Even its most ardent admirers are forced to admit that television news has changed significantly over the past decades. Those revered no-nonsense newsmen who helped pioneer the form — Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley — would barely recognize what passes today for real journalism and in depth reporting. The fall from grace of once trusted anchors like Brian Williams and Dan Rather may have sealed the deal in terms of that breech of credibility, but they’re hardly the only reasons why network news has fallen out of favor. In an era that finds 24 hour news channels offering instant updates and analysis — often accompanied by a distinct prejudicial view — and the ability to find out the latest news simply by glancing at a smartphone, network news and appointment viewing have become as archaic conceptually as the idea of traveling cross-country by horse and buggy. Public scrutiny of the form — piqued by the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Newsroom” and before that, “Network,” the film that spawned it nearly 40 years before — has never been more derisive, spurned on further by the satirical derision of such mighty nightly pundits as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Indeed, the line between parody and pontificating seems to have diminished entirely. Add to that the internet and social media, and the dissemination of news is clearly no longer merely a passive pursuit.
In his insightful new book, author Charles L. Ponce de Leon investigates and elaborates on television news’ trajectory, from the beginning to the warped and cynical state of affairs that often bungles its way through today. The writer’s surname would seem in itself a qualifying for uncovering insight and discovery, and yet this particular Ponce de Leon eschews any idea that the modern news business is as capable of rejuvenating itself in the manner of the legendary fountain of youth. He’s quick to point out its foibles, inconsistencies and cynical means of manipulating the American public in the name of profit, and by the end of this extensive tome, there’s little reason given for hope or optimism about television’s future course. As he so eloquently states in the book’s final chapter, “Historians a century from now may look back at our era and identify it as a turning point, when new technologies enabled us to create richer political communities and gave us the perspective to grapple successfully with the problems of [our] day. Or they may conclude that we squandered a wonderful resource by turning it into yet another diversion. The choice is ours.”
If that seems a somewhat dire conclusion, Ponce de Leon gives ample cause as to why it’s so uncertain. Thoroughly researched and suitably notated, That’s the Way It Is (its title is take from Walter Cronkite’s familiar sign off) traces the evolution of the mass media from its infancy in the 1930s and the rise in stature of David Sarnoff, who, as president of RCA, the parent company of NBC, championed television as the defining factor in changing America’s cultural landscape. From that point on, the book painstakingly tracks the various decisions, dictates, people and principals that found the new media shifting from America’s primary source of news and information to its role as tastemaker and arbiter of the nation’s increasingly complex values. In the prologue, Ponce de Leon defines that journey and sets the tone for the pages that follow:
“The point of this book is that TV news didn’t degenerate into entertainment. It changed – in some respects for the better, in other respects for the worse – largely in response to the preferences of viewers…the television news industry became subject to market forces, like so many other things in America during the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was adapted to a larger media culture – indeed, an entire economy – that places the highest priority on giving people what they want to see.”
Of course, catering to the lowest common denominator hasn’t necessarily led to the betterment of the medium. Reality TV and all manner of inane game shows and silly sitcoms continues to rise to prominence while the credence of journalists and newscasters still sinks under the weight of thinly veiled political prejudices and the predominance of social media.
Yet while the premise seems fairly simple, the read is anything but. Ponce de Leon goes into exacting detail on each and every significant development that occurred throughout this trajectory, making for a complicated read that’s sometimes tedious and demanding… especially for those who might have preferred more casual commentary. It will prove especially interesting to anyone who considers themselves a more scholarly type or at least a dedicated television buff, but for those unfamiliar with the major players and the infinite details of mass communications in general it may prove overwhelming in its influx of detail. Nevertheless, those willing to broaden their intellect and explore the various tangents of America’s ever-changing social environs will find it a fascinating discourse into what is arguably the most significant technological and utilitarian development of the postwar world. Both fitful and fascinating, That’s the Way It Is clearly lives up to its title.