Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Golden Age of Television News

OldertelevisionSearching the Internet often provides serendipitous experiences.  Like many who spend hours in front of a computer screen, my quick search on, say, the 1927 New York Yankees might eventually lead to something on the Incas.  I suppose it is an individual’s stream-of-consciousness melding with the vast amounts of available information.

I had that experience this morning when I wound up with a biographical sketch of the late news anchor and correspondent Howard K. Smith.  And, as these things sometimes happen, it turns out today is the anniversary of his death; he died in 2002 at the age of 87.

This started me thinking about the golden age of television news, the 1960s, when the three networks had seemingly larger-than-life anchors with impressive reportorial skills. There was Smith at ABC, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC, and Walter Cronkite at CBS.

I was a high-school and college student in the 1960s and an avid watcher of the evening news.  My father used to say that you could see history in the making on television, and I agreed.  The big events of that decade are indelibly etched in my mind—politics, civil rights, assassinations, space flights, Vietnam and many other issues—as a result of these broadcasts.

Smith was my favorite.  I suppose that I was attracted to his calm and urbane manner, by which he provided both news and commentary.  The Louisianan was among Edward R. Murrow’s “boys” from World War II, and he exuded experience.  And as a Rhodes Scholar, he reflected erudition.  He also was the moderator of the famous first Kennedy-Nixon debate in1960. 

Smith’s rivals were similarly impressive.  The Huntley-Brinkley Report was a pioneer—it began in 1956 and had the two anchors, the senior Huntley in New York and the younger Brinkley in Washington, D.C.  Brinkley went on to even greater fame with This Week with David Brinkley from 1981 to 1996. 

These two became famous for their signature ending:  “Good night, Chet. Good night, David. And good night, for NBC News.”  During his last closing in mid-July 1970, Huntley said, “Be patient and have courage because there will be better and happier news, if we work at it.”

The other top news anchor was CBS’s legendary Walter Cronkite, also a World War II correspondent and a protégé of Murrow’s.  Later in his long broadcasting career, Cronkite became such an avuncular figure that he was sometimes called “Uncle Walter.”  Among my remembrances of him were was his breaking the news of President Kennedy’s death in 1963, his voice cracking while wiping away a tear; and his riveting coverage of the Vietnam War.

The CBS Evening News began with a visual list of the correspondents who would be reporting from various cities, including places such as Saigon.  It ended by Cronkite saying, with his unique vocal cadence, “And that’s the way it is, [Monday, November 25, 1963].”

Smith, Huntley and Brinkley, and Cronkite—all trusted names.  In a non-computer world, they were our eyes and ears on the world.  Today, although we learn so much more on our own through the Internet, I miss their professionalism and, perhaps, a simpler time.

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