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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Exploring Dubious Traditions of News

March 07, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

If ever a cliche applied to television news and its newsreel predecessor, it's this: What goes around comes around.

From horseback to satellite to chopper, the news camera has come full cycle. With roots firmly in entertainment, it remains today a creature of the music hall, the first cinematic correspondents and their mahogany boxes of a century ago being the procreators of today's newscasting crowd. Although the medium has produced many genuine heroes through the years, its tradition of trickery exceeds its tradition of truth.

That message is emphatically nailed in "Newsreels to Nightly News: A History," a largely fascinating five-night genealogy co-produced by England's BBC and Canada's CBC and being shown on the History Channel starting Sunday.

The thick midsection of the documentary is a meaty but mostly familiar survey of television's Edward R. Murrow years to the late 1980s. It was Murrow who created TV news, in effect, from the radio news he began shaping in the late 1930s. Murrow, recalls Howard K. Smith, one of his "boys" covering Europe for CBS radio early in World War II, "was better than the war." As proof, hear again some of Murrow's famed word pictures so vividly describing besieged England on radio in those especially dark days of the conflict: "This is London . . . being bombed again. The sound of gunfire has been rolling down these crooked streets like thunder."

In the postwar years, Murrow himself was the rolling thunder, his feats on television becoming the big, bold, looping signature of CBS News. "We were not vaudevillians, we were reporters," says his former colleague Smith, who had a long, distinguished career at ABC News after leaving CBS.

Not that early TV news was devoid of newsreaders and showtime, as the documentary notes. Here is John Cameron Swayzeof NBC, one of network TV's earliest newscasters, introducing a story featuring an auto maker sponsor of his 15-minute show in a bald forerunner to present newscasts that deceptively create stories that promote their network's entertainment programs:

"Now to New York's famous Waldorf Astoria for important news about Plymouth."

Although the middle hours of the documentary are intriguing, the first and last sections alone, on Sunday and Thursday, respectively, trace the horseshoe course the news camera has traveled.

It's 1898, and on the screen is cinema coverage of the Spanish-American War available to patrons of movie theaters, the exciting show including even exclusive footage of the Battle of Manila.

Shot with models in a tank of water.

There, too, is footage of the sunken U.S. battleship Maine at the bottom of Havana harbor. Well, purported footage that theatergoers apparently believe, having no other film journalism to use as a comparison.

How are they to know it was shot in New Jersey, through a fish tank?

*

We also see genuine footage from British foreign correspondents risking their lives to provide pictures of the Boer War in South Africa. There is William Dixon and his 1,500-pound camera, so heavy it had to be transported by cart, so vast that it was used also as a dining table.

But Dixon hardly met the needs of the Edison Co., which embellished real coverage of the war with its own unlabeled reenactments.

Here also is Pathe's packaging of footage as weekly newsreels, in effect creating the first newscasts. And here in the early 20th century is Mexico's Francisco "Pancho" Villa, newsdom's first director-revolutionary, not only selling the Mutual Corp. film rights to his battles for $25,000 and a share of the box office, we hear, but also scheduling executions for the cameras and reportedly restaging just-fought battles with the actual dead still on the ground.

Meanwhile, we learn that the British government banned newsreels from the front during World War I, then sold a private company film rights to its war effort in France, creating a public hunger for battle footage so great that renowned filmmaker D.W. Griffith was commissioned by the Brits to make a movie of the war with actual footage.

But Griffith found "reality too unrealistic," we're told, so instead staged his "World War I" in the U.S. with actors.

And on and on it goes, with even the famed "March of Times" newsreels setting up cameras in Hoboken, N.J., at times to film scenes of ordinary life "inside Nazi Germany."

Reality too unrealistic. Theater then, theater now.

*

Flash-forward to the documentary's final hour. "We are witnesses to action, but are we witnesses to history?" someone asks. It's a question too seldom pondered by today's tech-driven ambulance chasers of the airwaves who squander their time and resources pursuing stories that present titillation and "live" action as useful information. Still attached to an umbilical cord spanning a century, they put on a show, one intended to swiftly engage the TV audience before it gets bored enough to switch channels.

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