Walter Cronkite unnerved a nation 56 years ago, by taking off his glasses.
The video has been seen by countless millions over the decades: Cronkite announcing on live television in 1963 the death of President Kennedy. He stops for a moment, removes his glasses, composes himself and moves on. That gesture rattled Americans because they expected journalists to convey a calm sense of authority, a reassuring stoicism in the face of Cold War standoffs, civil unrest and even the assassination of a president.
Things have changed. Emotion now blankets the media landscape like an infant’s crib at bedtime. Google “Shepard Smith emotional,” and up come nearly 3 million results, many of them focused on the Fox anchor’s recent visceral response to immigrant suffering. A search of “Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowMichigan AG asks federal prosecutors to investigate false GOP electors Democrats skeptical of McConnell's offer to talk on election law Amid multiple crises, Biden runs to NBC's safe space with Jimmy Fallon MORE crying” delivers more than 1 million offerings, many for the MSNBC host’s reaction to border detentions and the Mueller report. “Brooke Baldwin tears” uncovers nearly 2 million entries for the CNN reporter’s reaction to a variety of news events.
They are not alone. Contemporary culture trusts feelings over facts, rewards heated emotion — tears or anger — and rejects medium cool. The effect on journalism is unmistakable. And a lot of the blame can be placed on those all-too-common twin devils: television and the internet.
From the earliest days of television, journalists understood the power of an image to overwhelm objectivity. That’s why Cronkite and others worked hard to present the news without emotional cues: no raised eyebrows, head-shaking, or wide-eyed incredulity. They presented the news simply, expecting this would counteract that gut-level response all humans have to striking images.
It didn’t work for long. As television began to overtake newspapers, images trumped words, viewing overpowered reading. In the 1980s TV news actually became profitable, which increased pressure on electronic journalism to highlight emotional images that delivered viewers.
Then, in this century, the internet blew everything up. Now photos and video are available all the time, in any quantity. News organizations feel pressed to do whatever they can to grab viewers’ attention in the midst of this staggering clutter of emotional imagery.
But emotions can be like an addiction. The only way to hold a viewer’s attention is to continually ratchet up the emotional stakes. It’s not enough to connect passionately to a picture or a video clip; the audience also expects a fierce attachment to news anchors and reporters — they want to see journalists emote, which is embraced as a more reliable truth than the facts and figures being reported.
Media analysts refer to this as the “post-literate” society, where words matter less and images are our main “language,” the most effective way for humans to communicate.
In a way, we’ve been here before: Call it “pre-literate” America, at the beginnings of mass communication more than century ago. Back then, vast sections of the populace, from rural areas to immigrant-swelled cities, had at best a basic grasp of reading. In that culture, “yellow journalism” thrived. Newspapers relied on simple sentences, bold headlines and lots of big photos. The Hearst and Pulitzer chains competed for emotion-driven stories like crime sprees and sex scandals. Their papers were often aligned with a political party (Pulitzer the Democrats, Hearst the Republicans) and each accused the other of exaggeration and sensationalism — in other words, “fake news.”
Their battle for dominance is even blamed for whipping up public passion and sparking the Spanish-American War.
Tabloid journalism never totally went away, of course. But its power diminished thanks to increased literacy, especially after World War II, as the nation poured money into education. Words mattered.
Literacy can also mitigate today’s journalism trends. “Media literacy” is now being taught in many schools — training students to view images critically, to be aware of the fervor they conjure up, and to put those in perspective. Studies show younger viewers are in fact better able to cut through the clutter, separating facts from emotion and reporting from opinion.
The genies of image and emotion can’t be pushed back into their bottles, nor should they; impersonal and objective always threatened to seem cold-blooded, especially in the face of tragic news. But a new literacy, a new vigilance, is required.
William Randolph Hearst, at the height of his tabloid power, is quoted as saying, “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it.” But journalism is better off when readers (and, now, viewers) can look critically at what’s in front of them — whether words or images — and value the facts above all else.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.