New York (NY) – Technology journalists, by virtue of their jobs having been forged from the grafting together of two unique crafts, have two classes of heroes: technologists and journalists. Just after last Christmas, technologist John Diebold – the fellow who created the modern concept of automation, with regard to factories and the production process – passed away, and we paid tribute to him on that day. Today, a true journalist has passed who had as much to do with creating the modern medium of journalism as Diebold had in conceiving the process of automation.
Reuven Frank has died, it was announced this morning on NBC’s Today program – whose format he helped create. Frank played a principal role in the creation of electronic journalism, most ostensibly for television. In turn, his work had a direct impact on me, and had something to do with why I am writing for you now on TG Daily.
In the early 1950s, Frank was the producer of one of network television’s first regular newscasts, whose own name revealed so much about how far the medium had yet to evolve: the Camel News Caravan for NBC. When he took over production duties, most of the show had already been devoted to a live shot of its narrator (the term “anchorman” had yet to be coined at CBS), named John Cameron Swayze, reading papers from a desk in sync with a rolling newsreel film. This is how different the era of news was in 1954: Since many newsreel cameras did not record sound, the studio director often borrowed live Foley artists from the radio division, to recreate the sound effects that a camera picture left out: cheering, marching, gunfire, dogs barking at rioters, that sort of thing.
What Frank gave to the daily broadcast newscast was its core principle: that it should be honest with the viewer. (Many people credit Edward R. Murrow for this, though it’s generally forgotten that Murrow never played a role in the production of the Evening News for CBS.) Under Frank’s leadership, initially to the protests of NBC upper management, sound effects and musical accompaniment were dropped from news stories. Furthermore, Frank had the idea that, since many of the more important stories happen in Washington, DC, NBC should have a live reporter on hand in its WRC-TV studios. Swayze could use a verbal cue to cut to this reporter, who could take his cue from there and tell the story of the day on Capitol Hill. Since Frank believed nobody read a story any more honestly than the person who wrote it, he had a hand in picking the fellow who would be NBC’s on-air “Chief Washington Correspondent.” That person was David Brinkley.
Already, we live in an era, I realize, when not even Brinkley’s name automatically rings a bell; but there was a time when his was one of the most recognized names in America. Imagine having the outreach of NBC’s Brian Williams today, multiplied by a factor of about 15.
In 1956, the political convention was an event upon which it seemed the fate of our world could rest. As a result, it became the first live event that television would ever cover as it happened. Four years earlier, CBS had bested NBC in this regard, by hiring Walter Cronkite to lead its coverage. At that time, although NBC had wisely decided that two news presenters talking with one another would make more sense than one person always talking directly at the viewer, the two the network had chosen came from different media, and simply could not force themselves to embrace the idea of television: H. V. Kaltenborn narrated NBC’s radio news during World War II, but couldn’t feign any knowledge or interest in politics. Bill Henry was a Los Angeles Times sports writer and radio play-by-play announcer, who would call events as he saw them, such as individuals getting up to walk away, or to sit back down. Neither had an understanding of the medium, and the producers at that time couldn’t understand what it was they didn’t understand.
So for the 1956 conventions, Reuven Frank was put in charge. Yes, two people should still talk to each other, and the network already had one picked: Chet Huntley, who was one of “Murrow’s Boys” and even sounded a little like him, with his deep, resounding tones. Frank chose his partner, Brinkley, partly because he sounded so different from Huntley, but also because Brinkley and Frank had already worked out a certain rule, which they had used on the air in the Swayze broadcast. Here’s how Brinkley describes it from his memoirs:
When the 1956 political conventions approached, NBC’s news executives agreed on one point only – that losing the ratings to CBS and Cronkite was intolerable. John Cameron Swayze’s News Caravan was leading the pack of early evening news programs, but they did not think he knew enough political history or knew enough of the political system’s featured players and strutting prima donnas to carry the load of discussing and explaining them and the convention procedures for four days and four nights. Plus, Swayze’s evening news program was carefully scripted, and he even had a little time to rehearse and memorize his stories, while at a political convention everything was ad-lib and nothing could be rehearsed.
The pairing of Kaltenborn and Henry in 1952 had not worked. Both were experienced broadcasters, but they failed here for the reason now becoming familiar: both had grown up in radio and could not or would not adapt to the television medium, learn its needs and learn to use its strengths and steer around its weaknesses. A small example of this I remember from 1952: some forgotten senator finished an easily forgettable speech, folded his script, put it in his pocket and walked back down to his seat. Henry, the radio veteran, talked over the television picture as he walked, saying, “The senator finishes his speech. . . folds his script. . . and puts it in his pocket. . . and returns to his seat.” That was narration for radio, not television. On radio there was and is a compulsion to talk because on radio, indeed, you must talk. If there is more than a few seconds of silence, known to broadcasters as dead air, listeners will put down their knitting, sensing that something is wrong. After Henry’s and Kaltenborn’s years on radio the habit was too hard for them to break.
Very early, I discussed this with Reuven Frank, NBC’s production genius who managed convention coverage and built it into the shape and style still followed today, and while we both opposed making a lot of rules, we did agree on one, one so simple, sophomoric and obvious it should never have been needed, but it was. The Frank-Brinkley rule was this: In talking over a television picture, never tell the viewers what they can easily see for themselves. If you cannot add anything useful to what is in the picture, keep quiet. It worked then and it works now.
I have often said that the business of online technology journalism is very much at the point of its evolution today as television journalism was in 1956. When David Strom first brought me on board at Tom’s Hardware Guide, Wolfgang Gruener was already leading its news division, which would soon become TG Daily. David knew that I was a kind of amateur historian of journalism, and one day in his car driving down the Santa Monica Freeway, we talked about the parallels between this business and that one. And I told him that, at that moment, he was Reuven Frank. I was David Brinkley, and Wolfgang – the man the network trusted to set the tone and the voice – was Chet Huntley. We had an opportunity to do right now, I argued, at this time in the history of our medium, what they did for theirs.
Reuven Frank went on to create and produce The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and then serve as the President of NBC News through the late 1960s and early 1970s, and again during the mid-1980s. He set the clean, polished, worldly style of news broadcasts, and personally trained hundreds of journalists, both writers and photographers. He introduced the concept of electronic editing with videotape to the newsroom as early as the late 1950s. The way coaches build baseball and football teams that inspire young boys to be great athletes, Frank built the team that inspired me to become a journalist rather than a programmer or a portrait artist. In his memoir, Out of Thin Air, he closed by saying he feared his only legacy would be the fact that someone named a pair of TV cartoon villains after Huntley and Brinkley. Far from it: Reuven Frank is one reason why I, and so many others, are in this business.
(Update: The media industry blog TVNewser has posted a list of recent essays written by Reuven Frank, the latest one having been published just last December.)