For over 25 years, “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” on PBS (later called “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and now, simply, “PBS NewsHour”) ended its broadcasts, regularly though unpredictably, with a first-person essay. Five hundred and fifty words. Five minutes.
Last spring, a handful of essayists still attached to the show, myself among them, learned that the essays had been discontinued.
Over the years, “The NewsHour” broadcast nearly 1,500 personal essays. The essays were fillips and fillers for nights when the news ran short. When news was plentiful—during an election season, for example—essays sat on a shelf for weeks. When Robin MacNeil, in the middle of interviewing Henry Kissinger, felt he must ask one more question, he called out (on air) to the control booth, “Hold the Rodriguez!”
After 17 years of an association with “The NewsHour,” I mean it as high praise when I say there is not a more boring news show on TV. Because “The NewsHour” is a public television program, there must always be two pallbearers attendant on every issue so as to ensure an even distribution of weight. If a Sandman from the American Enterprise Institute expounds on domestic or international policy, a Sandman from the Brookings Institution must be tapped to dispense an equivalent measure of tedium.
That being the case, the essays seemed refreshingly buoyant if only because there were no respondents to them. In fact, the freshness was attributable to a witty and inventive producer, Michael Saltz, whose job it was not only to recruit the essayists but to illustrate their texts.
When Mike invited me to try my hand at writing television essays, my vanity resisted. I knew my face was too … too something for the camera.Too thunder-cloudy. And my voice was too something—too soft, too academic— as well.
I told Mike to go away and call me in a year. What I eventually learned was that television’s eye is easily bored by the symmetrical and the confident, and starts to look elsewhere. The camera becomes mesmerized by Julia Child or Mister Rogers or Liberace.
Mike did call back.
The task of finding a visual subject was always daunting. The conventional wisdom of broadcasting dictates that the television audience expects to see what the writer is saying. If I say “Charles Dickens,” the cover of a novel is launched across the screen. As much as I strained to break from the convention, the orthodoxy of television prevailed. When I said “Americans this” or “Americans that,” a crowded New York street would unroll.
Television is literal. Speaking with irony is the equivalent of wearing a white shirt. Irony does not transmit. The loudest negative response to an essay of mine came when I proposed, not long after Sept. 11, that the legend of Osama bin Laden would surely survive America’s attempt to murder Osama bin Laden.
Fifty-seven writers wrote essays for the show over the years. Some, like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Elie Wiesel, were well-known authors. The preponderance of essayists were journalists, albeit journalists of literary flair.
American print journalism has long resorted to personal observation, even to wit. Writers of all sorts and calibers—Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, Murray Kempton—have been employed by newspapers to provide the refreshment of a first-person singular.
Disembodied public radio, free of the tyranny of the eye, has long been a purveyor of first-person essays. But even on television, the genre survived a good many seasons. CBS News, for example, underwrote Charles Kuralt’s perennial search for the heartland of America. Andy Rooney continues to play Everyman on Sunday evenings, sifting through his trash or his mail or his closet or his memory. Americans have a fondness for flannel-shirt philosophers.
On “The NewsHour,” there were urbane voices like Roger Rosenblatt’s in New York and Ann Taylor Fleming’s in Los Angeles. There was an enlivening value for the show in recruiting essayists from regional America, as well. The viewer was reminded that America was more than Washington or Manhattan. I cherish a piece Molly Ivins wrote on Texas debutantes. Jim Fisher of The Kansas City Star wrote about one-room museums in forlorn small towns and train whistles on the prairie.
Nothing Marshall McLuhan wrote about television prepared me for the woman who stepped out of a crowd at O’Hare airport to thank me for an essay I had written two years earlier on AIDS. She remembered exactly how the piece had been rhetorically organized; she remembered the last line verbatim—from which I deduced that Americans watch television with their ears as well as their eyes. And something else:Viewers are held by the essayist’s dramatization of consciousness.
Walter Cronkite famously remarked at the end of a CBS newscast that the Vietnam War could not be won. He was not offering his viewers an essay. He was offering opinion based upon eyewitness. The broadcast made news because it was so unusual for a respected journalist to give an opinion.
It remains unusual for a serious journalist to give an opinion. But we have entered a period of television journalism where opinion lords over the news. Pollsters tabulate the opinions of millions onto charts and into percentages that newscasters brandish to elicit further opinions from experts.Viewers are encouraged to e-mail their opinions. (On “The NewsHour,” essays were discontinued at the same time the show rolled out an interactive Web page.)
And what is lost?
Virginia Woolf sat reading in a chair by the window in 1942, and she noticed a small brown moth fluttering across one of the panes. She looked through the window at the countryside beyond, where men worked in a field.An autumn day.The moth, she noticed, was “little or nothing but life.” She returned to her book. By and by, she looked once more at the moth, which now lay on its back on the sill. She extended her pencil; her thought was to try to right the moth, the moth poised “against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep. …”
At the time when Virginia Woolf sat distracted at her window, Europe was in conflagration, hundreds of thousands of men and women were dying, and bombs were being dropped nightly on London.
I do not equate a five-minute television essay with a master’s essay, but that—the impulse, I mean, to sound a personal voice in the midst of the world’s tumult—that is what an essay can do.