A guest in our living room: the television newscaster before the rise of the dominant anchor.

Author:Conway, Mike
 
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The changing face of network television news during the past few years has sparked renewed debate on the future of television news. But the death of Peter Jennings as well as the disappearance from the anchor chair by Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather also dredged up off-repeated misconceptions about the birth and early development of television news in this country. David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times warned "the day of the anchor as single 'God-like' voice is over." Marvin Kitman of Newsday scolded the entire industry: "The mistake TV news made from the start was to make the anchor the center of attention, when all they basically did was read the TelePrompTer" (Kitman, 2005, p. C19; Shaw, 2005, p. 31). But the newscaster was not always the center of attention in the early years of television news. Instead, stations experimented with various formats for television news. Some efforts focused on the pictures, much like a theater newsreel, others on maps and graphics. Another approach involved showing the newscaster on camera only when no other visualization methods were available for that specific story or newscast.

This project focuses on one of the most ambitious efforts in visual news during the first decade of commercial television: WCBW, Columbia Broadcasting's television station in New York City. (1) From 1941 until 1948, minus 17 months off the air during the war, the CBS television station struggled with adapting journalism for the small screen. Instead of building a newscast around one of the famous names of CBS radio news, the WCBW crew focused on the content and visualization techniques. The role of the newscaster was constantly debated and revised as at least a dozen people stood in front of the cameras during one 4-year period at CBS-TV. But the WCBW news people did not carry on this debate in a vacuum. They had watched the emergence of the news announcers and commentators on radio. Plus, for decades, media writers and critics had taken part in the social construction of the television announcer by drawing on examples from radio, motion pictures, and other media to predict what type of person would succeed on the new medium.

Television news prior to 1948 has received little more than anecdotal attention, both in academic scholarship and in popular histories, partly because of the lack of a visual record. But the WCBW newscasts of this era can be at least partially reconstructed through surviving historical documents such as rundowns, scripts, artwork, still photographs, company records, personal archives, government reports, period writings, and other historical material. In addition, extensive oral history interviews were conducted with people working at CBS or competing stations during this period.

Television news in this country has not always been built around a popular anchor. The social construction of the television newscaster before widespread adoption of the medium as well as the thoughts, decisions, and processes involved in the 1941 to 1948 CBS-TV newscasts provide a unique glimpse into an important, but overlooked, era of television news before the personality took precedence over the process.

History of Broadcast News

Identifying a news program with the person delivering the information certainly did not start with television. During the first decade of radio broadcasting, the personality became the selling point. As early as 1927, radio stations and networks used the name of the commentator, instead of the topic, in the newspaper listings. Frederick Williams Wile, David Lawrence, and H. V. Kaltenborn became early popular radio commentators. The commentators provided a mix of news, analysis, and opinion, the ratio of that mix depending on the individual. The people who read the newscasts became known as news announcers or news broadcasters (Fang, 1977; Smith, 1965).

The radio commentator became even more important during the fight between newspapers and radio over news. The Press-Radio War started when newspaper publishers demanded that news agencies such as the Associated Press stop providing service to radio stations. A compromise in 1933 stipulated that radio newscasts could not include commercials, but that restriction did not apply to news commentators. The networks promptly decided popular broadcasters such as Lowell Thomas, Boake Carter, and Walter Winchell were commentators, so they could keep their sponsors. The print-broadcast agreement did not last, but the monikers did (Smith, 1965; White, 1947).

Radio news broadcasters' roles evolved again with the introduction of the newscast that would influence radio and television news for the rest of the century. CBS premiered the "multiple pickup" format when Hitler invaded Austria in March 1938. The World News Roundup involved a news broadcaster in a New York studio, Robert Trout, talking with correspondents, politicians, and others around the world about the Nazi invasion. Foreign correspondents involved in the first World News Roundup included Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer (Bliss, 1991; CBS, 1999; Godfrey, 1990; White, 1947).

News, analysis, and commentary became even more important as World War II threatened to ensnare the United States. People realized with radio, they no longer had to wait for a daily paper for the latest information. Murrow became famous for his gripping live reports from London during Nazi bombing raids. Networks looked for military and political experts to add to their stable of commentators to explain the world situation. Elmer Davis, Quincy Howe, Walter Winchell, Raymond Gram Swing, Fulton Lewis, Jr. and many others filled the airwaves as the number of news and commentary programs on nighttime network radio increased from 3 to 37 between 1936 and 1941 (Jones, 1973; Murray, 1994; "Night Show," 1941). War correspondents, such as Cecil Brown, Shirer, and Murrow, parlayed their fame and experience into important radio newscast and commentary programs when they came back from the war.

Television Newscasters

Historical accounts of the television newscaster, and television news itself, have mostly followed the lead of radio news broadcasters and television journalists who wrote about broadcast journalism, but did not experience the new medium until the late 1940s or early 1950s at the earliest. Those accounts tend to ignore or dismiss 1940s television news as not worthy of mention because of the small audience and limited technology. Fred Friendly places the birth of "electronic journalism" at the time of his See It Now broadcast with Murrow on Milo Radulovich and the Red Scare in 1953 (Friendly, 1967, p. 3). Reuven Frank chose 1948 as the start of television news, 2 years before he started on the Camel News Caravan (Frank, 1991 ; Frank OHI, 2003), and Don Hewitt dismisses any television news that happened before he started at CBS News in 1948 (Hewitt, 2001 ; Hewitt OHI, 2003). Erik Barnouw labeled early television news as an "unpromising child" and picked 1953 as the starting point for his third chronological volume (mostly devoted to television) of U.S. broadcast history, The Image Empire (Barnouw, 1970, p. 40).

By pushing the start of television news to the late 1940s or early 1950s, the emphasis on the dominant anchor is understandable. In 1949, the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company picked John Cameron Swayze as the main newscaster for NBC's new Camel News Caravan. During the previous year, CBS executives chose Douglas Edwards as the permanent face of CBS Television News. Since CBS and NBC were the dominant television network newscasts at that time, Swayze versus Edwards fits the theme of the personality-driven newscast (CBS, 1948a; Fensch, 1993; Frank OHI, 2003; Frank, 1991; Mickelson, 1998).

In her book on the importance of the network news anchor, The Evening Stars, Barbara Matusow championed the common theme: "From the start, the CBS-TV News, as it was first called, was built around Douglas Edwards to an extraordinary degree ..." (Matusow, 1983, p. 51). Even the man who built the Columbia empire apparently forgot or never knew the true origins of news on his television station. In his memoir, William S. Paley asserts "(t)elevision news began on CBS in 1946 with one regular weekly Saturday night broadcast with Douglas Edwards as our first TV newscaster. Edwards got the job because he was the only experienced newsman on staff willing to make the transition from radio to television" (Paley, 1979, p. 296). Douglas Edwards certainly became the face of CBS-TV news since he sat behind the desk on the CBS network newscast for 14 years. But as late as the spring of 1948, Edwards was just one of a group of announcers who moved in and out of the television newscasts. CBS-TV news was not "built around" Edwards, or any other person for that matter, in the early years. Quite the opposite occurred.

Anchor is not even an appropriate word to describe the person in front of the camera in the 1940s because the term did not come to prominence in the television news vocabulary until the 1952 political conventions when Walter Cronkite was described as the "anchor" of the CBS convention coverage (CBS, 1952). Instead, during the 1940s, the person reading the news on television was referred to as the newscaster, announcer, or commentator (2) of the newscast.

In the past few decades, scholars have begun to go beyond the original dismissive frame to bring out a more complete look of at at least some aspects of 1940s television news. Karnick researched the evolution of NBC-TV news from 1945 to 1953 while others have written about television coverage of the 1948 conventions. Allen's profile of WPIX provides a good case for that station's role in pioneering local television news. Murray and Godfrey's edited volume, Television In America, pulls together different television station histories from around the country (Allen, 2001; Conway, 2007; Crotts, 1974; Karnick, 1988; Murray & Godfrey, 1997). Focusing on the origins...

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