He Was There

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That year you wrote something I’m sure you’ve had thrown back at you a lot because it’s a prophecy of almost uncanny accuracy: “Television will force a middle ground between personality and politics. The politician who can command the highest Hooper ratine is likely to achieve office and the power that goes with it. And once in office, he stands the best chance of being able to keep the public informed.” Well, that came true with a vengeance, didn’t it?

Yes, it sure did. Broadcast news followed an almost inevitable course. Every step of the way could have been predicted, except perhaps the miniaturization of equipment, and then the satellite and the tape. Of course, when I started everything was on film. It had to be developed, printed, and so forth. With tape we skipped all those steps, and that gave it an immediacy that we hadn’t achieved before. When we found that we could transmit by microwave relay, and then later by satellite, that also brought a facility to the medium that most of us hadn’t expected. So for a long time words dominated the medium, and while that perhaps was unsatisfactory for a visual medium, it did provide greater concentration on the stories themselves, rather than on the presentation of the stories.

Presentation became dominant as the capabilities increased, to the degree that in a lot of cases I felt the importance of the stories was lost. We went for the stories that could be illustrated and left alone the ones that required careful examination through text. This distorted the whole value of television news, to my mind. And distorts it to this day. I’m afraid—and I said this early on—that those who expected to be fully informed by television expected what could not be, and the fact that television was being accepted as the principal news source by a greater and greater percentage of our population was creating considerable difficulties for the democracy. An uninformed democracy is dangerous. Thomas Jefferson told us that the country that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never can and never will be. We are perpetuating ignorance by making television news so easily assimilated that people do not go to print any longer. This is dangerous.

“History is the drama, for heaven’s sake, of human existence. . . . And it’s never taught this way.”
 

And you feel this is where we stand today?

Yes, I do. I am disappointed. I said from the beginning that there was no way in a half-hour to include everything that needed to be said that day. The number of words spoken on a half-hour news broadcast by all those who participated in it equaled approximately two-thirds of a standard newspaper page. Well, you just can’t tell people all they need to know in that amount of time. We really must go to print to get all of that. I also predicted that the day would come when news would garner just as good a rating as entertainment, because entertainment would drop in the ratings. There would be a point where it would make more economic sense to do news in prime time than to do entertainment. I said that in a speech ten years ago. Well, it’s happened, and now we’ve got this profusion of magazine programs. I thought that with those we would finally get in-depth presentation of matters of great importance to the democracy. Unfortunately, we see that in most cases they go tabloid.

There were times when, in reporting history, you had an influence on it. Perhaps the most famous was in 1968, when you came from covering the war in Vietnam and the aftermath of the Tet offensive. Everyone remembers your broadcast after that. Had you gone into the trip skeptical?

Yes, to a degree. I went into the trip planning probably on doing an editorial when I came back, but not necessarily knowing what we were going to say. I had thought from the beginning that our involvement was proper. I thought giving military advice to the South Vietnamese, in an attempt to establish a democracy there, was proper. As it became our war, I got more and more concerned about it. The pacification of the villages—what the devil?—if they’re supposedly fertile for democracy, then why do we need to pacify them? And we kept building these forces because the Vietnamese army couldn’t get itself organized adequately. All of this began to prey on me as it did on a lot of other Americans, of course. But I’d been out there, and I had been pretty well convinced by the military that we were winning this battle. And now, suddenly, after looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, to have this success of the Tet offensive. I talked to Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, about it, and I said, “You know, this country is confused, we’re all confused. How about my going out, having a look, and doing a first-person story? Just what does it look like to somebody who’s shared this growing disillusionment over these years? What does it look like on the ground?” And that’s what we did. And that led to the report I did.

Did you anticipate the effect it would have when you made it?