Examples of journalism at its best
Obscured last week by the death of England’s Queen Elizabeth II was the passing of a pair of heavyweights in the world of broadcast journalism.
Legendary CNN anchor Bernard Shaw and longtime foreign correspondent Anne Garrels died hours apart last Wednesday. With them went a form of journalism that is in increasingly short supply on the national stage: straightforward reporting that eschews agenda and opinion.
Shaw, who cut his teeth at CBS and ABC, became CNN’s first chief anchor when the network launched in 1980. He gave the fledgling network gravitas, proving as vital to its credibility as the anchors of the then-dominant network evening news broadcasts (Dan Rather at CBS, Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC).
His reporting on such stories as the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan or China’s 1989 crackdown on a democracy movement in Tiananmen Square were just that: Reporting. He knew it was the story — not the storyteller — that formed the basis of true journalism.
Never was that more apparent than in Shaw’s reporting from Baghdad during the 1991 U.S -led incursion to liberate Kuwait. Alongside colleagues Peter Holliman and Peter Arnett, Shaw delivered real-time updates from Iraq’s besieged capital as the bombs fell. While his accounts included personal description — “I’ve never been there, but this feels like we’re in the center of hell,” he said during one broadcast — there was neither criticizing nor cheerleading.
That type of facts-based delivery of the news is almost unimaginable today, when so-called “news” broadcasts are celebrity-driven vehicles for popularizing or, in the case of many conservative outlets, outright propagandizing political positions.
Garrels certainly wouldn’t have had any part in it. While less well-known than Shaw by virtue of working in radio, she was no less dedicated to dogged, honest, on-the-ground reporting.
Her work in the former Soviet Union, Central America and, most notably, Iraq during the second U.S. invasion helped listeners understand what was taking place in international theaters, rather than what to think about it.
More importantly, she went beyond troop movements and airstrikes to report on the effects of war on the lives of those caught up in it, whether it was in Chechnya, El Salvador or Afghanistan. Her reporting from Baghdad during the United States’ 2003 “shock and awe” campaign included escaping injury when a U.S. tank fired a shell into the hotel where journalists stayed.
Through all of her reporting, Garrels, like Shaw, led with facts. She broadcast what she saw, not what she thought. This is, of course, the result of the real work of actual reporting; of gathering information and talking to informed sources; of on-site investigating and detailed fact gathering.
This work is still being done today — particularly well at NPR but by fewer practitioners elsewhere. Shaw’s once-vaunted CNN has followed the lead, if not the political direction, of fact-averse, opinion-forward Fox. Network evening-news broadcasts, having lost their pre-cable dominance, have been winnowed to 30 minutes. They still provide essential, non-biased reporting, but there’s much less of it.
Shaw, who retired in 2001, and Gerrels, who stepped back from daily reporting in 2010, embodied a different era of broadcast journalism, one in which reporters chased stories rather than viewers.
Business models may reward the type of pandering partisanship practiced by the Foxes of the broadcast world under the misleading title of “news,” but they make for a less-informed audience.
Bernard Shaw was 82; Anne Garrels, 71. They will be missed. Also increasingly missed: the type of work they practiced and personified.