Mar 31, 2011

The View from Mudsock Heights: In Times of Crisis, Remember and Mourn the Passage of Calm News Coverage

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 12:53 AM

Back when the world was young, there were mechanical devices in newspaper, radio, and even television newsrooms called “teletype machines.” The precursor to modern electronic printers, these things were very noisy. They had letter keys inside them, on arms, and in response to electrical impulse they would type the (usually) correct letter in the fashion of a typewriter.

Of course, they didn’t type just one letter but instead whole stories, from all over the world. They were connected to the wire services — the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and others. They were how even small newspapers and broadcasters got state, national, and international news. The stories were typed on a long roll of paper, or paper folded back-and-forth in a box.

These machines had bells built into them, in the way that typewriters had bells that told typists the end of a line was approaching. These, though, did not signal when it was time for a carriage return — if they had, the newsroom would have been even noisier.

No, the bells were there to signal that something important had happened and you’d better run over to the machine right now and see what it was. Five bells — ding ding ding ding ding — meant that the dispatch was a “flash.” This was the highest class of urgency, and usually was followed only by a line or two, as in “FLASH — KENNEDY SHOT IN DALLAS.” It was an alert, really.

Three bells was for a “bulletin,” the second-highest priority. This was breaking news of less cataclysmic importance, or a followup to a flash, with more details. Two bells was “urgent,” the next category in the pecking order.

They went off rarely.

When newsrooms got computers, they included audible electronic alarms that would sound for these dispatches. (When I was at CBS, the beeps would go off whenever FBI Director William Webster’s name appeared in the subject line, called the “slug line” in wire service parlance. The reason is, this was when the national alert system was called the Emergency Broadcast System, EBS for short, and “Webster” contains the letters “ebs” in that order. Pavlovian anchors at CBS would often as not then lead their next newscast with whatever William Webster was up to.)

And, back in the halcyon days of yore, if a dispatch were deemed of significant importance a broadcaster might put a bulletin on the air. I remember in my childhood the chill that accompanied the words “This is a bulletin from NBC News.” There were no fancy noises and the only graphic was a card that said, “Bulletin.” Then a newsreader would appear, often with the recorded sound of teletype machines in the background, and tell us (if we were watching the 1964 World Series) that Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev had been overthrown.

It was all elegant and unpanicked and reassuring, the stunning news delivered by competent and knowledgeable newscasters.

No more.

Sadly. news — especially broadcast news — has now gotten marketed. It no longer comprises intelligent people providing important information to a curious audience. It is now all noise and fuss and frippery.

I think this began in the late 1970s with the notion of “relatabilty,” the idea that newscasters in New York knew what was important to you in Ohio; moreover, the newscaster was now your buddy and part of the marketing was that he or she was supposed to pretend to be as unknowledgeable as you were. Soon, it was no longer a pretense.

There are big and important events going on in the world today, especially in the last couple of months. Oh, for calm and authoritative newscasters! Oh, for facts instead of think-tank talking heads busy speculating, usually incorrectly! But no.

As I write this I have one of the all-news channels on the television. In the half hour since I began writing this, the “Breaking News” alert has been flashed a total of seven times. Not once, it turned out, did it signify any actual breaking news. Three times it was followed by “We have new video of …” and twice it preceded a recapitulation of an event that was widely reported when it happened early last evening. Once it had to do with basketball, and once it had to do with an actor who has been, as usual, misbehaving.

The events of the last few months stand on their own. They need little if any speculative “context.” They get by just fine without our learning how touched or troubled the newscasters are.

It would be helpful, of course, if newscasters possessed the knowledge that not long ago was required of anyone seeking to pass from eighth to ninth grade. But that, too, is a forlorn hope. To paraphrase Mark Twain, many of today’s bright young broadcast “news personalities” know a multitude of things, but they’re mostly wrong.

I have one of the old teletype machines, out in the garage. I’d bring it in and hook it up, but there are no longer sufficient real news reporters to keep it fed.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

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