The Media: Then and Now
by Joan Z. Shore
I was lucky enough to be working in the media—radio and television—during the glory days, right up to the end.
Personally, I place the end shortly before the year 2000, just before the Internet took over our lives.
For nearly a decade, I was the Paris correspondent for CBS News, lurching from press conference to press conference, from calamity to calamity, along with my colleagues from ABC, NBC, and later, CNN. We were just a handful among 3,000 accredited foreign journalists in Paris—writing, recording, filming, editing whatever we thought would be important, or interesting, to our unseen audience “back home.”
In America, as in in most countries, foreign news does not take priority over local events. So while radio needed endless material for the hourly reports, television was only interested in foreign news when something really big happened: a presidential election, a terrorist attack, an airline accident. We didn’t have to wish for those: inevitably, they happened.
One of the more delightful events that absolutely had to be covered was the inaugural flight of the Concorde: Paris to New York in three and a half hours! To cover this momentous occasion, CBS sent over their venerable newsman, Walter Cronkite. He spent a couple of days in Paris before the flight. It was the first time we’d met, and we quickly established a friendship. One afternoon, we were sitting at an outdoor café on the Champs-Elysées, and at least half a dozen American tourists spotted him and came over to say hello.
“You see?” laughed Walter. “They recognized you!”
When the day came for the Concorde flight, I accompanied him to the airport, and we joked about sneaking me on board. No way.
We met again when he visited Paris with Betsy, his beloved wife, and we had dinner together at a simple restaurant in my neighborhood. The French clientele didn’t pay much attention, but the owner recognized him and asked him to sign the guest book. Graciously, he did.
We met again in Nairobi. I had just been on safari, and he was doing a story on tribal medicine and witch doctors, part of a series. He seemed fairly impressed by what he had learned. “There may be something to it,” he said. Walter never dismissed a new idea, a new concept, a new viewpoint.
We met again in Vienna, after his retirement from CBS. He was reporting for CNN on the gala New Year’s celebration and the New Year’s Day concert, as he did for many years. He looked splendid in his tuxedo, but expressed regret that he had retired from the CBS news desk “too soon.” Clearly, those cultural jaunts were fun, but too tame for this maestro.
Whenever I was in New York, we tried to get together. I remember a lovely lunch at the Russian Tea Room, where he had his special table. And a drink one afternoon at his favorite East Side bar, when he arrived limping due to a leg injury. There would be no tennis and sailing that summer.
And once, he called me and simply said, “Hello, Joan,” and I absent-mindedly said, “Who’s this?”
“Oh, my God!,” he said. “She doesn’t recognize my voice!”
“Walter!” I exclaimed, thoroughly embarrassed. “I must be deaf!”
Walter’s voice was distinctive and rich, as were most media voices in those days. Today, the networks concentrate on appearance, not voice: the perfectly combed hair, the deftly powdered face. But even this may be a vanishing illusion, as network news shrinks in relation to the Internet.
In Paris now, there are fewer than 1,000 accredited foreign journalists. The big three American networks closed their Paris bureaus 20 years ago believing that more important things were happening elsewhere in the world, and that maintaining a fully staffed bureau anywhere was simply too expensive. So there are no more cameramen, soundmen, editors, bureau chiefs. There is, instead, a whole generation of free-lance writers and bloggers. Sometimes their reports get picked up by an Internet site; rarely will they be paid. (Arianna Huffington perfected this “fame but no fortune” principle, promising her contributors “exposure” in lieu of monetary compensation.) So we have an army of self-appointed journalists who lack training, experience and pay; who probably have a camera in their pocket; and who can, at a moment’s notice, tell the world that there’s been an accident on Main Street or a deadly fire in a garbage dump.
Let us not blame the messenger entirely; the nature of our communications today is fast and shallow. In-depth reporting is rare, and audiences are impatient. The 30-second soundbite has been reduced to 20 seconds, and the seasoned correspondent who spent years in a foreign office—lunching with a senator, interviewing a local businessman—exists no longer.
And we are the poorer for it.