Whatever happened to the “art” of the commentary? I’m not talking about those painful “editorials” at the end of local newscasts recorded by the General Manager of the station, and usually advocating the construction of a new sewage treatment plant. I’m referring to news commentaries by newsmen (and women), back before political correctness took hold and turned every newscast into a generic store brand.
Detroit’s Bill Bonds is a prime example. His commentaries were infamous. My favorite was Bill explaining to the camera why he could not help out the Girl Scouts by promoting their cookie sales on-air.
“No, the station won’t let me discuss those mouth-watering thin mints coated in delicious peppermint and chocolate. No girls, I might get fired if I make any mention of your Caramel deLites – vanilla cookies covered with oozing caramel on top and bottom then rolled in coconut and striped with chocolate.”
It was written tongue-in-cheek style and became an instant classic. I think Magid still shows it in its consulting classes. Then there was the one Bonds did about his younger brother Johnny who had died the night before – Johnny’s doctor had “pulled the plug”. Bill wondered which “God” would meet him in Heaven – Jesus? Buddha? Allah? Or perhaps a Moonie? And then his point, in one simple sentence:
“Do you really believe that God believes that men should be making laws that tell you when you have suffered enough – and it’s not for you and your doctor to decide?”
Wow. What news anchor today would have the balls to use such a personal tragedy to make a greater point? Name one. I can’t.
But one news anchor towered above the others when it came to his own personal opinions. Jerry Springer‘s nightly commentaries are the stuff of legend among Cincinnati viewers. I worked with Jerry for four years at WLWT. I vividly remember him pacing the old basement corridors that circled the newsroom for hours with his pad and pencil writing his commentary. It was a nightly ritual in which every line was written and rewritten again and again until he had perfected his point into three short minutes (approximately six type-written prompter pages). Jerry’s commentaries riled people up or rallied people behind him – depending on his (and their) viewpoint. The newsroom phones rang incessantly after each commentary aired. It’s something we came to accept and actually looked forward to. I had countless conversations with anonymous viewers who were either ticked off or in tears. Jerry’s often unpopular opinions played a major role in bringing this perennial loser NBC affiliate straight to number one! For me in my first TV job, the ride from worst to first was an exhilarating journey that is simply indescribable.
The phones don’t ring like that anymore. I kinda miss that direct dial feedback. E-mails somehow can’t replace the thrill of watching those little white lights start to blink – one after the other – on those old AT&T office phones. Nowadays, we have a handful of news & news talk networks. Pundits with half-baked opinions who pick-a-side-for-pay have replaced the virtuous viewpoint. With so many hours of air-time to fill, there’s no need to make a clear, concise point in three minutes anymore. The art of expression is extinct.