by Rich Newberg '69
Back in the turbulent '60s, "relevance" was the catchword used by one of my more enlightened professors, who challenged his budding journalists to report on social issues that mattered. He wanted us to think beyond television as the "giant mirror" that simply reflected back the day's events. This was the consciousness-raising era, when TV was a force for positive social change.
I was a boomer weaned on TV. My moral compass was activated by the work of Edward R. Murrow and Rod Serling. Murrow used the medium to give a voice to the downtrodden. Serling used it as a window to the imagination. Serling would later become a visiting professor at Ithaca College while I was an undergraduate.
Born in the shadow of the Holocaust, I came of age during the antiwar movement. Early images of bulldozed bodies in concentration camps haunt me still; the televised war in Southeast Asia brought bloodshed into my living room. In 1972 Geraldo Rivera threw open the doors of the Willowbrook State School, exposing hepatitis-infested wards overfilled with developmentally disabled patients languishing in their own excrement, and setting the investigative journalistic standard for my generation.
As I started my own career in broadcast journalism, I used the power of the camera to draw attention to a destitute family in upstate New York, living in the garage behind their burned-out house. No one would help them because they believed the father was a welfare cheat. The children were malnourished and sick. The mud-covered parents and I confronted the town mayor, who lived a few doors away, in the warmth of his living room. Within hours the family received a hot meal and temporary living quarters.
Few TV stations today commit the time and talent to in-depth, "relevant," social-issues reporting. A few years ago, when my station determined I'd be more valuable in the field than as a studio anchor, I was guaranteed I'd be able to again concentrate on social-issues reporting. The results have been satisfying to me as a journalist and to the station's standing as the news leader in Buffalo. Terrorism was on our minds long before 9/11. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a Western New York native. Our video archive included tape from Oklahoma City, his trial in Denver, and his life since childhood. Videographer Tom Vetter had spent six years on the story. We traded video with CBS; our exclusive in-depth interview with McVeigh's father, Bill, gave the CBS Early Show a sought-after package.
The research and contacts involved in long-form reporting pay off in many different ways. Our coverage of McVeigh's life story added dimension and raised awareness of our vulnerability to attacks from within our country. As the shock waves of September 11 rippled through Buffalo and emergency responders left for ground zero in Manhattan, our "On the Homefront" series gave Western New York its first look at our preparedness for a potential terrorist attack. The network of contacts we'd developed gave us an edge when six men from Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, became among the first in the country to be charged with giving support and resources to Al Qaeda.
"Relevance" now deals with survival, with how much freedom we're willing to give up in exchange for more security. As the turbulent new century presents life-and-death challenges, TV must play a critical role. A social conscience must be woven into our moral fabric. The good lessons of the '60s, for those who remember, can be applied to the way we cover news and influence how much time we give to issues that matter. Above all, listen through the thunder of war and terrorism for those on the fringes of society whose cries for help could easily be muffled in the fast-paced, ratings-conscious world of television news.
A version of this article originally appeared in the fall 2003 issue of Television Quarterly, the official journal of the National Television Academy. Rich Newberg is a regional vice president of the New York chapter of the NTA and senior correspondent for WIVB-TV (CBS) in Buffalo, New York. His social-issues documentaries have won nine New York Emmys and many state and national awards. Newberg has also received two Edward R. Murrow Awards for his documentary writing