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Documentary and News... News and Documentary

By Henry Breitrose

A man stands on a podium with a giant poster that reads 'Kane' in the back. Most first-time viewers of 'Citizen Kane'  don't realize that the News on the March short that opens the film is a clever parody of a series of theatrical shorts produced by Time, Inc.

Documentary began, of course, before television. Before radio, even. And its adoption by American commercial broadcast television has always had an uneven life, never quite expiring but frequently slipping into a vegetative state. Most recently, it's undergone a revival of sorts, as programs such as 60 Minutes and 48 Hours on CBS, Dateline NBC and ABC's 20/20 have succeeded with a kind of "documentary-for-people-with-short-attention spans," under the aegis of the respective network news departments.

The situation for broadcasters is quite separate from the cable networks, where documentary flourishes in building large and loyal audiences. With rare exception, cablecasters provide programming and not news; and it is in its relationship to news that documentary becomes problematic.

There are two sets of issues that I'd like to examine here: How did the documentary on commercial television wind up in the news departments? And, are the values of journalism and documentary different in kind or merely by degree?

Back in 1960, when independent producer David Wolper found a sponsor for his documentary The Race for Space, not one of the three networks would broadcast the film. ABC, CBS and NBC made clear that the only documentaries allowed onto their schedules would be those produced by the networks themselves. And so Wolper's sponsor (Shulton) purchased time on individual stations, market-by-market, thus avoiding the network restriction; and in the process, the formidable career of David L. Wolper was launched.

The network's rationale was that any subject for documentary was the same as the subject for news, and therefore production of documentaries belonged in the news department. As ABC-TV wrote to the Writer's Guild of America after a protest over the network's policy of exclusivity, "The standards of production and presentation which apply to a professional network news department would not necessarily apply to, for instance, an independent Hollywood producer. "NBC's comments clarified those "standards": as a broadcaster, NBC felt responsible for "objective, fair and responsible presentation of news developments and public issues." CBS substantially concurred. In other words, news is "objective" and documentary should be, too. And yet, ever since Flaherty persuaded Nanook to get out of his kayak, documentary has made no claim to objectivity: honesty, fairness, responsibility—certainly, but one looks in vain for claims of objectivity.

When television documentary began, virtually all the players were new. As Edward R. Murrow noted when See It Now—the first American documentary television series—appeared in 1951, he and his colleagues were "an old team trying to learn a new trade." Television was like radio, in the sense that it sent electronic information to anyone equipped with technology to transform radio waves into sounds and images. Radio was purely aural information and unsurprisingly, early television turned out to be radio with pictures. The choice of what to broadcast came from either vanity (NBC's Symphony vs. CBS's New York Philharmonic) or avarice (high ratings meant higher prices for commercials). There was also a legal obligation to act in the "public interest, convenience and necessity " as the quid pro quo for free usage of the public airwaves: news (and documentary), then and now, were considered a public good by the FCC.

There's some disagreement about whether broadcast news began as the result of vanity or because of conscience. (Avarice, of course, came later.) Radio news reached its maturity early and may never have been better than during World War II. When television began to expand rapidly, as part of America's burgeoning post-war world, the radio news people had difficulty finding their place: radio news was talk, sometimes analysis, sometimes vivid description; if pictures existed, they were in the heads of the listeners.

Edward R. Murrow is the legend against which broadcast journalists are measured. But Murrow had neither education nor on-the-job training as a journalist. He was a rhetorician, a specialist in public address and debate, and his speaking skills enabled him to combine the descriptive power of a good reporter with the evocative delivery of a passionate speaker. (Note the absence of "objectivity" as a quality here.)

If television were going to be radio with pictures, where would the pictures come from? The answer: at the movies, evolving in a quasi-journalistic form of dubious legitimacy known as the newsreel. The major studios and the Hearst organization had been producing these one-reel compendia of news, fashion, sports and occasional comedy for decades. As Raymond Fielding pointed out in his excellent book The American Newsreel, the work of the newsreel cameramen was often at odds with the prevailing ideals of journalism, ideals such as objectivity, independence and seriousness. And while the work of newsreel cameramen exists as the 20th century's visual memory from which historical documentaries are now made, much of that work was trivial, superficial, biased, dictated by special interests and sometimes out-and-out faked.

Nevertheless, newsreel cameramen knew how to make exciting pictures under extreme conditions, and their companies were hired to supply images for early television news. Documentary and broadcast historian Eric Barnouw writes that as early as 1945, NBC engaged Paul Alley of the Hearst—MGM News of the Day to put together the earliest television news programs. In 1947, NBC contracted with Jerry Fairbanks Productions, a producer of theatrical shorts and industrial films; and a year later, they signed Fox­ Movietone News to provide material for NBC news broadcasts. When CBS-TV began news broadcasting at about the same time, newsfilm was supplied by Telenews, which later merged into Hearst-MGM News of the Day. Barnouw suggests that there were two rationales for hiring outside companies: the belief that the net­ works had the sources and the talent—what they lacked were the images; and the wish to postpone dealing directly with I.A.T.S.E., the dominant film union. When newsreel companies faded from the scene, many of their personnel were hired as the network film staff. Since television documentary resided with the news divisions, it owes its heritage not to the documentary tradition of the 1930s and '40s, but is rather the offspring from a marriage of convenience between radio news and the theatrical newsreel.

The nearest precursor of the television documentary was The March of Time. Most first-time viewers of Citizen Kane don't realize that the News on the March short that opens the film is a clever parody of a series of theatrical shorts produced by Time, Inc. The films were narrated wall-to-wall, structured as illustrated lectures, and the filmmakers were not particularly shy about faking scenes.

When the visual continuity broke down, or lacked efficiency, title cards were inserted. In Kane, even the inverted construction of William Alland's stentorian parody of Westbrook van Voorhis 's "Voice of God" narration serves to point up the formulaic style of the series. Barnouw points out that for all the slickness and cliche that made it so vulnerable to parody, between 1935 and 1951 the March of Time attempted description and analysis of issues well beyond the superficial spot news coverage of the newsreel.

Murrow and his associate Fred W. Friendly sought to move television news beyond the trivial and superficial in long-form reporting, and they turned to the newsreels for help. Following the news department pattern, they contracted with the Hearst-MGM News of the World for technical services and film library footage as needed. The resulting program was called See It Now, and it first appeared in November 1951, the television cousin of the successful radio program Hear It Now, which Murrow and Friendly had produced for CBS Radio beginning in late December 1950. (All Things Considered would be today's counterpart to Hear It Now: a compendium of short items, Murrow served as anchor and contributed most of the commentary and reporting; the program relied on such specialists as Red Barber on sports, Abe Burrows on entertainment and Don Hollen beck on the press. The weekly radio magazine provided the pattern for the television magazine documentary.)

See It Now probably began as Fred Friendly's creature, but Murrow was not at all oblivious to the future role of television: in pre-war London, where the BBC had already begun scheduled television broadcasting, Murrow is reported to have turned on the set and said to CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid, "That's television—that's the future, my friend." Neither Murrow nor Friendly pretended to know much about pictures, and they relied on CBS's contacts with the newsreels. They also recruited Mili Lerner, a fiction film editor who was working on commercials, and Palmer Williams, an independent producer with a newsreel background, who had worked with Pare Lorentz and the United States Film Service, and with Frank Capra on the Why We Fight series.

On the afternoon of November 18, 1951, Murrow­—wreathed in the smoke of his ever-present cigarette—began the first See It Now, from the control room of CBS Studio 41. The broadcast included film pieces-"mini-docs" they'd be called now—from London, Paris and Korea, and the iconic image of Murrow looking at two monitors: one showing the bridges of the East River and New York harbor; the other showing the Golden Gate in San Francisco. The nation had been linked by a co-axial cable, capable of carrying a television signal in real time. It was television's first nation-wide actuality.

In her biography of Murrow, A.M. Sperber describes the first See It Now in some detail. There was the combination of filmed and live pieces, each featuring a CBS correspondent. Howard Smith talked of UN disarmament proposals; there was a sequence of Winston Churchill speaking to an audience in London; Eric Sevareid conversed with Murrow in the Washington studio; and a segment featured Senators Robert Taft and Everett Dirksen at a Republican fund-raiser. Sperber writes that the camera focused not on Dirksen giving his introduction, but on the "enraptured" face of Taft, recipient of the panegyric. The first See It Now defined several formal attributes of the actuality television documentary: the magazine format; the actual presence of the reporter on screen; the variety of stories. Don Hewitt, who began his career directing the early CBS Television News, was the studio director for See It Now, and was to perpetuate the format into the present day 60 Minutes.

The final sequence of the first See It Now may mark the true birth of the actuality television documentary. Robert Pierpoint reported from Korea about a day and night with Fox Company, 19th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. It brought the war home by concentrating not on the conflict and action of the war-the "boom-boom " as it was later called by correspondents during another American-led Asian war—but rather on the tedium. Murrow's off-screen narration was spare and matter-of-fact, and audiences heard the voices and saw the faces of the soldiers, in TV close-up. At the end of the sequence, Murrow spoke directly to the camera: "They may need some blood. Can you spare a pint?"

The television documentary had been captured by the news department because it wasn't entertainment, and program content in commercial radio and later commercial television had to be either entertainment or news—there were no other options. Initially, it was the Friendly-Murrow team who realized that "news" could be defined in ways loose enough to include many of the strategies of journalism as well as some of the interpretive and artistic elements that lay behind the documentary idea. (Early in the Second World War, Murrow and other correspondents had succeeded in convincing their masters that news consisted of more than the recitation of the events of the day. It could encom­pass commentary and analysis as well as the reporting of facts.)

As significant as it is obvious is the inescapable nature of radio reporting as the personal voice. While the film sound and images­ newsreel or documentary—could be left to "speak for themselves" as the saying goes (although this seldom happened), radio reporting is based on personal description and interpretation. The presence of the reporter, first on the air, then on the screen, makes broadcast news inescapably reflexive. The reporter talks about him self, his perceptions, his interpretation, his way of making sense of the world. Much as the network spokesmen may deny it, radio journalism is subjective and not at all objective. The passive-voiced third person rhetoric of print doesn't work on the radio, and it was in radio that techniques of commentary and analysis that carried over into television documentary became legitimized.

No better example exists than Edward R. Murrow's eyewitness report on the Buchenwald concentration camp. He ended the immensely moving and sometimes harrowing first-person report with a straightforward commentary:

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least bit sorry... 

One reads Murrow's words today and wonders whether a correspondent-driven television documentary could approximate the intensity, directness and emotion in the Buchenwald broad­cast, or in the famous See It Now broadcast on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Would the network insist on "objectivity" or at least balancing the report with the Nazi's side? Would the correspondent be allowed to exhibit moral outrage? Would someone in the front office be concerned about causing offense to advertisers? Would anyone care?

HENRY BREITROSE is Professor of Communication at Stanford University, where he founded the Graduate Program in Documentary Film and Video.