May 23, 2014

1958. The Advent of Television News

The Electronic Reporter
Bill Downs in Washington

From Quill Magazine, December 1958:
Some twenty years ago, a newspaper reporter would not knowingly admit that there was any such thing as a radio newsman. And even those of us who left newspapers and press associations to take up this exciting new medium were scorned by our colleagues as ranking somewhere between peddlers of snake oil and fallen chorus boys.

Ed Murrow, Hans Kaltenborn, Ray Swing, Bill Shirer and others brought responsibility and respectability to radio journalism—along with the realization among the Gutenberg boys that the radio reporter could broadcast to more people in a two-minute morning world roundup of the news than most of them would write for the rest of their lives.

The television news reporter has had a similar but shorter journalistic purgatory to endure. Much of it was his own fault as he learned to use and adapt the sound camera to the news conference or the fast-breaking story. Much of the deserved criticism of early TV reporting was the fault of employers. Some thought handing an announcer a microphone to stick in front of a victim's face and asking an inane or meaningless question automatically made that reader-of-commercials a reporter.

Edited by the director of CBS News, John Day, the book "Television News Reporting" (McGraw-Hill) explains the collective experience of what every TV news show actually is—a collective effort by an increasingly expert group of people pioneering together among the cathode rays and decibels of a marvelous and sometimes frightening medium of immediate communication.

The mere organization of the scores of people whose efforts go into a single 15-minute report of, say, Dogulas Edwards and the News might involve an Egyptian delivery boy rushing to get some Nasser film on an airliner to New York...a cameraman like Cyril Bliss arguing with Polish police to prevent his film from being confiscated. CBS News Correspondent David Schoenbrun in Algeria or Peter Kalischer of Quemoy risking gunfire to get an eyewitness report. After which the material must get to the editors, cutters, writers, artists and fitted into the day's format to be matter-of-factly introduced by Edwards...or Murrow, Collingwood, Cronkite, Sevareid, Trout or Smith.

How all of this is done is explained in "Television News Reporting."

However, the book does leave something out. And that evolution—the conversion, if you will—of the TV news reporter. As of now he is just out of the larva stage.

Any close observer of the species would have discovered that even the hard-bitten members of the press began accepting television as a bona fide news reporting medium at the 1948 national political conventions in Philadelphia. One had only to count the number of political pundits from across the country who spent so much time covering the Dewey and Truman nominations in front of the TV tubes established in the air-conditioned Convention Hall press lounge of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

From then on, there was no stopping television news. But for the radio reporter, the transition produced growing pains that sometimes were very acute...other times they hurt only when you laughed.

CBS News sent this correspondent to Berlin after the 1948 elections. The Russian blockade had just begun, and the air lift which was to save the isolated city was just getting under way.

Our predecessor, Allan Jackson, left the CBS News Berlin bureau a Stancil-Hoffman tape recorder—the main tool of the radio broadcaster at that time. Shortly afterward there arrived by air mail a 16 mm Bell and Howell magazine camera, a supply of film—and a book. The book was a Kodak company volume with a title something like "how to make amateur movies the easy way." It was very good.

It was also at this time that electronic schizophrenia set in. And it was the beginning of what was then called the "pack-horse school of reporting."

CBS News foreign correspondents became badly split personalities. To carry and operate a portable tape recorder and a 16 mm camera simultaneously was obviously impossible. Then began the job of trying to second guess a story. A riot by East Berlin Communists was easy. You took the camera. A statement by the Berlin commander, General Lucius Clay, was obviously a job for the tape recorder.

The only trouble was that CBS Radio News wanted to know where were the sound tapes of the rioting. And CBS TV News always demanded why were there not silent shots of General Clay to be played behind Douglas Edwards as he read the statement.

The Stancil-Hoffman recorder weighs only some twelve pounds, but there also had to be another bag to carry spare reels of tape and two kinds of batteries.

The 16 mm camera also was not overly heavy. But add it to a half dozen additional film packs, the shoulders begin to sag.

Also the new-style electronic reporter had to take his portable typewriter on out-of-town stories, along with log forms, carbon paper, shipping labels, and the usual notebooks, typing paper, and other incumbrances.

Consequently, ten years ago the fully equipped CBS News radio and TV foreign correspondent had a camera and an accessories bag slung over one shoulder, a tape recorder and an equipment kit over the other, his typewriter in one hand and a briefcase containing a portable office (with flash) in the other. Cover a story? Hell, it was enough to just move.

At first, all of this was very exciting. Learning about lens changes, film speeds, establishing shots, exposures, panning and the need to eschew cocktail parties if you want to make hand-held long-range shots with a 4-inch lens.

But then came the professional—and psychic—shock. As radio reporting and reporters matured, there had developed a personal pride in putting the story into perspective, studying and analyzing its meaning, or just broadcasting the excitement of a noteworthy event.

But as a tyro television journalist with his brand new camera, the same reporter suddenly came to realize that this job mostly is done automatically through the camera lens—AND WITHOUT A WORD BEING SAID.

So the reporter takes himself to the nearest oasis and over a schnapps asks himself:

Q. - So what are you?

A. - A goddamn man-servant to a box, a piece of glass, and a strip of acetate.

Q. - Okay then, who is the reporter here?

A. - The box, dammit. I only push the button.

Q. - So, okay, what are you, bigshot?

A. - A pimp to a picture machine.

Much of the feeling passes after a while and you learn the excitement of visualizing and building a filmed news story.

Trying to learn something about TV news overseas in 1949 was handicapped by the fact that the industry was barely getting underway in Europe. Also the reporter-cameraman operated blind—he seldom if ever got to see his own stuff. The whole experience was a little like trying to catch a flying bat with a butterfly net in a blacked out Madison Square Garden.

Still spot television film was so rare in those days that a surprisingly large amount of the Berlin bureau's blockade film got used.

It was the same when this reporter transferred from Berlin back to Washington in 1950 and made the mistake of volunteering to "help out" with the Korean War coverage. Six days later we were on our way to the Far East.

In the early days of the sticky retreat down the Korean peninsula there were no broadcast lines or facilities available. For the broadcaster, it meant repeated flying from Tokyo to Pusan or Taegu and then hitch-hiking to the front—if the front didn't beat you to it.

Again CBS TV News programs were starving for spot film. Almost anything would be used even if it were badly exposed and out of focus. And in the early days of the war, a lot of that kind of film got on the network. However our skill was developing somewhat and it is with considerable pride that we occasionally humble our photographer friends by pointing to a Newsweek story of the times. Newsweek describes Downs as "a natural born cameraman." We were going to have a shoulder flash made up to wear on our uniform sleeve with that label. However the bona fide photographers in the Tokyo press club threatened to tear the sleeve off and return it to us with the arm inside.

By this time, CBS Television News had expanded and grown. Newsfilm Syndication was formed. Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly had already set the pattern for the industry's news documentary by their superb weekly "See It Now" series.

The 1952 presidential campaigns found the CBS News radio reporters and the television film crews working almost independently of each other. So many thousands of words were thrown at so many millions of people from the Eisenhower and Stevenson caravans that the brain became numb and there seemed to be a political callus on the side of the public retina.

Here the problem was shipping film to the nearest CBS TV affiliate for rapid developing and cutting to get it on the network the same day.

For radio, it was finding a pause in the constantly moving caravans where a piece of tape could be dropped for feeding to New York...or where a live microphone was available for a direct feed for the various news programs.

But it was in setting up a television operation in Rome in 1953 that this correspondent really learned about the facts of post war international communication. We were fortunate to locate an excellent cameraman in Joe Falletta, a former GI from New York City whose Italian parents had given him a language background which enabled him to marry one of Italy's most beautiful operetta stars.

However, since CBS News standard film development procedures and other factors demanded that American 16 mm film be shipped into the Rome bureau, our troubles with the Italian bureaucracy began.

Italian law is designed to protect that nation's resurgent film industry. It is one of the government's greatest dollar earners. So to control every phase of this business, you need both import and export licenses to ship American manufactured film. Also the footage is strictly controlled. So involved are the bureaucratic details of this operation that a pair of enterprising Italian exporters set up and agency just to deal with these matters for the U.S., British, French and other foreign television and movie companies shipping film in and out of the country. At last report they were making a good thing of it, too.

That was only part of the job. Your 1950 new-style electronic foreign correspondent must not only be able to circumvent bureaucratic red tape, he also must be an expert shipping agent. This means knowing what planes are going from Rome to New York and at which of the 24 hours of the day they will land and take off. He must be able to navigate his Fiat with the most reckless of Italian drivers in the race to Ciampino airport to get film aboard Pan Am, TWA or any other airliner which goes directly to New York. But he must also make sure that planes are not changed in Paris, London or Brussels because film inevitably gets lost in the jumble of a foreign airport.

When the New York office finally sent over the latest Bell and Howell sound camera—brand new—Falletta stood with us gazing in silent admiration when we first hoisted it on its shiny tripod. The camera's three lenses stared back and sneered.

What we discovered was that the big Bell and Howell with its 1,200-foot film magazines weights more than a half a ton with all its various independent power packs, lights, zizz wheels, microphones and purtoins. We also had forgotten that Falletta did not have a sound man.

So back to the instruction manual and the mimeographed instruction from the CBS technical experts. We became a sound man—maybe not the best—but there was always noise of one kind or another on the film.

The arrival of the sound camera also meant that some of our editorial frustration could be worked off. Then it was possible to write oneself a piece of "what it means" copy, grab a microphone, set the sound level, rush around to the front of the camera and tell Falletta to let it roll. We talked a lot like that, looking into the wide-angled lens with the Piazza Venezia or St. Peters in the background, giving profound analyses of the latest Italian political, social or economic crisis. We suspect that not much of this stuff was used. But, as we said, it was good for the journalistic soul.

Television news directors and assignment editors dream of the perfect foreign correspondent—the reporter-cameraman. They might as well stop, or start experimental breeding.

Under present conditions he would have to be at least twelve feet tall, three ax handles across the shoulders, possess at least three pairs of arms and have a highly controlled prehensile tail for twisting knobs. This paragon also would find it useful if he could be specifically bred to develop a pair of marsupial pouches—a la kangaroo—but preferably located on each hip. He also would need a pair of eyes mounted on antennas with a full 360 degree swivel so he could raise them to look over the camera magazine to see what the opposition is doing—or to watch for the Rome or Athens—or Istanbul or Cairo—police if he did not have a municipal permit to set up his tripod in the streets.

In fact, give this ideal cameraman-reporter an extra head. For few cameramen filming a statement read, say, by the Pope or a Premier or an Ambassador can tell you in any detail afterward what the man said.

Today, it is generally becoming accepted that the reporter, the cameraman and the sound man all have different but equally important jobs to do. Most CBS News bureaus domestic and overseas have so divided the labor. It's expensive but in the long run it pays off.

However, the electronic reporter must know the tools of his trade. It's vitally important to have a working knowledge of the camera and what it can do; the limitations of light and sound and the requirements of the cutters and editors who eventually must put together the story.

We got the experience the hard way. Eventually we suppose some genius will invent a gadget which will pick up the brain waves of the leg man on the spot and transmit the picture from the reporter's eye directly to the screen—with perhaps a censor's switch at hand.

This future electronic reporter will have it easier and live longer. But he won't have as much fun.