The Gods of Antenna, by Bruce Herschensohn, New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1975, 155 pp., $7.95.
Criticism of the various aspects of television is perhaps a bit overdone. After all, the medium basically is in a stage of infancy. Younger even than radio, it has not had time to perfect itself over the centuries as have drama, literature, newspapers, or magazines.
But the faults are still there, whether one looks at the dross dished out to us by the networks in this miserable television season, the screaming, mindless, tasteless game shows that the locals foist upon us—or the quality of network news.
Whether the fault lies with those who provide us with it or whether the fault is inherent in the medium itself, one cannot be sure; but the germ of public suspicion which the now-unmourned Spiro Agnew first voiced is now widely discussed and increasingly documented.
In Edward Jay Epstein's News From Nowhere, Kevin Philips' Mediacracy, Edith Efron's The News Twisters, and this latest book by former White House staffer Bruce Herschensohn, there is compelling criticism of broadcast journalism.
Because the time available for each story is limited, and because television fosters an emphasis on action, words and pictures—when broadcast to a nationwide audience—take on meanings which can overwhelm the casual observer of current events. The meanings are obvious to many who seek to manipulate television. As one member of the New Left said in the 1960's, the television networks in their one or two-minute stories on demonstrations were making "commercials" for the demonstrators.
Now this can be done for either side in the political arena. Stories may be slanted—or just plain omitted—by whoever edits the news. The same may be done in newspapers or magazines as well, but the effect is magnified with the near monopolistic control of television that the networks have.
Herschensohn was—and still is—a Nixon man. Quite a bit of his book is devoted to a spirited and loyal defense of his former employer. At times, the exhibition is more than a little overdone. It may in fact be true that Nixon was hounded from the White House for offenses no worse than his predecessors committed. It does not change the fact that he was finally proven guilty of them and the choice at that point was either to oust Nixon or to say that a president may do whatever he chooses, without fear of detection. But if a reader can wade through this rather interesting example of to-the-bitter-end loyalty, he will come upon one of the more cogent essays on media bias and news slanting available.
Mr. Herschensohn, besides being an extremely skilled and articulate writer, is also a very talented producer, director, writer, and editor of films, so talented, in fact, that he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1964. He plainly knows how to place things on film, how to create emphasis, how to get his point across. Because of this, he is uniquely able to analyze just what is being broadcast in the name of unbiased reporting to millions of viewers across the nation.
One of the most fascinating segments of the book is the chapter "Lights, Camera, Action." This chapter should be reprinted or excerpted elsewhere. Night after night, we may watch the news and know we are being spoon-fed doses of somebody else's ideology, but Herschensohn, step by step, lays out the entire process—with examples.
Take the matter of story placement. If a story is announced first, like Watergate or the CIA, it is obviously the most important. If it is buried into the broadcast after Geritol and Preparation H commercials, like most stories about our weakening national defense posture, it obviously isn't important.
Other devices which may be used by newsmen to create favorable or unfavorable impressions in the public mind include selectivity of interviewees, inclusion or omission of crowd size, catch phrases, recapping old news out of context, pretenses at guaranteeing balance, and outright creation of news by massive coverage and repetition.
Then there is "Un-News." If a story doesn't prove the point the media is trying to make, it is ignored. While we were getting all sorts of sordid stuff on Republican dirty tricks during the Watergate hearings, how many can recall that at the same time it came out that Bill Moyers, that Lyndon Johnson protege who became a paragon of public television journalism, was found to have asked the FBI to spy on 15 members of Senator Barry Goldwater's campaign staff?
Or how many people know who Jack Chestnut is? While anyone can tell you who John Mitchell and Maurice Stans are, a very few know Chestnut. Yet Chestnut, who was Hubert Humphrey's 1972 campaign manager, was convicted of illegal acceptance of campaign contributions—charges of which Mitchell and Stans were found innocent. Humphrey, once mentioned prominently for the presidency, testified at the trial. Yet how many are aware of this? And why so few? Only because the media chose not to consider the episode "news."
The list can go on and on, filling more than just one book. As solutions, Herschensohn recommends lifting of all FCC restrictions that have nothing to do with "the uniqueness of frequency licensing," discarding of the "Fairness Doctrine," the junking of the Equal Time Rule, ending of Federal subsidies for the Public Broadcasting System, and institution of a totally new government-oriented television network to be used for "Presidential addresses, the President's press conferences, legislators' responses to his views, and by government spokesmen for agencies and departments."
This last idea seems particularly dangerous and—for want of a better term—"Un-American." It would aim another source of propaganda at the public and would give an unfair advantage to Federal incumbents. Even in the last century and early portion of this century, when newspapers openly proclaimed themselves to be Democrat or Republican (and thus received a share of legal notice advertising), no newspapers were owned outright by the government. No television stations, radio stations, or newspapers should be so owned now.
It is easy to understand Mr. Herschensohn's frustrations over the inaccuracies of broadcast journalism, but the option of forcing government-sanctioned pablum down the public's throats is not and should never be the solution to correct the errors of a free—if flawed—press.
David Pietrusza holds a Master's degree in American history from SUNY-Albany. He is an associate of the New Guard and has written for National Review and The Freeman.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Gods of Antenna".