Television news makes me long for the newspapers of the last century.
More precisely, for the Time Magazines of my distant and evaporating youth.
Substance dominated style in those days. Stories were written well, but dryly. They weren’t meant to entertain but to inform, and the “Dragnet” method – “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” – prevailed.
When commentary or analysis appeared, it was labeled as such.
I mentioned in last week’s column that among the myriad components I admired in the current Broadway mounting of “Network,” a theatrical presentation based on the 1976 movie, was how well it recognized and traced the turn of broadcast news from a loss leader that brought prestige to a network to another entertainment show that had to go beyond paying its way to making a profit.
“Monetizing” was the process.
News, in the journalistic definition, suffered as stations went from relatively pure reporting to looking for angles that would go further than natural headlines and carry some sensation.
That wasn’t totally new. Yellow journalism of a bygone era, and news executives such as William Randolph Hearst, certainly exploited public emotion and wanted to provide a platform that might lead readers to think a specific way.
Television news of the Cronkite-Huntley-Brinkley age was more disciplined than that. Anyone in “the business” knew you had to consider television and its audience along with the journalistic, but the story had to be accurate. It wouldn’t be embellished, a la Hearst, or a la Fox News and MSNBC, to skew it in a way it could not bend.
Emotion and sentiment did not enter into news stories about politics and current events. There may be a sidebar that addresses human interest, but in general, the “Dragnet” approach was the guide.
It wasn’t newscasters that introduced gushier aspects into stories. It was Phil Donahue and the talk show hosts that imitated his format.
Now, facts are offered, but they’re part, a small part, of an overall package that places discussion and interpretation of facts, partisan interpretation, at the forefront.
Stories are beaten to death and presented through and through as if they are more the day’s gossip than something that can be important.
You’ll hear objective information, but it won’t be presented objectively for long. The partisans of both sides will put their spin on it. They’ll say things they don’t verify and you can’t be sure are true. In fact, you have that spider tingle that tells you most of it isn’t. You wonder where you can get the truth, so you can make rational judgments of your own and put real facts through your own filter instead of having them polluted by the talking heads who only want to draw you to their side.
My disrespect for current broadcast news presentation and practices is profound. I trust no one and see most national news anchors as ringmasters getting the circus started.
I say all of this because we are the midst of two important events, the release of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian’s intrusion into the United States’ 2016 presidential election, just as we are considering candidates for the 2020 election.
Sifting through information to make decisions is harder when you can’t trust the messengers or, worse, expect they are too corrupt to be of use.
Thank goodness for print. It gave me the chance to see the Mueller reports in perspective. Thank goodness for observation. It allows me to assess those who wish to be president, and the person who is president.
Broadcast news, whether NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, fails and disappoints to provide clear, unbiased and non-partisan views of these important matters.
How is there to be an informed electorate when the information is always boiled down to a political slugfest.
Once upon a time I lamented that politics and government were ignored by news organizations because they didn’t know how to analyze events or present them interestingly.
I continue to believe television news teams cannot analyze news deftly. My worry is how well they learned to present them and how much that presentation depends on emotional and partisan passion as opposed to the objectivity of the “Dragnet” method.
The moral is be careful what you wish for. The upshot is that there is nowhere to turn that is convenient and as shrewd at being convincing. As least to other partisans on either side.
My wish for news in the decade to come, one that will include that 2020 election is that the Age of Cronkite will return, and viewers will be able to rely on broadcast sources to get genuine news delivered well and with proportion and perspective.
What we have now is just a disgrace.
Nostalgia time in Bucks
Bucks County Playhouse is spending April 2019 as Nostalgia Central.
Last week, it presented a play with a cast representing hit shows from the ABC Television Network of the ‘80s – Don Most from “Happy Days,” Cindy Williams from “Laverne and Shirley,” Adrian Zmed from “T.J. Hooker,” and Didi Conn from “Benson.”
This week, the ABC of yesteryear routine continues as Hal Linden, who has much to his credit but is most famous for playing the title character on “Barney Miller,” comes to New Hope as the celebrity host of a 1940s swing revue, “In the Mood.”
Before coming to television, Linden was known as a leading man in the musical theater. He earned a 1971 Tony Award for portraying the patriarch of a famous international banking family in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “The Rothschilds.”
“Barney Miller” cast Linden in what I tend to call “the Mary Tyler Moore” role, that of a central character who has a quirk or two but is the rock of sanity amid a zanier or more neurotic group.
Linden fit the paradigm well. Barney was the picture of sense and stability while supervising a precinct of detectives that had stronger and more comic personalities. He provided the anchor that controlled the less grounded emotions and behaviors of the people with whom he worked.
“In the Mood” will draw more on Linden’s experience as a showman. Like that cast from last week, he is first and foremost an entertainer, and that’s the way you win a Tony in 1971, head a hit television series in 1981, and find welcome as the headliner of a variety show three and four decades later.
RIP, Georgia Engel
The voice was real.
Believe it or not, that was the first thing I wanted to find out when I interviewed Georgia Engel, who rose to stardom as Georgette on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” some time in the beginning days of this column. Or before.
I remember not being able to wait until Miss Engel came into the room, so I could hear what she really sounded like. As in most interviews I do, my objective was to get past the persona to the person.
In Georgia Engel, the line did not blur.
She wasn’t Georgette, but the difference she brought to the playing of Georgette was the essence of her. She spoke in a cheerful whisper, capable of going to a basso profundo, and had the kewpie doll mannerisms associated with her TV character.
Ms. Engel could let loose more than Georgette. I remember meeting her by accident in the lobby of Wilmington’s Playhouse, where I believe she was doing “Nunsense” – she was in Wilmington a few times. – and having her go into a hilarious comic routine about something that happened to her. The “what” isn’t as important as the way it broke a mold, an expectation a woman who spoke like Ms. Engel would always act a certain way or be a certain way.
The range of her performances disproves that. Vocal traits and facial expressions may travel between Georgette and Ms. Engel’s other TV creation, Pat MacDougall, Amy’s mother, on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but the characters were not the same. Ms. Engel was able to use what she brought to a production in distinct and defining ways. She certainly provided the needed contrasts, and parallels, to her counterpart, Doris Roberts’ formidable Marie Barone. (By the way, the actress who played Ms. Engel’s daughter, Amy, is Delco native Monica Horan, who has come back a few times to appear locally and, as importantly, has endowed several regional artistic projects, such as the excellent rehearsal/teaching/performance space at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.)
You might think Ms. Engel’s gifts demanded the small stage and the camera and sound equipment that would amplify her voice and catch her nuances.
No. Ms Engel was a canny performer who could project her talents and create characters for the stage. The first time I saw her, in “The Five O’Clock Girl” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and every time since, including in her wonderful turn as a forgetful socialite in Broadway’s “The Drowsy Chaperone,” I marveled at how much her comic savvy and connection with her audience allowed her to radiate behind the quiet, minimalism of what she was doing to create the joy and effect she did.
Many actors make a mark. Few are truly unique and an entity unto themselves.
Georgia Engel was. No one before her was like her, and no one will be again.
She was an original. “Unique,” its actual sense, fits her because I can’t think of anyone else who played roles the ways she did and made them work.
Georgia Engel died on April 12 in Princeton, N.J. She was 70, which was a surprise. Even when she played Georgette or when I saw or spoke with her, I took her for older.
Ms. Engel worked constantly from the time she found fame to her passing. It was good work. She did it her way, and when you consider the results, it’s difficult to conceive of a performer who could have done it better.