As a medium of popular enlightenment and in-depth explanation of actualities, early television was unspectacular. Newscasts in the late 1940s were primitive affairs, usually consisting of a man reading copy at his desk, a series of still pictures, charts, and maps, plus film footage of recent events. The networks had no experience at blending aural and visual material.
There were early problems with obtaining, processing, and distributing current film. In many instances networks incurred the displeasure of theatrical newsreel companies. For years the latter had filmed national and international events, and edited compilation newsreels for theaters throughout the nation. Television was a threat. Should it ever develop its photographic potential, TV could render newsreel companies obsolete.
TV news seems to have had little importance for early audiences. A survey in 1948 showed that more than 46 percent of set owners preferred comedy-variety programs. The rate for TV news was 2.3 percent. When asked what they would like to see on television that was not then available, 22.7 percent named new and better movies, while those wanting more of the latest news totaled 1.2 percent.
TV news improved at a slow pace. In mid-1948, CBS newsman Robert Trout admitted that “There is a lot of experimenting to do before the perfect television news technique is evolved.” Five years later Variety reported industry criticism that claimed "Television, in the news field, is not providing enough variety or depth of understanding in its coverage of world events." By late 1957 that trade journal contended that while "methods for gathering the news and putting it on the air are improving all the time, the actual visualization process is, if not deteriorating, at a standstill."
Despite early audience indifference, TV news nurtured an audience that relied increasingly on television as a source of its news. Although network newscast until 1963 were only 15 minutes nightly, in early 1948 news-related broadcasts accounted for 15.3 percent of the NBC program schedule. By the middle of the following year, The Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze—the NBC evening newscast until replaced in 1956 by The Huntley-Brinkley Repor t—was the highest-rated multi-weekly evening show on TV.
By the end of 1957 Douglas Edwards and the News on CBS reached more than 14.1 million viewers daily and almost 34 million people at least once a week. NBC news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley reached more than 7.6 million homes nightly. Interestingly, comparative figures placed Time magazine at 8.1 million weekly readers, and Life reached 30.4 million each week.
If network news was slow to develop thorough reportage, local news programming was even more stunted in its growth. This was especially the case in telecasting news film. Even in the mid-1950s local advertisers were reluctant to spend the large sums needed to produce first-rate news shows. Few local outlets could afford mobile units to gather and transmit from the site of a news story, and videotape was not in wide use until the end of the decade. Local stations usually purchased film from CBS or NBC, or from commercial newsreel producers such as Telenews Productions or United Press-Fox Movietone.
What television news could do well, almost from the beginning, was broadcast well-contained historic events, panel discussions, and documentaries. The presidential nominating conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties were televised in 1948. The following year CBS telecast live debates from the United Nations meeting in Lake Success, New York. One of the early highlights of live TV coverage was the signing of a peace treaty with Japan. Aired live from San Francisco in September 1951 to 94 of the 108 stations in the United States, this television event inaugurated the coaxial-microwave link making possible live nationwide transmission.
Early TV also demonstrated its potential to inform the public about government activities. The most significant event of these first years was live coverage of the Senate investigation of organized crime. Chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, the Senate Crime Investigating Committee held hearings in February and March of 1951 that involved the top figures in the underworld. TV brought the spectacle to the nation. Not only did the networks preempt morning and afternoon programs for this coverage, they illustrated the power of the new medium to inform.
Importantly, audiences responded. One audience survey in March found every set in New York City tuned in to the hearings. Chicago television realized its largest audiences. Factories and businesses in Minneapolis blamed the hearings for increased employee absenteeism. When Kefauver focused the questioning on organized crime in the automobile industry, TV in Detroit experienced a record number of viewers.
Another news-related format that TV handled well was the panel discussion program. This genre, involving newsmakers and journalists, evolved in radio in the 1920s and thrived in video from the beginning. By the early 1950s several mainstays, such as Meet the Press and American Forum of the Air on NBC, and America's Town Meeting of the Air on ABC, were broadcast simultaneously on radio and television. Some were aired in prime time. The panel discussion was inexpensive to produce, timely to watch, and frequently made news.
As might be expected, however, TV also originated its own discussion programs, among them Chronoscope and Face the Nation on CBS; On Trial, Answers for Americans, Open Hearing, and Press Conference on ABC; and What’s the Story, The Big Issue and Court of Current Issues on DuMont.
The nascent medium also developed the documentary. On radio this format was not fully realized until the postwar years, when wire-recording and tape-recording facilitated the gathering and editing of actuality sound. Filmed documentaries appeared early on TV. In early 1947 ABC produced “New Automobiles,” as the first installment in a series called Video Reports to the Nation. It was a half-hour appraisal of the U.S. auto industry as it retooled to provide cars for postwar Americans. In June 1949, that network aired a "telementary" concerning the Marshall Plan and the economic redevelopment of postwar Europe. A year later the producers of Studio One on CBS began regularly including filmed documentaries among their weekly live dramas.
Many involved with the TV documentary shared with CBS producer Fred W. Friendly an optimistic outlook for the genre. Speaking in July 1951, Friendly said the documentary "gives promise not only of being part of the television anatomy but its very backbone." He contended that because this format changed with the events it covered, it would never grow stale. Most important, however, Friendly reiterated the great expectations for TV as a news medium when he said of the documentary:
Television will command the biggest audiences in the history of communications. It will enable the American people to be the best informed people in the world, or the worst, depending upon how well we make use of it.... For if we are to hold up a mirror to the world with one hand, and a microphone with the other, we must be worthy of conducting the greatest mass information gazette in the history of man. To use it simply as another method of peddling soup and peanut butter will be to destroy a reporting, and therefore selling, opportunity never handed to any race of men.
The Korean War began at 4 A.M. on June 25, 1950 (2 P.M., June 24 in Washington, D.C.) when troops of the Communist government of the Democratic People's Republic of [North] Korea invaded the Republic of [South] Korea. From a nationalistic perspective, this was a civil war between rival regimes intent upon reuniting the Korean peninsula. Korea had been a divided nation since 1945, when the industrial North was occupied and politically restructured by the Soviet Union, and the agricultural South was occupied and reorganized by the United States. By 1948 the two superpowers had withdrawn and both Korean governments operated autonomously. Interestingly, the dream of reunification upon which North Korea acted was also the outspoken goal of the nationalistic, anti-Communist president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee.
There were other factors explaining the Korea War. With the victory of Communism in China eight months earlier, creation of a fully Communized Korea, in North Korean eyes, seemed consistent with the "march of history." And with geopolitical stalemate in Europe, from the Russian point of view the Far East was a propitious place in which to test further the resolve of the West. In addition, the Americans seemed to encourage the invasion when, on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson in a major policy speech defined the American line of defense in Asia as excluding Korea. While the United States would defend Japan and the Philippines, Acheson explained, should Korea be attacked, it would be a matter for the United Nations.
Twenty-four hours after the invasion, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution demanding a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal by the invaders above the thirty-eighth parallel—the border between North and South Korea. The resolution also asked U.N. members to assist in the execution of this order. With the Soviet Union boycotting Security Council meetings since January because of an unrelated matter, there was no Russian veto of U.N. action. Thus, the failure of North Korea to meet the conditions of this edict led two days later, on June 27, to a second Security Council resolution, this one recommending that U.N. member nations "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area." This second decree was tantamount to a declaration of war by the United Nations.
Although the United States was instrumental in the actions of the Security Council, President Harry S. Truman carefully followed the lead of the United Nations. He ordered American sea and air support for South Korea only after the first resolution was clearly ignored by the invaders. Not until June 30—after General Douglas MacArthur witnessed the fall of Seoul, the South Korean capital, and was convinced that the North Koreans would soon hold the entire peninsula—did Truman order U.S. troops into the battle.
While the Korean War was officially a U.N. undertaking, the military commitment came overwhelmingly from South Korea and the United States. Further, American involvement was never formalized with a congressional declaration of war. Legally, this was a "police action" ordered by the commander in chief of the armed forces, President Truman, as a function of American membership in the United Nations and American belief in the ideals of that world body. U.S. action was at once a blend of the new and the old—the collective security mentality of the United Nations and the resolve not to appease Communism, as had been done with Nazism in the 1930s.
The Korean War was also the first great test of the American strategy of containment—a Cold War policy that understood Communism as an aggressive, monolithic political dictatorship to be contained within its postwar borders until it was eventually overthrown by its oppressed subjects. President Truman melded these themes on July 19, when he appeared on national television and radio to explain his actions:
These actions by the United Nations and its members are of great importance. The free nations have now made it clear that lawless aggression will be met with force. The free nations have learned the fateful lesson of the 1930s. That lesson is that aggression must be met firmly. Appeasement leads only to further aggression and ultimate war.
The American Congress and public opinion supported Truman's early anti-Communist resolve. But issues within the war grew controversial, especially when U.N. troops under General MacArthur's command drove the invaders out of the South and deep into their own country. Under MacArthur, the United Nations seemed no longer to be fighting only to oust the North Koreans—the general seemed intent upon reunifying the peninsula under South Korean auspices. With American and South Korean troops nearing Manchuria and threatening air raids on enemy "sanctuaries" in that Chinese-controlled territory, by the end of 1950 the People's Republic of China entered the war. MacArthur's troops were quickly driven out of the North, and the war was stalemated for the next two years near the thirty-eighth parallel.
Importantly, public support for the war rapidly evaporated. Whereas 65 percent of the American people approved of the war after its first seven weeks, by February 1951 only 39 percent still approved, and 50 percent now did not favor it. By October 1951 the figures were only 33 percent in favor and 56 percent disapproving.
The American people, who had resisted involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor, clearly had not abandoned their isolationist heritage in less than a decade. With patriotic fervor now dissipating and quick, decisive victory impossible, popular backing for the conflict rapidly eroded. It is interesting to note that in the Vietnam War—coming as it did after years of political conditioning primarily by television—public opinion supported the American commitment significantly longer. As late as May 1970 a Gallup poll showed 36 percent in favor, a figure reached with Korea in less than a year. Also in May 1970, some 56 percent of the public disapproved of the war, a figure reached with Korea after only 16 months of conflict.
The Korean War was the first great international test for fledgling TV news operations. Until an armistice agreement became effective on July 27, 1953, video coverage of the war steadily improved. But, unlike the conflict in Southeast Asia in the next decade, the Korean War was not a television war. TV was neither technically nor professionally sophisticated enough to report the Korean hostilities thoroughly.
Network news bureaus were not prepared for the conflict in Korea. CBS and NBC, the leading TV news operations, were well equipped to report the war only on radio. Less than five years earlier, network radio journalists had kept Americans apprised of the latest developments in World War II. But television demanded the synchronization of words and pictures. It was one thing for a newsman to summarize government battle reports, or even to fly over the battlefront and broadcast his impressions, but video demanded fresh supplies of battle films. TV also needed front-line action reported and filmed by a breed of journalist not yet developed by the networks.
TV relied on newsreel companies. Since it took time and money to assemble a first-rate video crew to cover the Korean War, it was easier to buy film from organizations with a history of producing compilation films of weekly news. To build their wartime TV crews, moreover, the networks often hired photographers away from newsreel companies and even newspapers.
Another plentiful source for Korean War footage was the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The military had its own motion picture photographers, many enlisted or drafted from employment in Hollywood movie studios. These soldiers had access to front-line action as well as to lighter feature material. The films they produced were offered free of charge to network and local TV. While this footage undoubtedly enlivened nightly newscasts, it was not gathered according to journalistic standards. It was the product of the American military, screened by the armed forces before being released. In essence, this film presented what the military wanted Americans to see of the conflict. In this way domestic video became a willing conduit for preselected images flattering to the military and to the administration’s commitment.
There were other instances in which the military influenced what was shown on home-front television. Broadcasting had little experience covering frontline action. At best, during World War II radio correspondents were confined to impressions gleaned from shuttling to battle areas, or to interviews with servicemen returned from the front. To get to the front, whether for radio or television, journalists depended upon the armed forces for transportation and protection. Reporters also relied frequently on the military for housing and even food, especially when away from urban areas. Such amenities undermined the objectivity journalists preferred to have when gathering material for a report.
For its part, the military was aware of the importance of TV as a propaganda medium. Within two weeks of assuming command of the U.N. forces in Korea, General MacArthur issued orders to provide free film to newsreel firms and television networks. When he undertook a flying visit to the war front, MacArthur was careful to take along a Signal Corps photographer to record the event for viewers in the United States.
What Americans saw in those first months of the Korean War was a highly sensational interpretation of the conflict, complete with anti-Communist rhetoric and exciting government-supplied films. Typical of the programming was Telenews Weekly, a half-hour review of the news produced by Hearst’s Telenews Productions, International News Service, and International News Photos. The installment aired as Front Line Camera on July 25, 1950, on the NBC station in Chicago, was a showcase for the war as an anti-Communist effort.
On that broadcast President Truman spoke of how "free nations" had to be on guard against invasion, aggression, and—linking the North Korean invasion to events at Pearl Harbor a decade earlier—"against this kind of sneak attack." Other than to say that Americans were "united in their belief in democratic freedom," he did not justify American involvement in the hostilities. Instead, he offered clichés. "We are united in detesting Communist slavery," he said. While "the cost of freedom is high," he continued, Americans "are determined to preserve our freedom no matter what the cost." In a few short, unquestioned sentences from the president of the United States a civil war between two strong-willed Korean governments had become a crusade to protect the freedom of all Americans.
Even without Truman's logic, this installment of Telenews Weekly uncritically aired Cold War propaganda. Here, early in the history of video, were themes destined to become familiar: the overriding importance of air power; the invincibility of U.S. aviation; the military, man, and technology in synchronized excellence and dedicated to the protection of freedom. With bold music in the background and film of various American aircraft, the announcer spoke of leaflets being dropped in Korea: "As Communist forces lower an Iron Curtain over conquered areas, instituting Marxist reforms and bringing their brand of democracy to once-free Korea, from the air comes word that the Red triumph is only temporary. United Nations answers Communism's programs of lies and promises."
In Korea, television news, like that of radio and newspapers, was subject to military censorship. In December 1950, General MacArthur imposed complete censorship on information coming from journalists at the Korean front. While most of American journalism exercised self-imposed control over the type of information it made public, government concern was with curbing the disclosure of vital production information through domestic media, restricting the announcement of troop movements at home and abroad, and maintaining public morale at an optimistic level. Interestingly, Broadcasting reported that many journalists in Korea hailed censorship as “long-awaited and much needed.” According to that influential trade journal, “Many reportedly had requested formal censorship, not only to provide real security but to equalize breaks on important stories. This was understood to have been true of many radio newsmen.”
Censorship existed throughout the war. As late as December 1952, the U.S. government was exercising field censorship—now through public information officers of the armed forces rather than through intelligence officials of the various branches. Nonetheless, by the end of 1952 government restrictions were loosened to the point that while news continued to be censored "for security reasons," the government announced that news controls "will not be used to prevent the transmission of news upon the grounds of anticipated adverse reaction by the American people."
Hampered by its technical immaturity in delivering pictures and sound from a foreign war front, and inhibited for security and policy reasons in what it could communicate, TV responded to the Korean War to the best of its ability. The CBS and NBC stations in New York City occasionally carried live coverage of the sessions of the U.N. Security Council. Films and kinescopes of these proceedings appeared on network and local newscasts, sometimes as quickly as two hours after they occurred. Within six weeks of the commencement of hostilities, NBC-TV had three cameramen in Korea providing as much as half the footage aired by that network. Early results were usually disappointing. When NBC-TV aired Battle Report on August 13, 1950, Variety attacked this "weekly official briefing of the people of the United States" as "boring" and "anything but adept." The reviewer was especially upset by the failure of the program to exploit the visual potential of video. “But this is television,” he noted, “and TV is video as well as audio.... Instill a visual interest.”
Similarly underexploitive of the visual potential of television were network gestures on December 19, 1951. Beginning in the evening and extending into the early morning hours, the four networks televised moving tapes on which were written the names of 3,198 American prisoners being held in North Korea. On network radio, announcers read the complete list of names, which the Pentagon had released that day.
Nonetheless, by the spring of 1951 improved TV coverage of the Korean War was evidenced in the four-part CBS series Crisis in Korea. This was a filmed documentary hosted by Douglas Edwards and culled from network news film, newsreel companies, and U.S. Army sources. Variety applauded the "interesting and informative" nature of the series, and was impressed that CBS avoided editorial comment, preferring to let "the documented film speak for itself." Still, Crisis in Korea was recapitulation, not reportorial invention, a filmed history of the war that was technically, if not journalistically, impressive.
If any single reporter or network improved TV coverage of the Korean conflict, it was Edward R. Murrow and CBS. The maturation of Murrow as a television journalist occurred during that war. Certainly, he had emerged as a prominent radio newsman while covering Great Britain for CBS during World War II. He came to the visual medium in late 1951 with See It Now, a news documentary and interview series focusing each week on major national and world developments as well as relevant feature stories.
Even before See It Now, however, Murrow discussed the Korean War with his radio audience. He well understood that the conflict had several levels. He saw it as a battle for popular allegiance in a changing world. "The Communists have captured and channeled the surging desire for change, the resentment of foreign domination," he maintained on his broadcast of September 6, 1950. He continued, "Communism means both peace and plenty. The fact that Communism hasn't meant any of these things in practice in Asia is beside the point."
Murrow also saw the Korean conflict as a struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States for leverage in world politics. The American nation, he remarked on December 5, 1950, was committed "to the proposition that our foreign policy must be based on strength, ours and that of our allies." The United States, he said, "concluded that the Russians would not negotiate realistically until we had created sufficient 'situations of strength.' "
But Murrow was realistic. He dispassionately noted that, as for creating "situations of strength," it was clear "that we do not have sufficient strength as of now to deal with the Communist threat in a situation where the Russians have not committed a single soldier." As for the American salvation of Asia from Communism, Murrow wryly noted:
We must accept the proposition that the people of Asia will decide their future, that we will not attempt to dictate it and that we will use armed strength, as we are in Korea, to prevent Russia from dominating them. If we accept that proposition, then it seems to me an urgent obligation rests upon us to provide them with the information, and the example, upon which decision can be based
In addition, Murrow understood the Korean conflict as a war of the technologically advanced against social backwardness. He wondered about the plight of Korean peasants caught up in the war. "When we start moving up through dead valleys, through villages to which we have put the torch by retreating," he mused on August 14, 1950, "what then of the people who live there?" This report was recorded but never aired. Executives at CBS censored it. They felt that parts of it contravened orders from General MacArthur forbidding news personnel to criticize command decisions. Still, it was a sobering broadcast that asked a question whose poignancy was perhaps not fully appreciated only seven weeks after the war had begun. Speaking of the abused villagers, Murrow continued, "They have lived on the knife-edge of despair and disaster for centuries. Their pitiful possessions have been consumed in the flames of war. Will our reoccupation of that flea-bitten land lessen, or increase, the attraction of Communism?
In such broadcasts and in his television activities in Korea, Murrow demonstrated a particular sensitivity for average people caught up in war. It was a emotional perspective that would blossom on See It Now. Half the premiere broadcast on November 18, 1951, was a filmed report on a day in the life of Fox Company, Second Platoon, 19th Infantry. Well photographed and edited, it drew viewers into the actions and feelings of a combat unit about to assault enemy installations on high ground. On February 24, 1952, See It Now offered Robert Pierpoint reporting on case histories of three wounded GIs, tracing their ordeal from evacuation in Korea through assignment to base hospitals near their homes. On September 7, 1952, it was a view of the war through the eyes of a Marine division at Beetle Gulch trying to oust the enemy from another strategic hill. On April 19, 1953, See It Now offered the first reports of Americans being released from North Korean prisoner-of-war camps.
Still another familiar Murrow theme was the need for homefront support of American soldiers, particularly in terms of donating blood to aid the wounded. As early as December 2, 1951, he took up this issue on with a dramatic filmed sequence telling what happened to a pint of blood donated in the United States by an average citizen. Murrow followed it to a Korean military hospital, where it and eight other pints of blood were used to save the life of a badly injured GI.
Murrow's most acclaimed achievements in wartime coverage were "Christmas in Korea," on See It Now on December 29, 1952, and its follow-up, "Christmas in Korea-1953," telecast one year later. The human focus of Murrow's reportorial style was fully developed in these programs. Together with 16 photographers and reporters—including CBS newsmen Robert Pierpoint, Ed Scott, Lou Cioffi, Larry Leseur, Bill Downs, and Joseph Wershba—Murrow went into the daily lives of the foot soldiers in the Christmas season.
Most GIs expressed seasonal greetings or lighthearted jokes about the routine of fighting a war. Murrow's cameras settled on Americans—whites and blacks, men and women—as well allied troops such as British, French, Irish, and Ethiopians. Among the Americans, opinions of the conflict were wide-ranging. One soldier felt it was "a good cause," that "We must either stop Communism here or it is going to come closer to the United States," and "this is the place to stop the progressiveness of the Communists." Another defined his participation more fatalistically. "I am just over here firing, that's all," he told Ed Scott, and "When they holler 'Fire Mission,' I fire a lot." Still another GI concluded of the war, "I think it's a bunch of nonsense."
The journalistic legacy created early by Murrow and his long-time producer, Fred W. Friendly, was singular. More responsibly than most, Murrow and Friendly avoided overblown patriotism, fear-mongering, and empty rhetoric. During the Korean War their journalism relied on a balance of opinions from those involved. It was patriotic without being uncritical, and it skillfully blended pictures and words to communicate a human perspective. From Murrow and Friendly came sensitivity generally absent from nonfiction Cold War programming. In praise of such reportage, Variety editor Abel Green in late 1952 credited Murrow and Friendly with having created "an historic chapter in the new American journalism."