Academic journal article Journalism History

Toward a Standard for the Evaluation of Documentary Journalism History

Academic journal article Journalism History

Toward a Standard for the Evaluation of Documentary Journalism History

Article excerpt

Tom Mascaro

I want to start by saying, this [holds up a thick book] is Dan Einstein's compendium on TV documentaries. [Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary Series and Special News Reports, 1955-1979 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987).] And if you can, imagine three books this size. This is from 1955 to 1979. It has 7,036 entries. He has another one that goes from 1980 to 1989, and it has another 2,500 entries. [Special Edition: A Guide to Network Television Documentary Series and Special News Reports, 1980-1989 (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997).] And Ray Carroll's dissertation for the University of Wisconsin-Madison [Factual Television in America: An Analysis of Network Television Documentary Programs, 1948-1975], covers 1948 to 1975. He chronicled 9,659 documentaries. So we are looking to find a framework, or questions to engage, what is a very large sample of documentary history. And one place I looked was the film historian John E. O'Connor. O'Connor identifies four questions to study television in American history. One is television news and documentary as primary evidence for historical events. Another is television as social and cultural history. A third is television as industry and art form, and the fourth is television as interpreter of history. So we can easily apply O'Connor's approach to the ocean of documentary programming. But while these broad categories serve as the value of television in American history, I think we need a more refined set of questions to focus attention on documentary journalism. And as Mike [Sweeney] said, how do we approach some 10,000 documentary programs.

So I suggest we start with some questions.

Does the documentary originate a format? See It Now, the classic model of this in the 1950s, developed by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, qualifies easily as a magazine format show that evolved into a full-length documentary show. But there is also ABC's series Close-Up. It blended screen artistry with in-depth journalism, and it deserves some attention.

Does the documentary expand broadcast journalism? The "prestige" documentaries of the 1960s expanded in-depth journalism by creating space for producers to investigate topics for many months. The network support enabled reporting beyond nightly news or breaking news specials through research on human affairs. A good example is a Bell & Howell Close-Up program in 1961 about civil rights called Walk in My Shoes. Or documentation as in NBC's White Paper: The U-2 Affair from 1960. Or CBS Reports: The Selling of the Pentagon.

Does the documentary stimulate conversation? Most documentaries, like television programs, nightly news reports, or newspaper articles are ephemeral. A few, however, catch hold of the national Zeitgeist. A CBS Reports program called The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, in 1982, triggered a national extended forum over ethics, the intelligence community's handling of information on the Tet Offensive, and also documentary journalism. Controversial documentaries reflect the moods and ideological differences of their times, and they should be examined within such contexts. Michael Moore's films, for example, stimulate conversation not only about themes, but also about Moore's methods. And ideological differences that surface when interpreting his films, including whether they are even documentaries.

Does the documentary have impact? This is a misconception. Most don't. Early broadcast reports evaporated into the ether before we had recording technologies for engaging, storing, and reviewing. However, ABC Close-Up reports-one called Fire, which was about consumer fire hazards, in 1973; Asbestos: The Way to Dusty Death, way back in 1978; and The Bomb Factories in '87, which was about safety violations in nuclear weapons plants-all of these stimulated awareness, discussion, and change.

Does the documentary establish a benchmark? The American Revolution of '63 was an NBC program that was also the first three-hour network documentary, and it embraced the sea change of the civil rights movement. …

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