Documentary Journalism Vanishes from Network and Local Television: Withdrawal of Advertising and Emergence of News Magazines Were among the Factors That Killed It. (Moving Pictures: Television and Film)

Article excerpt

This autumn, for the 12th year in a row, I will take my seat around a large conference table in the historic World Room at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, joining seven distinguished colleagues as we begin three long days of judging the best work in American radio and television. Weeks of individual screening lead up to these final deliberations, which often involve difficult and emotional choices as we glean 12 winners from an original roster of 600 or more entries. This vantage point as a juror for the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, the most selective and purely journalistic prize in television, has given me a valuable perspective on trends in broadcast journalism.

The picture that emerges is at times inspiring but more often distressing: inspiring because each year there is work that is intelligent, brave, historically important, and deeply moving; distressing because most entries fall far from this mark. Sadly, the commercial networks and the local affiliates have allowed their standards to drop precipitously--in most cases overwhelmed by the financial demands of corporate owners who have little appreciation for the sacred trust that goes with owning a news organization.

This trend is nowhere better or more clearly seen than in the near extinction of the television documentary on the major broadcast networks and their affiliated local stations. This trend has been developing over several decades, but by the mid-1990's it was clear that the documentary on commercial television was almost extinct.

Some might ask, "Why should we care?" After all, there is still PBS, and many of the cable networks, like Discovery, HBO and A&E, are presenting documentaries even if ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are not. I'd argue that all Americans should care and care profoundly because the documentary, especially at an hour or more in length, is one of the most powerful forms of human expression. Nothing can take its place; no single report on the evening news, no glitzy television newsmagazine piece, and certainly none of today's endless TV talk shows have the depth, substance, detail and emotional strength of a well-executed documentary.

Moreover, while the cable networks may be an adequate substitute on the national level, there is virtually no entity to stand in for local broadcast stations in hundreds of cities across America. With local television's abandonment of the documentary, American communities have lost an important local voice in the examination of key social, political and economic issues. The broadcasting industry should be ashamed of this failure to serve.

The great American documentary tradition is rooted in such powerful progenitors as CBS's "Harvest of Shame," which exposed the cruel mistreatment of East coast migrant workers. According to A.M. Sperber, Edward R. Murrow's biographer, "'Harvest of Shame' burst upon the public, an updated `Grapes of Wrath,' a black-and-white document of protest ushering in the sixties on TV." It turned out to be Murrow's last great work for CBS.

Sadly, we never see work as courageous as this on CBS today, or on any of the other major networks for that matter. And it is not just the great documentaries like Murrow's that are gone. In recent years, the documentary as a genre of work has nearly vanished from the traditional networks and the local affiliates.

In an effort to quantify this observation, we asked ABC, CBS and NBC to provide the title and a brief description of any hour long (or longer) documentary they broadcast in 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1999. Perhaps it is not surprising that none of the networks was able, or willing, to provide the information. We made a similar request of six local television stations that have historically been considered among the very best in the industry: WBBM-TV, Chicago; KRON-TV, San Francisco; WCVB-TV, Boston; WFAA-TV, Dallas; WCCO-TV, Minneapolis, and KING-TV, Seattle. …