I recently came across a striking excerpt from a long-ago network newscast. It is the ABC Evening News (the “World News Tonight” label had not yet been rolled out) from Jan. 26, 1978, a day when a fierce blizzard rolled northward through the Ohio Valley to the Great Lakes. (1) Watching this 7-minute excerpt, recently repackaged in a feature called the Time Tunnel, did indeed bring me back to an era when we saw the news, and reported it, a little differently than we do today.
Young people will find this clip worth watching, if only so they can tease their parents about the long hair and turtleneck sweaters we wore back then.
People my age and older will admire the grace and professionalism of Barbara Walters as she anchored that night’s broadcast alone while partner Harry Reasoner was “on assignment.”
Today, Walters is a journalism icon. Back then she was a pioneer, breaking longstanding gender barriers and rising to the top of the profession by working harder and smarter than her male peers. On a day when hurricane-force winds howled outside her New York City studio, there sat Barbara, not a hair out of place, smoothly setting the stage for her field reporters to explain the day’s events, tying the reports together with the same crisp background and context that she would bring to an interview with a world leader.
The culture and the ratings demanded that Walters look good without appearing to try to look good. She had to sound smart without appearing to try to sound smart. As the first woman to be a network news anchor, she had to enter our homes as a network news anchor who just happened to be a woman.
Largely because of her, we see women today anchoring the news and moderating presidential debates without ever giving a second thought to the journalist’s gender. Even though I watched Walters through nearly all of her career, I had forgotten exactly how good she was – how easily and professionally she filled that anchor chair, even though it was not her natural role to introduce other people’s interviews – until this clip reminded me.
Meteorologist John Coleman gave the night’s sober roundup of the blizzard statistics, mostly as a voice-over to accompany suitable film of blinding snowfall and flailing pedestrians. There were emergency declarations in Kentucky and Indiana; a statewide blizzard warning for Ohio, towering drifts in Missouri and Illinois. The storm, Coleman noted, had the lowest barometric pressure measured in the United States since 1913 (a record later beaten in 1993 by the “Storm of the Century.”)
“There seems to be a trend toward these frequent intense storms,” Coleman noted, “perhaps part of our shift in the climate.” (1) As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Then the broadcast cut to reporter Ron Miller, who was snowbound at a motel in Earlinger, Ky.
Network reporters in those days usually traveled as part of a three-person crew, accompanied by a cameraman and a sound man (who, like the reporters, were nearly always men). Today’s storms are documented by millions of ordinary citizens, in tweets and cellphone photos and videos. News outlets actively solicit these audience contributions to supplement the more professionally shot, but sparser, coverage by professional journalists. We get a far richer and more detailed portrait of natural disasters as a result, while some of the reporting – the obligatory shot of the reporter standing on the beach as the hurricane approaches the coast – seems forced and sometimes foolish. If conditions are really dangerous, there is no need for reporters to put themselves in harms way; if things are not so bad, the resulting reporting sounds breathless and silly.
Back in 1978, the only way to get images on the air was for journalists to go out and capture them, after which those same reporters had to somehow get their work to a studio.
This was the problem Miller and his crew confronted once they finished interviewing fellow stranded travelers at their motel. “The obvious question of how to get this film broadcast was answered by Kentuckian Johnny Briggs and his four-wheel-drive vehicle,” Miller reported. “Off Johnny took us, to Cincinnati, over otherwise closed and ice-crusted highways. The winds are so high that even salt and gravel are being blown away. It may be days before these roads are open. But Johnny got us through, and we thank him for that, and ask that the folks at the motel keep the coffee hot. We’ll all be home for another night. Ron Miller, ABC News, snowbound in the Ohio River Valley.” (1)
The last piece of this excerpt is a report on a Soviet spy satellite, later identified as Cosmos 954, that sprayed enriched uranium and highly radioactive debris across a wide area when it crashed in Canada’s Northwest Territories. John Martin, whose job was to cover all of Canada for ABC, reported the story from thousands of miles away in Toronto. There was no Google Earth, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs from the searchers and scientists. Martin reported correctly that the region where the craft fell had no trees, incorrectly adding, “and, apparently, no people.” (1) In fact, six men staying at a remote cabin ultimately found an important piece of the wreckage.
If a story like that happened today, American networks would share reporting with Canadian news services. We would have live reports from researchers, and most likely, from any locals in the area as well. There are still many remote places, but no place is as remote as it used to be.
It’s a smaller, better-connected world today. I would say a better-informed world too, as I watch the film of stranded travelers stuffing coins into pay phones to let their loved ones know they were safe. Sometimes, information isn’t just about big things like nuclear spy satellites crashing during the Cold War. Sometimes it is as simple as knowing that the motel has plenty of hot coffee on hand, and that someone we love is safely waiting out the storm.