The Dawn of the Eye: The History of Film and TV News

By Casavantes, Michael D. | Journalism History, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Dawn of the Eye: The History of Film and TV News


Casavantes, Michael D., Journalism History


The Dawn of the Eye: The History of Film and TV News. Princeton, NJ.: FiIms for the Humanities & Sciences, 1997. Six volumes: average run time 48 minutes each.

Volumes: I. History Through a Lens (Born Among Clowns): 1894-1919; II. Eyes of the World: 1919-1945; III. Inventing Television News: 1946-1959; IV. The Powers That Be (The Power and the Image): 196S1975; V. The Electronic Battalions: 1975-1988; VI. The Global Eye (Embattled Witness): 1989-1997. (Volumes 4-6 not available for review.)

Near the end of the nineteenth century, two devices were invented that changed the way people would think about the world around them. In 1894, Thomas A. Edison invented the motion picture, and a year later the Lumiere brothers in France developed a portable movie camera and projector.

The Dawn of the Eye is an ambitious project co-produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and the BBC in association with the History Channel that traces the development of the visual medium from a bulky box carried on horseback to real-time satellite images. More importantly, this series critically examines the way this new technology impacted on society, specifically as it relates to the evolution of news. Within that framework, the first three volumes explore many of the moral and ethical questions about how this new medium would be used, who would control it, and what it should contain.

Volume I describes how, from the beginning, motion pictures were presented to the public as entertainment, a novelty that brought images of exotic, faraway places to the people through the familiar venue of the traveling carnival.

While entertainment was the primary motive, a few photographers also sought to provide a visual record of the events of the world. The first real "news" event that was covered was the coronation of the Tsar of Russia in 1896. During the ceremony, a grandstand collapsed and more than 3,000 people were killed in the ensuing panic. The tragedy was filmed, but the Tsarist government confiscated the film and it was never seen.

Just two years later, the United States was involved in a war with Spain and as the public clamored for news of the conflict the newsreel was more than willing to oblige. The images of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and the broken hulk of the U.S.S. Maine certainly aroused public opinion, but the problem was that much of the footage was fake. The "exclusive footage" of the battle of Manila Bay was staged by a pair of vaudeville players in New York using a large tub, model ships, and tiny packets of gunpowder to simulate the big guns. Even Edison got on board with Rough Rider battles recreated in the New Jersey countryside.

During World War I, the camera was there and, for the first time, the public got to see real images of that conflict, but again, the real footage was interspersed with staged footage. War, tragedy, and disaster became staples of the newsreels. Not all the early film shot was staged. Excellent footage of the Toronto Fire and the San Francisco earthquake was shot, but by far the most popular footage was a staged recreation of the quake. The film was so good, even the mayor of San Francisco thought it was real.

Volume II shows the newsreels of the 1920s and 1930s as Hollywood produced entertainment news. The basic credo again was sheer entertainment with the newsreel becoming the carnival sideshow of the news. Coverage included race car crashes, the Hindenburg, the search for the world's fattest man, the Dion quints, and a baby smoking a cigar. The more tragic, bizarre, or exotic the story was, the better film did. The public knew it could count on seeing ga series of catastrophes followed by a fashion show"-a format not unlike the news programs of today.

Because they were essentially an entertainment medium, the newsreels purposefully ignored the reality of the Depression. There were no newsreels showing Hoovervilles, bread lines, or soup kitchens. …

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