For anyone tuned in to television news, this past week was very emotional. I mean that literally. Tears flowed through the screen and difficult feelings were exposed by prominent personalities, all in very public settings.
It hasn’t always been that way. Over many years, audiences have slowly but steadily changed how they react to strong emotions brought into their homes by TV cameras and close-ups. Last week was something of a breakthrough in that transformation.
Hearings by the House select committee looking into the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 delivered the most powerful punch of the week. Four police officers who defended the Capitol often broke down in tears and reached over to comfort each other as they described what they endured.
Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Kinzinger says Trump 'winning' because many Republicans 'have remained silent' 'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot MORE (R-Ill.) delivered his own impassioned statement to the officers — and fought a losing battle to keep his composure. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse passes bill to compensate 'Havana syndrome' victims House Democrats unveil legislation to curtail presidential power Overnight Hillicon Valley — Hacking goes global MORE (D-Calif.) also teared up during the testimony.
On the other side of the globe, star gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo games, citing the need to care for her emotional health. She told NBC News that living with Olympic pressure “isn’t an easy feat.”
Not long ago, these kinds of direct displays and frank talk could often destroy the reputation of anyone in a leadership position — especially in politics or sports, where a large dose of stoicism was expected in order to maintain public confidence.
Perhaps the most famous example took place in 1972. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Ed Muskie was compelled to end his campaign after he apparently teared up on camera, responding to what turned out to be one of the many “dirty tricks” coming out of President Nixon’s re-election apparatus.
Decades passed but little seemed to change. As recently as 2010, the BBC headlined a report “Can you trust a leader who cries?” The article focused on Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio), who sobbed at a news conference after the mid-term elections made him the next Speaker of the House. In 2013, his tears were still a big story. A Politico report asked: “Why does John Boehner cry so much?” The Speaker’s emotional displays were often used to call his “strength” as a leader into question.
Seeing someone cry can be distressing, no doubt. That’s a typical human reaction. But for years, television made this problem worse. The TV tight shot is extremely powerful — someone’s face completely fills our screen, bringing us closer to human expressions and emotions than we ever are in real life. Viewers accepted this intimacy when it involved fictional characters. However, especially in TV’s earlier years, audiences often felt uncomfortable when an extreme close-up focused on a person in the news. Here, the tears and pain were real — and sometimes we just didn’t know how to react.
Daytime talk shows began to change this. The best interviewers in the genre — hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donohue — created an atmosphere where it was okay to cry, where tears were a sign of strength. Audiences came to endorse that.
But different expectations remained for the powerful and for our heroes. An unspoken deal was struck: We’ll give you all this authority or adulation — we’ll even put you on cereal boxes… In exchange, we only want to see a certain version of you on television: Confident. Strong. A bit super-human.
This past week was, perhaps, the final step in the long disintegration of that wall between viewers and the people being viewed.
Biles was handed all the gifts our image-focused media eco-system had to give: TV commercials, talk show appearances, and — yes — cereal boxes. But when these offerings simply became too much, she walked away. She has her detractors — no surprise there — but few today believe Biles has forever ruined her reputation and career.
At the same time, those in tears at the House hearings included a former Air Force pilot and a Washington D.C. detective who joined the force right after 9/11. Not long ago, the pressure for them to keep public emotions in check would have been exceptionally intense. But now, only their critics seem small.
About a century ago, film icon Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a Comedy in long-shot.”
Maybe we’ve recently gotten more comfortable with tragedy in the never-ending tumult of this century’s first 20 years.
Or, hopefully, maybe we’ve gotten better at appreciating how — precisely because of all this chaos — even our heroes need a public moment to let us know what they really feel.
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 worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.