The Way It Is and Isn't
Ben Rubin's art installation at UT shows the gap between TV news in Cronkite's day and now
In those days, 5:30pm was a sacred time – and not just because it kicked off the cocktail hour. That was the time, in the Central zone, at least, when the evening news began. Whether you followed The Huntley-Brinkley Report, the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, or – less likely – the ABC news with whoever was holding down the anchor's chair this week, this half-hour of television was your best window for learning what was happening in the world. TV could deliver later breaking news than the afternoon paper, with more images from the scene – moving images, to boot. But since this was the Sixties, and the prospect of recording the broadcast for your personal viewing whenever you liked was still a fantasy out of The Jetsons, you needed to be parked in front of the Zenith during those 30 minutes that the news was running. And millions were. Give us this day our daily feed.
Never mind that, in this primitive pre-cable era, your news sources could be counted on one hand. The concerns expressed so frequently today that this network program is biased or that one slants its coverage were hardly voiced then. Indeed, the public felt great confidence in the broadcast news of the time – not least because of who presented it. These men (yes, alas, still only men then) were not young, not handsome, not the dedicated followers of fashion seen so often on the small screen now. They wore dark suits and were largely middle-aged, bespectacled, and sober in their mien. But that gravity was born of the seriousness with which they took their charge: to inform the nation, to ensure that we all were told what we needed to know, about the world. They were called, rightly, anchors, for they secured us to the day's events and provided stability no matter the war or calamity or national crisis they had to report. For them, doing so was a matter of trust.
Can you imagine a network newsman on the current scene being considered "the most trusted man in America," as Cronkite famously was in the Seventies? That's a measure of how far we are from those days. Not only has the sacred time of old long since been lost in the kudzu-like proliferation of cable news channels and the relentless drumbeat of the 24-hour news cycle, but the inability or unwillingness of contemporary TV news to cover a politically charged issue without pandering to one side or trying not to offend either, its refusal to challenge blatant misrepresentations of fact, and its airbrushed, predigested presentation have so watered down TV news that trust of the announcer no longer enters the equation.
Don't take my word for it. All summer long, Aaron Sorkin has been railing against the toothless mediocrity of modern tube news on his new HBO series The Newsroom. And the previous summer, the BBC miniseries The Hour covered similar territory, with The Wire's Dominic West back in his homeland as the anchor of a news broadcast intent on bucking the system by covering the serious stories and asking the tough questions. While the latter's Fifties setting might suggest that, when it comes to the bland reading the bland, 'twas ever thus in broadcast news – a notion that would no doubt prompt a smile from the smoke-wreathed spectre of Edward R. Murrow that haunted cinemas in 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck – the show's critique of modern media was visible through the midcentury fashions. And once you venture into the actual history of that earlier era, as with the just published biography Cronkite, by Rice University Professor Douglas Brinkley, it's clear that, in TV news as in so much else, that was a different time.
Ben Rubin remembers. The New York-based media artist grew up hearing Cronkite deliver the news, cover the moon shots, criticize America's handling of the war in Vietnam. "He was the voice of my childhood," says Rubin. "Like everyone else, I associate him with the space program, with 1960s optimism. He represented the aspirations of America in a great way, and that's a voice that's hard to find right now. He also had this conscience, and a big part of my affinity for him was his famous editorial against the continuation of the Vietnam [War]. That was a great moment of a journalist speaking his conscience, knowing exactly how much influence he had, being exactly as restrained as was required, but saying what needed to be said when it needed to be said. I admire that tremendously."
Rubin's regard for the broadcaster is woven into the video artwork that he recently installed at the plaza bearing Cronkite's name. And That's the Way It Is – taking its title, of course, from the phrase that Cronkite used to end every broadcast of the CBS Evening News – employs six synchronized projectors to run video across the façade of Communications Building A on the University of Texas campus at the corner of Whitis and Dean Keeton streets. Though what Rubin projects isn't what you might expect: images of the newsman's familiar face staring into the camera to inform us of the death of President Kennedy or the first steps taken by humans on another world. No, Cronkite's grandfatherly features only make a cameo here, in a small, still portrait that glows briefly in the center of the building's architectural grid. The broadcaster's presence is relayed, rather, in his words: text drawn from his Evening News broadcasts that stream across the face of the building along the concrete horizontal and vertical lines that frame its 40 square floor-to-ceiling windows. The various lines are drawn from different segments of the program reporting on that day's news, and the pace at which they run up or down or side to side is such that you can choose one and follow it like a teletype. And the act of reading these reports allows you to appreciate the work of Cronkite and his colleagues, not for their masterfully modulated vocal delivery and timing, but for the conciseness of their prose – complex, detail-heavy events distilled to their informational essences.
Interestingly, the Rubin project did not initially involve Cronkite. The commission from UT's Landmarks public art program was to create a work for a site in the College of Communication complex, and it was only after the school chose to name the plaza in memory of its onetime journalism student (1933-35) that Rubin and his collaborators – statistician Mark Hansen and Jer Thorp, data artist in residence at the New York Times – brought Cronkite into the mix. Before, they'd been building a work around the current state of television news – which Rubin views in much the same depressing light as other critics. "I feel that TV news is this dead or dying medium," says the artist. "So before thinking of Cronkite as this counterpoint to the dead or dying medium, the idea was to show it as it is now. Television news has descended to this tabloid level across the board. The centralization of the message by parties and campaigns and corporations has removed individuality from the whole process of what an interview or any news-oriented statement might be. So the text that emerges has this quality of talking points, whether it's coming out of someone being interviewed on CBS News or from the right-wing echo chamber of Fox or the left-wing echo chamber of MSNBC."
That said, his artwork was never intended to be some Sorkinesque rant. "I would never want the piece to be explicitly critical," Rubin insists. But he, Hansen, and Thorp felt TV news' reductiveness of language and tabloid mindset could be depicted through text from several different contemporary broadcasts being shown collectively. They drew on closed caption transcripts for six news broadcasts, then used software they developed themselves to identify patterns in speech and syntax, pull out bits of text from the various sources that are related, and weave them together in the projections. The team's goal, says Rubin, was "to preserve meaning and in some cases possibly enhance or extract unseen meanings or generate new meanings through unexpected juxtapositions."
When these mashups show up on the façade of Communications Building A, they flash like fireworks – words bursting into view on this crossbar and that one, then fading out, so that to follow a sentence your eye must jump from one floor to another to another to another. Phrases may glide along, as with the text from the Cronkite broadcasts, but they may be obscured by other text that floats over it or may pick up speed until they're racing across the building in a blur, runaway trains of language. The linear runs of the CBS Evening News transcripts, with their steady pace and comforting old Courier font (think Grandpappy's typewriter), seem to belong to another time. This is how we get our news now: in bits and bytes, dripping from clouds, pieced together from a dozen sources before they evaporate. It's a din of information, and because the text is in all-caps Verdana, it has that Web-text look of everything being shouted. THIS JUST IN!! OUR TOP STORY ...
On an epic canvas (that building façade, after all, is 140 feet wide and 70 or 80 feet tall), with paint made of light, And That's the Way It Is grants us new ways to see the distance between yesterday and today, the time of TV's most honorable oracles of news and its current mob of blow-dried bellowers. But rather than just play off then against now, its creators also are giving us a way to see how close we still are to the past. The 11,000 pages of Evening News transcripts in the installation comprise four years of broadcasts, 1977 to 1981. "American political life has these four-year cycles, right?" asks Rubin. So if you went back to this date in 1980, you'd see some of the same stories being covered: political conventions, party platforms, vice-presidential picks, polls. Then in November, it'd be the election; in January, the inauguration; two years on, the mid-term elections. Since the video changes every night, drawing from that day's newscasts, Rubin had the idea to "phase-lock the date reference to where we are in the four-year cycle, so no matter which year we're in now, it will always be standing in the right relationship" to that date in the Evening News four-year run. You could see a first-term Democratic president fighting for re-election in a down economy now and then and how that story's told. It might be the same as it ever was. Or maybe not.
You can't find out by pulling it up on your iPhone or DVRing it to watch later. You'll only know if you show up in person at Cronkite Plaza after the sun sets. Think of it as a return of that sacred hour of news.
And That's the Way It Is is on view every night from sunset to midnight in the Walter Cronkite Plaza of the Jesse H. Jones Communication complex, 26th & Dean Keeton, on the University of Texas campus. For more information, visit www.landmarks.utexas.edu.