TV network news: big story gets petty treatment

July 21, 1991|By David Zurawik

OUT OF THIN AIR:

THE BRIEF WONDERFUL LIFE

OF NETWORK NEWS.

Reuven Frank.

Simon & Schuster.

429 pages. $24.95. I used to admire Reuven Frank, the former president of NBC News.

Then I read his book.

"Out of Thin Air" is not the "authentic history" of broadcast news, which Simon & Schuster says it is. It is mainly a self-serving attempt by Mr. Frank to upgrade his status in the history of television news.

What angers me about this book is not that Mr. Frank keeps patting himself and a coterie of his friends on the back page after page -- at the expense of a more representative account of television news and postwar America. That's OK. Mr. Frank has done some things as an award-winning producer and executive at NBC News that he should be proud of. And, going in, I expected this kind of "history" to be personal and somewhat skewed by the first-person telling.

What is not OK, though, is that Mr. Frank tries to diminish the legitimate accomplishments and sacrifices of others to enlarge his own status -- others, like Fred Friendly, ex-president of CBS News, and former CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow. The attempt at revision is done with smooth writing and a distortion or bias that's disturbing in someone who has held the high positions in media that Mr. Frank has.

For those not familiar with Mr. Frank, he worked at NBC News from 1950 to 1986 in jobs ranging from news writer to producer to president of news. He was directly involved in some of the best moments of NBC News: The pairing of David Brinkley and Chet Huntley for the "Huntley-Brinkley Report." The airing of "The Tunnel," a documentary about people tunneling to freedom in Cold War Berlin. NBC's political coverage in 1956 and '60. He was, as they say, there.

Mr. Frank still has NBC too much under his skin. The real themes of this book are not about anything as large or important as the "life of network news." In fact, his analysis of the decline of network news is cursory and consists mainly of second- and third-hand ideas.

The real thrust of "Out of Thin Air" is Mr. Frank's trying to knock down the first drafts of media history, which say CBS News was the bench mark of great news in the 1950s and '60s. In almost every page of every account of those years, he is trying to convince us that NBC was better.

His account of TV coverage of John Kennedy's election-night victory in 1960 includes the following:

The evening wore on, and we were good. Everybody said we were good. We had everything, usually first . . .

Later we learned CBS had gone all out, with every recognizable name except Ed Murrow's. (The press was told he had a cold. One account speculated that he was tired of having received, at both conventions, what is called the "you-be-Brinkley treatment. . .")

Mr. Frank should know better than the "one account speculated" innuendo. There are several real historical accounts that all agree: Murrow had pneumonia, his lungs were savaged by the cancer that would kill him a couple of years later. He had just finished "Harvest of Shame," the landmark documentary, and was exhausted.

That's Mr. Frank's problem: He lived for the competition of an election night and transitory congratulations ("Everybody said we were good."). Murrow and his producer, Friendly, meanwhile, made "Harvest of Shame," which will move people as long as they have eyes and ears and hearts. And now, Mr. Frank seems bitter that he is likely to be judged as just another news executive who fed at the sumptuous banquet of network television salaries and perks in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, rather than a great journalist or someone who served the public trust with distinction.

"Out of Thin Air" is a troubling book. It's troubling because instead of offering a real historical account of one of the century's most important social and cultural developments, the publishing industry gives us too many books like this -- books written by broadcasters and former broadcasters still engulfed in personality and the petty politics of salary, status and morning-after reviews. The same gang that's celebrated in the pages of the books writes the dust-jacket blurbs for the books and, all too often, reviews them in newspapers and magazines.

This is a book filled with contempt. Mr. Frank has contempt for academics, network presidents who he feels didn't appreciate him, the print press, public opinion. He seems to go out of his way several times to show how clever network publicists were able manipulate the press (especially former New York Times TV Critic Jack Gould) to get favorable reviews and coverage.

He may be right in his contempt for television criticism as practiced in newspapers. As critics, we are getting better. But, overall, our efforts and moral commitment still fall far short of the responsibility that goes with the job of trying to help thousands of readers understand the role TV plays in our lives.

But Mr. Frank is wrong to think that newspaper TV critics are responsible for the fact that no one is likely to confuse him with Friendly.He's also wrong to think that in the end he can manipulate history.

Mr. Zurawik is The Sun's TV critic.

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