When I start the broadcast section of my Media Writing class, I show two YouTube videos about nuclear disasters. The first is Walter Cronkite leading the CBS Evening News on March 30, 1979 with the latest from the unfolding crisis at Three Mile Island (and I explain we had color TV back then; not sure why this is B/W). Then I show Diane Sawyer opening ABC World News in March of 2011 with the latest from Fukushima. The students usually notice the primitive graphics and long soundbites of the earlier newscast, and some even note that women, not men, handle the reporting in the later example. They almost always prefer the ABC newscast. When I ask them to look beyond the technical differences, often they say that Sawyer was more informative, believable or (and I guess this is now a word, usage mavens) “relatable.”
So much for being “the most trustworthy man in America.”
What I think they’re getting at is that Sawyer is much more animated than Cronkite. She leans into the lens and her voice is spirited and charged with concern. Cronkite is his usual stolid self, but the writing carries the worry. “The world has never known a day quite like today,” Cronkite says at the top of the cast. After a package from Robert Schakne (complete with federal bureaucrats drawing diagrams in an impromptu classroom news conference), Cronkite returns: “Earlier, on this incredible third day of the accident, confusion, contradiction and questions clouded the atmosphere like atomic particles.” I tell the students that “incredible” had not yet become synonymous with “somewhat unusual” and I stress the alliterative simile.
I point this out on the day ABC announced Sawyer’s coming departure from the anchor chair because her anchoring represents much of what is wrong with the news business. I know, “relatability” is a long-settled issue in a media world of image consultants and likeability focus groups, but a tweet by Jay Rosen (@) drew my attention to a comment by Disney ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood that underlines a more troubling matter. In his “Note on Announcement,” Sherwood wrote of “the essential mission of ABC News: Empowering our audience to change the future.” I suppose we should be happy that ABC’s titans still think there’s a point to informing people about the world. But what does that phrase mean? How can you change what has not happened? In a later tweet, Rosen called it “frothy weightless idealism,” which is more to the point and illustrative of a problem I see in the news business and in student writing — saying things that sound impressive but mean nothing. If today is yesterday’s future, what great changes have ABC’s empowered viewers brought about?
Sawyer herself is not the problem, of course. Somehow, I don’t expect David Muir or George Stephanopoulos to be any more empowering — or any less relatable.