Cheerleading, hyperbole mark TV coverage Broadcast news lacking in analysis, balance

October 30, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Walter Cronkite was there cracking lame jokes and telling us how President Kennedy would have felt. Dan Rather was in full "Texas Dan" mode, calling people "hoss" and analyzing how much "giddyup" there was in those rocket boosters. Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams were giving new meaning to the word "gush."

It was a big day on Planet Spectacle in the galaxy of television news yesterday as John Glenn, the 77-year-old Democratic senator from Ohio, joined six astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Network and cable news channels were all over the story. CNN, hoping for instant credibility, brought Cronkite to its anchor desk, trumping everyone on a day when elderly was next to godly.

But if you were looking for balanced reporting and thoughtful analysis as you orbited the tube, you were out of luck. Cheerleading, myth-making and wild hyperbole were the order of the day.

"When John Glenn lifts off five hours from now, he'll reignite the meaning of real achievement and the meaning of hero," NBC anchorman Brokaw told viewers on MSNBC yesterday morning.

Five and a half hours later, Brian Williams was telling MSNBC's audience, "It was the launch that shook the Earth."

"This is one of those occasions when we are supposed to stay neutral as members of the press, but I will tell you, I will admit my heart will be pounding when that countdown reaches 10," "Today" show anchorman Matt Lauer said.

"That's right, there are those naysayers that say this is a publicity stunt," co-anchor Katie Couric chimed in, "but John Glenn's enthusiasm is definitely infectious."

Couric's naysayers' approach was the main trick most broadcasters used to give some semblance of balance.

"There are those who say this is a risky [publicity] stunt. How do you explain the importance of this flight to them?" Cronkite's CNN co-anchor, Miles O'Brien, asked former astronaut Alan Bean.

"I have not heard one person say that," Bean answered.

Actually, CNN came closest to offering balance. But most of what it achieved in that respect seemed to happen by accident.

For example, when former test pilot Chuck Yeager was being interviewed, O'Brien tossed him a softball, saying, "Chuck, what are you thinking about this flight? Good idea?"

"Yeah, pretty good deal," Yeagar said taking O'Brien's lead. But then, to O'Brien's surprise, he added, "You know, NASA pretty badly needed some publicity, and they couldn't have picked a better guy than John Glenn. But [in terms of science], I just sort of get the feeling that it would have been better to put a young astronaut in that seat John is sitting in."

"You mean you don't believe NASA when they say this is about science?" O'Brien asked, showing his surprise.

"I don't believe it's as important as you would be led to believe," Yeager replied. "Basically, I say that because one seven-day orbit by one old guy won't give you valid data," he said.

Yeager shared one more feeling with viewers: "Talking to Walter Cronkite, man, I just get the feeling that this is an old man's show with the exception of the young six that are hauling John up into space."

CNN, with Cronkite, was playing nostalgia for all it was worth. Nostalgia, cheerleading, myth-making and hyperbole -- yesterday was not about TV journalism. Yesterday what we saw was Brokaw telling us, "However you felt about John Glenn before, I am confident it can't help but have changed once those big rocket boosters went off." Yesterday we heard Rather saying, "Mars or bust go or a-go-go."

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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