Television News … A Critique
VTR Date: September 4, 1991
Guest: Frank, Reuven
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Reuven Frank
Title: “Television News…A Critique”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And my guest today is television journalist Reuven Frank, twice President of NBC News and author now of Simon & Schuster’s Out of Thin Air…perhaps meant to be something of a funeral oration, given its somewhat glum subtitle” “The Brief Wonderful World of Network News”.
Now one can’t tell if Mr. Frank really means to play Pericles in this intriguing account of television network news. As David Brinkley writes, however, it surely “describes the development of a journalism form that sprang naked from the sky, with no history, no customs, no style book, no past”.
Now, I lived for some time on the very periphery of Reuven Frank’s world, for he was already a major presence at NBC News 35 years ago when I began THE OPEN MIND at the network’s New York flagship station, known as WRCA-TV.
So that my perspective is somewhat different on a number of historic broadcasting figures whom he sketches: insiders like Pat Weaver and Bill McAndrew…even an outsider like Jack Gould…of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow, whose “iconography”, as Mr. Frank refers to it, seems to disturb my guess, and about whom he quotes that NBC newsroom ditty: “No one’s brow furrows like Edward R. Murrow’s”.
But this merely means there are all the more questions to raise with Mr. Frank, assumptions to challenge…sometimes differences to establish…as with my guest’s unwillingness to go all the way during his second time around as President of NBC News, when Variety quoted an NBC affiliate’s station manager: “I think Reuven Frank should be fired. He’s a man of the 1950s”. Mr. Frank wryly notes: “This was slander. I was at worst a man of the sixties”.
Well, to be sure, my guest redeems himself when he considers for his headstone what another NBC affiliate told Broadcasting magazine: “Frank is from the old school, and as such is too preoccupied with covering the news in a substantive manner”.
But, let’s note, too, that the only picture I can show you today is of Reuven Frank himself…while he seems to think that the essence of this medium must be more visually compelling.
And, of course, it’s quite clear that Mr. Frank doesn’t have all that much use for gentler, kinder interviewers like THE OPEN MIND’s. For in his 32 page Guide to Television News People (referred to – not always reverently, to be sure – as “The Bible”), my guest notes: “It is natural and in many ways commendable that most of us recoil at being personally unpleasant to our fellow man…This I part of good manners. But an interviewer is not an individual human in conversation…an interview which is not more than a conversation is less then an interview”.
So, on with our conversation! Mr. Frank, I, I really wondered about the subtitle, “The Brief, Wonderful Life of Network news”. Is that an epitaph?
Frank: It’s an epitaph for an institution which has undergone so much change that you can say that there’s a new one. There was for a while, for a matter of several decades, a monopoly on television news on the part of the three networks, for a while two and a half networks, if you remember…and a monopoly is a, it’s a dirty word in American, in American context, probably for a good reason. But I would…I would venture that during that monopoly the American public was better informed than any public anywhere…ever. And that fell apart through the forces of history, not through any malign intent of individuals, although there were individuals that…there always are the carrion…but history moved on. It’s no longer possible. You can get news from so many places. A producer coming in to work in the morning for one of the evening programs of the three networks, before he knows what the news is, knows that when his program goes on the air at 6:30 or 7:00 everyone who sees it will know most of the news, and at least half of them will have seen those pictures. And when I think of what I would do, all I can say is, just as I got in at the right time, I got out at the right time.
Heffner: Well, now, wait a minute…”what you would do”, you mean what you would do given the fact that by 7 o’clock or 6:30 most people know most of the news?
Heffner: What would you do?
Frank: Well, I’m not sure I would do anything too differently from what you see now. There’s a lot of material that is called news by an extension, by courtesy, a lot of self-help news. I’m, I’m amused that the, the publication date of The New England Journal of Medicine, has suddenly become a major news event. Not only in television, by the way, in all the news media. We have become a…we no longer are interested in what’s happening abroad, unless it’s revolution or war. We are, I think as a nation, so intent on the condition of our own stomachs, that whenever somebody comes out and says that this nostrum will let you live 2 more years, it’s a major story. And, and all this…the word “soft” has been used, but it’s, it’s inadequate, it’s not precise and it’s not really what’s wrong. The state of the world is not examined. I mean, you know, news is essentially what is true today that was not true yesterday. That’s all it is. It’s not conditions, it’s events. And we don’t pay attention to events. So that when major events take place we’re surprised. But what do you do if you’re the producer? And all…what is news, what is accepted as news is already known. What are you going to tell these people? They say they do it better. They don’t really. You can now have news at all times. They…Bob Kitner tried so hard, and succeeded in establishing NBC News, NBC has the place you turned to if heard vaguely something had gone on. That’s now irrelevant. You now turn to CNN.
Heffner: But wait a minute…let me, let me question you about that. You say “you turn to CNN” but you turn to CNN to find out about what went on, or that something went on?
Frank: I think, well, their own figures who that they have a steady, tiny continuing audience, but when things suddenly explode…the Gulf War…the coup in the Soviet Union and the aftermath, then their ratings go up, and, and you see their figures…I’ve talked to them about it. And it’s, you know, it goes along like that…like kind of a hum, and then all of a sudden there’s this peak, and then when the peak is over they’re frustrated. They can’t retain it.
Heffner: Alright, so you’re saying the “Golden Age” to use that much…
Frank: No, no, but it’s also institutional. Things have changed. And that’s why, and, and it was a wonderful time…and it was a Golden Age for me.
Heffner: It was a Golden Age because the American public, the American people were not at 7 o’clock as well informed as they are now? Is that what you’re saying?
Frank: Ahh… (laughter)
Heffner: And you could inform them?
Frank: No. It was a Golden Age for network news because it had a function. Its function I suppose exists, but it’s been seriously eroded.
Heffner: Well, now you’re the one who believes that network news, television network news has to do with pictures, right?
Frank: I believe…no, no, that’s not what I believe. What I believe is that what is unique to television is the ability to show things happening. It does it very well, and no other medium can do it. That does not, that does not relieve it of the responsibility to do a lot of other things, if you say your mandate is news. But there’s not enough attention to that. It’s too easy not to. What, what is involved in procuring and assembling and editing and presenting pictures tends to be the most expensive part of television. And that’s one reason that these days it is shunted aside. But even before that…as people whose whole attitude was the putting together of words, go more and more frustrated at having to subordinate the words to what the pictures were, they took over and they became the managers, some of them, enough of them.
Heffner: You know, it’s funny, there are those who say just the opposite, that the trouble with television, or the trouble with…let’s limit it to television news…is that we are so much involved in pictures, pictures, pictures, that we pay less attention tot the content of the words. You reject that?
Frank: Oh, yeah. First of all, it’s not true. If your were to take the transcript of any 22 minute, that is half-hour program, you’d find as much news in there as there is in a half-hour radio program. And so, that didn’t make any sense. Secondly, there is a tendency to go, particularly on the part of local news, to go for sensational pictures. They will always make it. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about those pictures that…I’m not sure what I’m talking about…this is not my field, but it’s…it has seemed to me over the years that the visual reaches a different part of the mind. And that is being left unexercised…
Heffner: You mean…
Frank: …it just lies fallow.
Heffner: …and you felt that back when you were…
Frank: Oh, yeah…
Heffner: …first President of NBC News…
Frank: …even before, when I was writing for John Swayze.
Heffner: Now, look, I…what I want to do is pick you up on something you said before because it’s, it’s intriguing in terms of the usual criticisms that are offered, and that is, you seem to be saying that we are better informed today than we were back in those years. Oh, did I misunderstand you?
Frank: No, I said that at the time of the network monopoly…
Frank: …the audience…the American public was better informed than it’s…before or since.
Heffner: Alright, now can we reverse that? Is it reversible, or are you saying, “Look, history has marched on. There’s been such dispersion, or dispersal of, of inputs, news inputs that it doesn’t make much sense. We don’t have the command over what the Americans know that we once did”.
Frank: No, I don’t think it’s that. I think…there are several reasons why…what you refer to…not I…as the Golden Age…was golden. One is…
Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…do you think it was the Golden Age?
Frank: All I’ve said was that it was for me. Okay? (Laughter)
Heffner: Alright, fair enough.
Frank: One is, television news…television network news in the United States coincided with the post World War II period. World War II saw…how many…five, ten million young Americans in strange places and their families became used to strange places, so that foreign news…what was happening in the world, what Kennedy said meant peace or war…remember that…was common in the United States, in the average home. So that a general election in Italy would lead not only a television program, but a newspaper in the hinterland,…not the elite papers, not The Times and Washington Post alone. That’s a very special time and television grew up with it and interacted with it, kept it going. I believe television brought Africa to the attention of the United States by showing what happened in places like Ghana and the colonies, Rhodesia…all the fighting in the Congo, but even before the fighting, when Pierce Anderton came back…he had on his own gone for three weeks, and he came back and he said, “You know the Belgians were the colonial masters of the Congo. Now they’re…have allowed only one high school…native high school graduate in that country. That place is going to blow apart”. And I said, “Well, you’re, you’re always an alarmist”…and in six months it blew apart. Now, television brought America that. Would it have come anyway? Yes. Not as fast, not to the same degree and not to as many people. That kind of news stopped being the sole property of any self-defined elite. Television did that. Now there is no interest. Why not, I don’t know, but I can, I can postulate that young people coming out of school and not knowing where Montana is…somebody said to me he heard a check-out girl at a supermarket ask another one “Do you know where Saigon is?” and she said “Yes, it’s in Tokyo”. Well, they’re not going to be interested in foreign news…”What’s that?”…foreign news…foreign countries are just places where we throw American money instead of spending it here…that’s all…and it’s become…you know, we’ve turned in on ourselves, and as I say we’re very big on medical news.
Heffner: Could network news, television news have prevented that from happening, prevented that…
Frank: No, I…
Heffner: …turning in from happening?
Frank: I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s not my field. I think…to me, to me…it just…you know, I watch it. That’s what people in my business do.
Heffner: Oh, come on. You made it for long…in, in Out of Thin Air there’s story after story of the programs that you created. For instance, I wanted to ask you about the…in the documentary field…this penchant these days for the docu-drama…
Heffner: …for “faction”, the mix of fact and fiction…the mixing of the entertainment divisions and the news divisions of networks, stations…what’s your feeling about those things…how do, how do you respond to them as you see them going on, growing apace?
Frank: Well, obviously I’m a reactionary and hard-shelled and all those things. I’ve always been against…not against docu-drama, Shakespeare wrote docu-drama…I’ve been against news divisions doing docu-drama because people who are expert in news have no training in choosing actors, in directing them…docu-drama is not a “docu”, it’s a drama.
Heffner: And the entertainment people who are expert…
Frank: They know how…yeah…now…where, where, where I am bothered and this is really the only place, is where you are fooling the public, where you are trying to leave a false impression.
Heffner: But doesn’t docu-drama by definition fool the public?
Heffner: Using real names, using real events, but pushing them into…
Frank: Look, Henry V never said that…at Agincourt and we quote it as if he did. And, you know, what’s wrong with it, it was reasonably good history, it was Shakespeare toadying to the Tudors, but…you know, as I say, what’s the difference between a historical novel (and we accept them and we have always accepted them. They’re as old as the novel), or historical plays which go back to the Greeks? What’s the difference between that and docu-drama?
Frank: No…also, they’re so lousy, but that’s something else. But…influence, but that’s what I’m saying…if you’re careful about the impression you leave I think that is the one thing that is really under-emphasized. It’s not these rules about fairness, and rules about accuracy…you know what impression you leave if you’re a professional and if you are willing to relieve a false impression and cling to the technicalities of the rule, you’re being a lawyer, not a journalist.
Heffner: Yeah, well Mr. Frank, frankly the question of being willing to be straight, to be willing to be honest and not to fool…interpretations of the past, interpretations of history lead to the presentation of docu-drama today…faction again that is so powerful, so impactful in terms of the sense of reality and the sense that “you are there” to use an old program title. Don’t they…are you satisfied with the notion, if you’re convinced yourself, that you have done nothing dishonest, that you have, you have, you have described a historical situation, as you believe it was. Is that sufficient?
Heffner: …because your viewer believes that he or she has really seen history.
Frank: Okay, well now…it’s going to get worse. When…
Heffner: What do you mean?
Frank: When HDTV comes by, they are going to be able to create things with such realism that even experts are not going to be able to tell the real from the, from the created.
Heffner: And that will delight your heart?
Frank: No. No, no. I personally don’t watch these things. But I don’t see that they’re that bad…I don’t see that they have that kind of power. You’d have to be specific to me and say, “This thing misled people” or, or “sent them into the streets with, with cudgels”, or something. All, all that…I am much more concerned with non-fiction that pretends to be news because you know, all these syndicated programs, these tabloid programs that go on and on and on and on, and who consciously, proudly, imitate the supermarket tabloids…I’ve told you my favorite supermarket tabloid headline…”Man with Wooden Leg Eaten Alive by Termites”. Now that’s worth three minutes in anybody’s news show. (Laughter)
Heffner: It’s the fact of the headline, or the people who wrote it, or the people who published it?
Frank: “Man with the Wooden Leg”…I’d like to see it. (Laughter)
Heffner: Because you could see it.
Heffner: That’s, that’s what you mean. You…you’re sounding very benign these days, which is not the reputation you have…and, indeed, Out of Thin Air has a lot of crustiness to it.
Frank: You know, I am not crusty in general…I’m crusty in specific. I speak about somebody I’ll tell you I hate him. (Laughter)
Heffner: Well, that’s…come through a bit in Out of Thin Air…
Frank: Yeah, but generally, no, you bring up docu-drama…it’s not my business. It belongs in the entertainment department. If they leave me alone, I leave them alone. I’ve always…I, I…one of my bigger mistakes was to assume that, that people had the interests of the entire organization at hear, and nobody would stab you in the back. Experience teaches otherwise. But I always left them to theirs. My argument used to be with people within the news division who were interested in docu-drama and I said, “No, we don’t do that”. What they do I really don’t care much.
Heffner: Tell me…the question you raised of…in Out of Thin Air about…you told a story of Lyndon Johnson’s speech to the National Association of Broadcasters…
Heffner: …the day after he withdrew from the Presidential…
Heffner: …race and you commented on his statement to broadcasters…”You have a responsibility. Think of the power, the impact you have”. Were you totally unsympathetic with his, his notion that in the face of a hostile electronic press, even a President could not conduct a good war? And he referred back to the Second World War, and he said, “How well could we have maintained our spirit, our willingness to fight if television had been there and night after night after night had presented the figures…the faces of horror, and of defeat?” No sympathy for Johnson’s point there?
Frank: Well, the point about television being powerful, television having power, terms he uses, I don’t know, half a dozen times…
Frank: …has always bothered me for this reason: Power must be exercised. Power and potential may have the same Latin root, but they are two different words, and unless you can tell me that I or someone working for me intentionally used that power, I say that we are doing what we are supposed to do…is to get as much information, as much accurate information as we can, put it out as fast as we can, if it is of any interest in our judgment to the public.
Heffner: Yes, that’s an answer to the larger statement that Johnson makes, but it doesn’t react to his sense of the degree to which television had been a functioning entity in our society…how do you…
Frank: This goes, this goes back to some of the other things you were saying, Dick. The most recent, most recently evolved medium is the most powerful. Were it not, it would not have evolved. Had there been no television, he would have been screaming at radio, or news magazines, which used to be the villains, or comic books which used to mislead our young, you know. So, sure it was television because television was “it”, is “it”. I don’t know what the next medium will be…my imagination doesn’t stretch that far, but the minute it comes by, television will be a shadow.
Heffner: Well, as you said, “high definition”.
Heffner: Television…we’ll have “smellevision” and everything else to move us along. But you still maintain that good newsman position, television newsman’s position that in sense “nobody in here but us chickens”…
Heffner: …we’re just doing what we should be doing.
Frank: Yes, because the alternative is so frightening. Because the alternative is to judge within your limitations, which are many, to judge the effect of a given item of news, of a, of a coverage of a war, or whatever, and when you get to that it is a very short step to engineering response. And I don’t think that is congruent with our society. I mean all…Joseph Goebbels did it. We don’t do it.
Heffner: Do you think we don’t do it with impunity? Do you think we have not suffered from the fact that we refuse to relate what we do to the intention of manipulating public opinion?
Heffner: That wasn’t your intention.
Heffner: But certainly when Frank McGee went to Vietnam, the impact was enormous.
Frank: Yeah. I think…I think the alternative is worse. I think, I think conscious manipulation is about the worst thing that any journalist can be accused of.
Heffner: Yeah, but, Reuven, what I’m…I think you’re right, but you’re not dealing…you, you say “listen…to every point that’s made about the power…” and you catch me on the frequent use of the word, you say, “I don’t want to talk about that because talking about that leads to manipulation and manipulation is much worse”. And all I’m asking about is the accuracy of Lyndon Johnson’s description of what the media…
Frank: Yeah, but you see, what he said, he went back to World War II, what he said was the presence of television, not anything we did…the presence of television has changed society. There’s nothing I can do about it unless you prove I invented it.
Heffner: And you wouldn’t admit to that…
Frank: I wouldn’t admit to that in a million years…you could, you could make me agree that society might be better off had it not been invented. As a matter of fact, most really serious criticism I’ve, I, I received. Serious criticism that you had to take carefully and consider over almost forty years…boiled down to some form of “if television were not invented things would be better”. And I agree with that, but it gets you nowhere to agree with that… there’s no way to un-invent television. It is now…well, you have to accept that the world is changed because television exists. Look at…I’ll give you the best example…Tiananmen Square…those cameras were not there to record the democracy movement. Those cameras were there for a silly little even that they were actually advised against…Gorbachev was the first Russian…Soviet leader to visit Communist china, as we used to call it, in something like 15 years. Because the cameras were there, the democracy came to the cameras…just as it did in…just as the Vietnam War protesters came to the cameras in ’68. The cameras were in Chicago in ‘68 to cover the Convention. They came to the cameras. There’s nothing you can do about that. It is a fact.
Heffner: You know something else I can’t do anything about…there’s a guy over there who’s go this sign “Cut”. Thank you very much Reuven Frank for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.