNN White House correspondent, during a "Larry King Live" analysis of the network. "The important thing is, of course, not only to get (the story) first, but much more important, to make sure you get it right."
With instant news reporting at their fingertips, reporters have been tempted more so than ever to relay information before it has been checked for accuracy. "It's not that it's harder to be a journalist today, but there's a need more than ever (for reporters) to pull back and not be tempted to dump something into the atmosphere because the camera is pointed on you," Greenfield said. "It's one of the greatest temptations that journalists in this era have to resist."
The fierce competition and the insatiable demand for "big stories" has had an effect on the news agenda of all the major networks, cable stations and news services, Berkeley's Bieder said. "That demand for viewers hypes the news, directs its coverage and mandates how large media organizations cover the news. It's a viewer's market, especially with the rise of Internet news, and there's too much competition for CNN to ignore what viewers want."
"I would agree that as much as the information we're providing is out there, it's only just beginning, because once you marry TV news with the PC, with the Internet, there's going to be just an explosion of news out there," Blitzer pointed out in one of the last anniversary segments. "With shows like this, there's a lot of information you can get that doesn't appear on the broadcast. Right now, there are three major 24-hour cable news networks."
Live video streaming, a new technique for feeding television broadcasts directly to the Internet, is uniting the two industries and strengthening online news. The technique eliminates satellite costs and provides news organizations with Web sites for additional coverage of multi-faceted stories.
In addition to the three major network Internet news services, CBS, NBC and ABC, there are three strong contenders, CNN, Warner and Fox, and a flurry of lesser known rivals competing for the lion's share of viewers. Technological advances such as the rapid growth of high-speed cable and telephone connections to the Internet, known as DSL, are speeding their growth.
As these online news services continue to climb in popularity among key segments of the U.S. population -- most notably well-educated professionals who rely on information to stay on top of their jobs -- more and more journalists are making the transition to more profitable and rewarding careers in new media.
"It used to be that you could never get people to go from radio to television in the early days," Bieder said. "Now you see the news veterans jumping into the dot-coms to create news programming for the Internet."