Rather and Brokaw

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(Host) With two of the three network anchormen stepping down, commentator Barrie Dunsmore has some thoughts on the role network television news has played in shaping our society.

(Dunsmore) From about the mid-fifties to the end of the seventies, the three networks were indeed the windows on the world for the great majority of Americans. Each night more than fifty million people would gather in front of their TV sets at the dinner hour to watch the evening news. This ritual evolved into a combination national town meeting, teach-in and therapy session to ponder the events of the times. And those were momentous times. In the sixties the Cold War was at its height, nuclear war seemed ever possible. There were wars in Viet Nam and the Middle East — and assassinations of a President, his brother and the country’s leading civil rights leader.

Meanwhile, we were in the throes of at least four on-going revolutions over race, feminism, sexual freedoms and new technologies. At such a moment, television could have become an instrument for division and extremism, as an irresponsible press had done in other places or times. One can almost hear the breathless tones and purple prose of Fox and the cable networks if something like a Presidential assassination should befall us today. Instead the network anchors and reporters behaved with great seriousness and dignity, calming a deeply shaken nation.

In their heydays, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Howard K. Smith — and the newscasts they anchored — would be voices of moderation amid chaos — often at considerable professional and personal risk. In his memoir, David Brinkley told of covering civil rights for NBC in his home state of North Carolina. “It was the most difficult work of my life,” he writes. “Telling the news as straight as I could was not enough. They wanted it slanted — but slanted their way. The mail was poisonous. There were death threats by mail and phone.”

In Alabama, Howard K, Smith watched the Ku Klux Klan viciously attack a busload of Northern civil rights protesters with bicycle chains and baseball bats, while the police looked the other way. Smith was furious, and his reporting showed it — which got him into trouble with CBS. He argued with CBS founder Bill Paley that the civil rights issue was not one over which reasonable people could differ because one side was clearly on the side of the Constitution and the other was not. Paley was unmoved and suggested Smith go elsewhere. He did — to ABC.

It was mainly the network’s role in the civil rights movement that provoked accusations, that last to this day, that they have a “liberal bias.” Given that the charge most often came from those who opposed equal rights for black Americans, it was a label most network journalists wore with pride.

The times when network television news had its greatest influence are long gone — just as all golden ages pass away when the unique set of circumstances that created them are fundamentally changed. But as Brokaw, Rather and eventually Jennings leave the scene, my concern is that experienced and once powerful voices of moderation in the mass media are becoming all too few.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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