Television - Tv news and the early cold war

Although it was a novelty in the United States at the end of World War II, television became an important part of American life during the first postwar decade. Fewer than one out of ten American homes had television in 1950. Five years later the proportion had grown to two-thirds. New stations quickly took to the air and usually affiliated with one of the networks: the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), or the short-lived DuMont Television Network.

Even when the networks consisted of a handful of stations, government officials showed keen interest in using television to build public support for U.S. foreign and military policies. Public affairs officers in the State Department said they favored television because it did "a better job than any other medium at depicting foreign policy in action." The department worked with both networks and independent producers to create shows about foreign policy and world affairs or make available for telecast films that it produced itself. Among the most popular series was The Marshall Plan in Action, which premiered on ABC in June 1950 and continued under the title Strength for a Free World until February 1953. Other shows were the interview program Diplomatic Pouch (CBS) and, during the Korean War, The Facts We Face (CBS) and Battle Report—Washington (NBC). In these early days of broadcasting, the networks were eager for programming to fill up their time slots. They also took advantage of opportunities to demonstrate support for American Cold War policies, especially during the McCarthy era.

Evening newscasts became regular features during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Each network aired fifteen-minute programs. CBS and NBC expanded their shows to thirty minutes in September 1963; ABC did not do the same until January 1967. John Daly anchored the ABC broadcast during most of the 1950s. Douglas Edwards held the same position at CBS until Walter Cronkite replaced him in April 1962. The most popular news program in the early 1950s was NBC's Camel News Caravan, with host John Cameron Swayze. With a carnation in his lapel and zest in his voice, Swayze invited viewers to "go hopscotching the world for headlines." After this brisk international tour, there might be stops at a beauty pageant or a stadium for the afternoon's scores. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley succeeded Swayze in October 1956. Anchors and journalists rather than hosts, as Swayze had been, they brought greater depth to the NBC newscasts without making them solemn. They also attracted viewers because of the novelty of their pairing, the contrast in their personalities, and the familiarity of their closing—"Good night, Chet;" "Good night, David." They led the ratings until the late 1960s.

International news was important on each of these programs, yet there were difficulties in covering distant stories, especially on film. Fifteen minutes (less time for commercials, lead-in, and closing) allowed coverage of only a few stories and little time for analysis. Cumbersome and complicated cameras and sound equipment made film reports difficult. Before the beginning of satellite communication in the 1960s, it might take a day or two for film from international locations to get on the air. Despite these limitations, the audience for these newscasts grew steadily. By 1961 surveys showed that the public considered television the "most believable" source of news. Two years later, for the first time, more people said that they relied on television rather than newspapers for most of their news.

Many viewers watched in utter astonishment on 22 October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy informed them about Soviet missiles in Cuba and the possibility of nuclear war. Soviet diplomats got a copy of the speech only an hour before Kennedy went before the cameras. The president's decision to make his demand for the removal of the missiles on television made compromise on this fundamental issue all but impossible. Kennedy spoke directly to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, calling on him to step back from the nuclear brink. It was an extremely skillful use of television as a medium of diplomatic communication. The crisis dominated TV news coverage until its end six days later. The reporting surely influenced public attitudes, but it probably had little direct effect on Kennedy's advisers. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara later revealed that he did not watch television even once during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet during the growing difficulties in Vietnam, Kennedy, his advisers, and those who succeeded them in the White House paid close attention to television news.

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