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Author Of The Month: Charles Ponce de Leon

Published: September 1, 2015

That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America

Charles Ponce de Leon, Professor, History and American Studies

Arriving in May from the University of Chicago Press, That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America traces the history of television journalism in the United States from its birth in the 1940s to the early 2000s. It examines the origins and evolution of news programs broadcast by the major networks—NBC, CBS and ABC—and the emergence of all-news cable channels like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. It addresses the development of local newscasts, the influence of local news and syndicated “tabloid” shows on network programs, news and public affairs broadcasting on educational television stations and PBS, and the rise of “fake news” programs on Comedy Central. In the process, Charles Ponce de Leon reviews the careers and contributions of notable journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite; producers like Don Hewitt, Reuven Frank and Av Westin; and pioneering executives like Robert Kintner, Richard Salant, Roone Arledge and Ted Turner. He reveals that television journalism changed markedly, especially after the 1970s—but not nearly to the degree that many older Americans believe. The change was a result in part of improvements in technology, which made it possible for journalists to broadcast breaking news from around the world in real time. It was also attributable to wider developments in the television industry and changes in American politics and culture, which encouraged journalists to produce news programs that were more likely to appeal to viewers. Departing from the conventional wisdom, Ponce de Leon demonstrates that this pressure was present from the outset, when journalists recognized the necessity of ensuring that their programs were compatible with the entertainment programs—and advertising—that already dominated the medium. But it became more intense in later years, when the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its “public interest” requirements, the rise of cable gave Americans many more viewing options, and much of the public developed a cynical view of the television news industry and felt less of a compulsion to be informed about “serious” issues. In short, “infotainment” was a feature of television news from the beginning, even during the profession’s seeming “golden age,” and the industry’s growing submission to market forces made its triumph virtually inevitable. Ponce de Leon’s new insights were inspired by his research in a collection of oral histories archived at Syracuse University. “What struck me about these histories was the perception I found even among broadcasters from the 1950s that they felt powerful pressure to make their news broadcasts more popular and entertaining,” he said. “In fact, there may have been no ‘Golden Age’ at all. The pressure to make TV news more entertaining was there from the

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beginning.” Ponce de Leon argues that TV journalists of the 1950s and ‘60s operated in a kind of cocoon. “They were protected to some degree from the pressures to make their news more entertaining,” he said. “The pressure was there but there were countervailing forces. One of the most prominent protections was the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which was repealed in the late 1980s. Another was the indulgence of powerful people who regarded the news as something different from entertainment. As a result, they tolerated poor ratings and lower profits. But the cocoon eventually was destroyed and TV journalists became more vulnerable to the pressures of the marketplace.” Ponce de Leon sees a TV future without anchors and predicts that soon news will be delivered entirely by the Internet. “TV news as we know it might not even exist in 10 years,” he said. “A lot of Americans don’t watch it and its audience is aging rapidly. But it was really important in earlier decades and I hope to make younger readers in particular aware of this.” His previous works include Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley in 2007 and Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940 in 2002. The California native earned his bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara and his Ph.D. from Rutgers before joining CSULB in 2009.