By Elizabeth Deane | Tuesday, July 17, 2012
By Ted Canova | Wednesday, April 11, 2012
April 12, 2012
BOSTON — For most of us, "60 Minutes" was appointment television in a time before 700 channels, Tivo and endless reruns. When news reached me of Mike Wallace's death, it took me back to the days when you actually had to get up to change the channel. It also took me back to the night I appeared in a "60 Minutes" story, ever so briefly.
Wallace was a merciless interviewer. On Sundays we'd see him confront a newsmaker. On Mondays, we'd all talk about it. But for all the ambushes, the pointed follow-up questions and the celebrity interviews, Wallace was a big believer and a strong advocate for making you, the news consumer, more responsible.
His death led us into the WGBH Vault, a climate-controlled room where thousands of archives are carefully stored. It is here where our team found a 1970 seminar at MIT in Cambridge. The topic centered on television news, which was still in its infancy. So the audience was suspect and ready to take on Wallace as if he were the spokesman for the entire industry.
"Catering" to short-term sensation
"Do you really think that in fact the profit motive of exactly appealing to your audience isn't accelerating, isn't teaching people to have a shorter time span, and to want more sensational things?" one attendee said. "Aren't you really reversing all the things that people learn from kindergarten to 12th grade about how to really appreciate complex issues by your catering to the sensational short-term, let's-do-this-and-move-on-to-another-thing type news broadcast?"
Wallace said television news was "getting better" but admitted, "We err sometimes, still."
At the time, the country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and college campuses were the focal point of anti-war rallies against President Richard Nixon and Vice President Agnew. Television news was getting battered from both sides, as Wallace noted, referencing a disparaging comment recently made by the vice president.
"I could hardly believe I would have to come to Cambridge to find so many allies of Spiro Agnew," Wallace retorted. "In three separate seminars today, it's become painfully obvious to me that the MIT community looks askance at television news just about as much as Agnew does, although for different reasons."
Wallace responds to the critique
Long before personal computers, cellphones and "apps," Wallace knew the audience's attention span was pivotal.
"If we in broadcasting fail at the mass communication of complicated issues, and I think we should plead guilty, we fail because first of all, the attention span of our viewers is probably minute," Wallace said. "If we delve too deeply, or linger too long on something difficult, we lose our audience — the ratings prove it. Second … there is almost no chance to savor and test an idea before another proposition has replaced it on the tube. And finally the average viewer or listener finds so many issues so overwhelmingly complicated to begin with that he despairs of understanding them anyway and says to hell with it and settles for a movie or a paperback whodunit or an episode of 'Mission Impossible.'"
But the audience isn't off the hook
In the WGBH Archives, I'm struck by the give-and-take, Wallace's comments and audience laughter, and think of a simpler time in journalism. But whether it was 1970 or throughout his career, Wallace always believed that you, the audience, held a powerful responsibility.
"We can sketch the outlines of the story. We can convey its feel. We can get the citizen involved, whet his interest, make him want to know more," he said. But for the complications and intricacies, the viewer would have to go deeper, "to the newspapers and journals, to the magazines and books, to public conversations and to private thinking — and in the final analysis, of course, that’s where he must go: to himself."
Wallace added, "It's hard work to learn about complicated issues. It is easier to pin the tail on the mass media for failing to keep us informed than to suggest that we ourselves lack the discipline to inform ourselves."
Which gets me back to my flash frame on a "60 Minutes" broadcast — when Wallace became interested in a situation that followed when my television station delved into complicated issues on the air.
In 1996, after a year's worth of work by top-notch, respected journalists, my station aired an investigative series on Northwest Airlines detailing safety issues, sizable fines and a culture that prevented employees from coming forward. We also had whistleblowers (something that, coincidentally, Wallace would come to know in his controversial story on big tobacco).
To this day, I believe Northwest knew the story would hold up in court. So instead of staging a legal battle, the airline filed a grievance with a public watchdog group called the Minnesota News Council. Its criticism of our investigation was lengthy; our defense was equally thorough. The result was a very public airing of journalism standards, tactics and techniques in newsgathering. We didn't stand a chance.
Over the years, I had testified before the council and defended news stories. But this case was different. Wallace was advocating for a national news council, where aggrieved subjects could take their case before a similar group. So when Northwest filed a complaint, Wallace came to town and "60 Minutes" covered it. Sunday night. Appointment TV.
A Wallace effect?
There was plenty of intrigue before and after the council ruled against the story. Did the glare of "60 Minutes" impact the council's decision? Was my station being held to a higher standard? How would Wallace's own, famously aggressive newsgathering tactics hold up in front of an ad hoc panel of former newspaper people and community members? Not well, I bet.
When the council ruled, there was celebration at the airline and a chilling effect in our newsroom. We realized that a news story could win in the courtroom but lose in the court of public opinion. The next night, my station won an Emmy for the Northwest investigation.
In subsequent years, instead of ignoring News Council complaints as my competitors did, I returned to the lion's den to defend more stories — none of which, I believe, we won. But it was important to face this "jury" even if its decisions seemed off the mark. The News Council disbanded in 2011 after 41 years.
Mike Wallace's passing could be the end of a conversation about journalism standards and the public's role. Or it could be a fresh start.
I'd like to know what you think. Tell me in the comments or email your thoughts to email@example.com.
Ted Canova is the executive editor for news at WGBH Radio.
Friday, March 16, 2012
March 16, 2012
On March 18, author John Updike would have turned 80. Most famous for his Harry "Rabbit" Angstron series of novels, Updike died in 2009. In this 1978 interview clip from WGBH's Open Vault, Updike tells reporter China Altman he secretly wished to be a cartoonist.
See the full 30-minute conversation on WGBH Open Vault, where Upike reads from his work and tells stories about growing up in Pennsylvania, life at Harvard, working at the New Yorker and how he developed the writing habits which enabled him to produce a book a year.
Updike lived his final years in Massachusetts. Read more of his biography.
By WGBH News | Saturday, January 28, 2012
Jan. 29, 2012
BOSTON — Mayor Kevin White's four-term tenure as mayor spanned a time of tumultuous race relations in Boston. These exclusive videos from the WGBH archives show key moments from the 1970s, when White presided over court-ordered desegregation in Boston public schools.
White spoke at a press conference at City Hall on the third day of desegregation of Boston public schools. He fielded questions about the enforcement of busing in South Boston and the school boycott by South Boston resident.
White appeared on WGBH's "The Ten O'Clock News" to call for a safe start to the school year after the uproar of the year before and detail measures in place to ensure it.
Watch the speech from WGBH Open Vault.
By Bob Seay, Elizabeth Deane & WGBH Archives Staff | Friday, January 13, 2012
Jan. 16, 2012
BOSTON — On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we look back at a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights, captured in three gripping, exclusive interviews from the WGBH archives.
It was the spring of 1963, a few months after Alabama governor George Wallace called for “segregation forever” and a few months before the March on Washington, when WGBH producer Henry Morgenthau III and director Fred Barzyk filmed “The Negro and the American Promise,” featuring author James Baldwin, Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The interviews reveal deep disagreement about the way forward for the movement and give a sense of the intense pressure on King. The interviewer is psychologist Kenneth Clark.
"There's a great deal of difference between non-resistance to evil and non-violent resistance. Non-resistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and dead-end complacency. Wherein non-violent resistance means you do resist in a very strong and determined manner." Read a transcript of the interview.
This segment was filmed immediately after a frustrating three-hour meeting with Robert F. Kennedy — the so-called "secret meeting" — to discuss the racial situation in northern cities. You can see Baldwin take a moment to collect his thoughts at the start of the conversation. Read a transcript of the interview.
"You don't integrate with a sinking ship. You don't do anything to further your stay on board a ship that you see is on its way down to the bottom of the ocean." Read a transcript of the interview.
Few people get to go inside the WGBH vault... a temperature-controlled storage room that houses thousands of tapes and recordings. It's a room full of living history and it helps WGBH News provide a perspective no one else has. Check out some of the materials, including original newscast coverage of the March on Washington, at Open Vault.
By Bob Seay, Elizabeth Deane & WGBH Archives Staff | Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Jan. 10, 2012
BOSTON — Today's New Hampshire primary is the very model of a modern-day election: Polls, pundits and non-stop analysis of the candidates' every word and move. But New Hampshire didn't always command such attention. We go into WGBH's vault for historical recordings showing the primary's rise to prominence.
The year is 1952 and political observers and New Englanders alike are trying to make sense of what happened in New Hampshire. The state's once-dormant primary rose up and captured national attention by playing a major role in determining who the presidential candidates would be that year.
The start of the primary system
Several states established primaries in the early 20th century to wrest control of the naming of presidential nominees from the rich and powerful. Interest in some primaries waned and New Hampshire’s primary eventually became the first in the nation.
According to professor Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire, the scheduling was due partly to a classic Yankee trait: frugality.
"We had Town Meeting day on the second Tuesday of March," he said. "The town fathers… saw no reason to open up the town hall twice and turn the heat on twice so they decided to have the primary on the same day as Town Meeting."
(It has stayed first because state law now says that it has to be, even if it means casting votes while Christmas shopping.)
The 1952 campaign
The first New Hampshire primary was in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1952 that it really attracted attention.
Former N.H. House Speaker Richard Upton started it all when he was upset with how little interest voters had shown in the 1948 primary and set about to change things. He crafted a bill that would have the candidates’ actual names on the ballot — unlike before when only unknown party reps were listed.
In historical footage, Upton recalled then-Gov. Sherman Adams having his doubts about the new approach.
"He wasn’t too sure that he ought to sign it," Upton said. "He called me in and said 'What does this bill mean?' I gave it as my opinion that it would quicken the interest of the voters, that there would be a real, I hoped, a real lively contest and that our state would be put on the map."
The results went far beyond what Upton had hoped: Turnout more than doubled in 1952 despite a big snowstorm. And the campaigns and voting results in New Hampshire were seen nationwide on something new — television news, culminating on Election Night when broadcasters announced the win of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To earn the nomination, Eisenhower defeated conservative hopeful Robert Taft of Ohio. Taft just never could get into pressing the flesh with the common man; New Hampshire voters responded by giving him a stinging defeat from which he never recovered.
1952’s New Hampshire primary was decisive for the Democrats as well. President Harry S. Truman was coy about his intentions in 1951, saying, "One of the things I’ve been thinking about is next year’s election. I ‘m not going to make any announcement about who the candidate will be." But it wasn’t going to be him. He never clearly indicated he would run but and when he decided to enter the New Hampshire primary it was too late. He lost to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. It made big news and put the state's primary on the map.
Few people get to go inside the WGBH vault... a temperature-controlled storage room that houses thousands of tapes and recordings. It's a room full of living history and it helps WGBH News provide a perspective no one else has.
The common touch
Adlai Stevenson ultimately became the Democrats’ candidate that year. It was Kefauver, however, who perhaps more than any other candidate established the style of presidential campaigning needed to win in New Hampshire.
The late Sen. Thomas McIntyre described it thus:
"If we had a toboggan he would ride in the toboggan. If there was an ice skater or something, he'd would try to skate with him. And every kind of a gadget — we found an old fire truck in Hooksett and that was all rigged up with lights and we ran it up and down the streets of Manchester at night with Estes trailing along with 'em shaking the hands of everybody he could find."
Once Kefauver did it, McIntyre added, everyone had to do it.
Smith said that kind of up-close-and-personal interaction is what New Hampshire adds to the political debate today.
"The one thing that the New Hampshire primary really allows the candidates to do is to listen to real voters express their concerns in public forums. So there’s an expectation that candidates have to talk with voters — that they can’t just run a tarmac campaign or a TV campaign," he said.
A 40-year tradition of victory
There was one candidate who realized early on how crucial a win in New Hampshire would be for his candidacy. John F. Kennedy skillfully worked with state Democratic leaders to craft his New Hampshire victory in 1960, which led him eventually to the White House.
From then on, whoever won the New Hampshire primary went on to win their party’s nomination. Even in 1988, when George Bush was trounced in Iowa, he won New Hampshire and then went on to win the presidency… over the winner of the 1988 Democratic primary in N.H.: Michael Dukakis.
It took 40 years to break the streak. Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire in 1992. The second-place finisher started to call himself "The Comeback Kid." Bill Clinton did indeed come back. It was the first time since 1952 that a New Hampshire winner did not become president.
Smith thinks that Massachusetts neighbor Mitt Romney will likely win on Jan. 10 — but you can’t trust the polls in the Granite State.
"If you go back historically, polling in New Hampshire and predicting the primaries is typically way off either predicting the wrong winner or significantly overestimating or underestimating the magnitude of a win for a candidate," he said.
Which makes the day that more interesting and suspenseful, ensuring that the New Hampshire primary continues as a political force to be reckoned with by any who seek to occupy the White House.
Historical audio excerpts are from the film "The Premier Primary," produced by Accompany Video Production and from the WGBH archives. Visit the WGBH archives online at openvault.wgbh.org.