Responding to a suggestion that the 50th anniversary of the launch of "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" would make a good story, the producer at another network declined, saying, "It doesn't fit our demographic."
That one sentence separates today's "journalism" from that represented by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley when they began a program on NBC, Oct. 29, 1956, that would launch broadcast journalism's Golden Age. The show was the brainchild of the late Reuven Frank, whose memory will also be honored Friday, Nov. 3 in New York at a special ceremony in NBC's Studio 8-H.
Why should anyone care if they didn't live through that time? Because it was a time when ideas mattered. Is this memorial event simply a trip into the land of nostalgia for the dwindling numbers who worked with, or at least observed the work of these men and their accomplished colleagues? Or does it remind us what real journalism looked like before advertisers and bean counters began ruining it?
NBC White House correspondent Sander Vanocur, who covered the Kennedy administration, recalls there was far more substance on the news in those days: "Sound bites sometimes lasted 50 seconds or more; now they are often reduced to nine seconds, or less." And the focus wasn't on stories that advertisers wanted in order to reach viewers 18 to 34. "We had two epic stories then," Vanocur recalls. "They were the Cold War and civil rights." Now we are preoccupied by Madonna and missing blonde women.
When Huntley-Brinkley premiered, the program was a mere 15 minutes long (12 and a half minutes of news and two and a half minutes of commercials) When the program was later expanded to 30 minutes, management and reporters debated whether there would be enough news to fill the time.
Correspondent Herbert Kaplow recalls a half-hour special he was part of during the 1960 West Virginia primary election that saw John Kennedy defeat Sen. Hubert Humphrey and all but solidify his nomination for president. It is unlikely any broadcast network would do such a show today, or if it did, that it would attract any sponsors.
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