Saturday, July 18, 2009

Meeting America's great journalists

Not enough will be said today that captures the greatness of Walter Cronkite who passed away at the age of 92.

To a generation before the 70s, the name won't mean much. But as the eulogies flow, some of which I imagine I'll keep ( I have cuttings from Alistair Cooke), it's a moment to reflect on the stirrings of journalism.

Bombastic and supine now, wrapped in commercialism bereft of objectivity and values, the journalism Cronkite et al created was anything technical as we've come to know journalism.

It was so natural it was more an honest conversation.

Working at ABC News in the mid-90s, I was introduced to another bastion of the art of story telling, Peter Jennings. I recall it well, as I would not let his hand go.

There were things they did, some I imagine by default, but it served the profession well.

Cronkite, Murrows, Jennings, Bradley spoke in a tone that you understood and followed. The average speech speed is three words per second.

These news doyens shaved around 2 +. That didn't make it 'plonky' - an uninvited term for broadcasters because they knew how to sell a story through the sonorous power of the voice.

And when that didn't work, the odd tilt of the head, gesture telegraphed their understanding.

Shout Journalism
Today, much of journalism is about shouting the loudest, literally too. It's often said on the hustings, that journalist broadcast to other journalists and editors seeking their next job.

Complex arithmetic sentences obscure true meanings when simpler language would do.

The Cronkites' were folk of the wire service. Words cost in the transmission, so they needed to be judicious. Furthermore, their copy often left the bureaux with little or no change the other end.

You try telling the tragic story of an event, delivered in that inverted pyramidal style, where there are no changes. It's Amadeus in journalism.

Yes the world has changed, and it started slowly, that is the decline of journalism, from the day they let the number crunchers in. When accountants started to run networks.

But there are still those we trust who bear the crest of the old guard, who respect the rules and tell us their truths, that we often agree with.

And no matter any number of tweets, blogs, their word stands tall in a sea of sometimes, almost often, white noise.

When I grow up I'd like to become a reporter just like them. Being honest and humble is probably a good start. The journalism bit you can learn.


David, a former broadcaster has worked for the BBC, Channel 4, WTN and ABC News ( South Africa). In 1994 he became a videojournalist. Today he is an Artist-in-Residence at the South Bank. You can find his latest video on his site