The “News”

Walter Cronkite, signing off for the last time in 1981

Saturday, March 6, marked the fortieth anniversary of Walter Cronkite signing off the air for the last time.

And that’s the way it is.

1981…No worldwide, omnipresent internet…no social media…CNN less than a year old. No news on FOX (well, that hasn’t changed), but, otherwise, it’s a different world.

I’m old enough to remember Walter Cronkite as the consummate newsman. He was trusted. 

The anniversary got me thinking about how the word ”news” came to mean the entire apparatus that discovers, curates, produces, and distributes the stuff occurring during a calendar day. It became weird to me that an adjective got turned into a noun and used this way. We don’t say, I’m gonna be doing some “funs” this weekend, wanna join me? Right? So, I got to pondering.

I figure someone, no doubt a marketer, came up with the word ”news” as shorthand for the Press.

But then, I thought, ”the Press”, is just shorthand for printing press; the actual machine that was used to press print onto a page using manually placed typeset letters, and ink. The cadre of reporters, editors, producers, etc. could have just as easily been called the ”page”, the ”type”, or the ”ink”. But ”press” became the de-facto, catch-all substitute to mean professional journalism, what is also sometimes called the ”fourth estate” .

Hmmm. Let’s think for a minute. At some point in past history, say around the time of the Colonies, there were relatively few printing presses, therefore relatively few public information journals. There were only a few existing publications we now refer to as ”newspapers”, and these were limited by the cost and time involved to set up and print an edition. Maybe they could afford to print a two-column, single sheet broadside, once a week. Then, a time came when the publishers realized if they printed a daily edition of their paper, they could charge more to advertisers, and amortize the costs of hiring teams of full-time typesetters, and the ”Daily” was born. 

These caught on because of course readers wanted access to the most current events; at least those deemed fit to print, which often meant print to fit. So phrases like, ”hot off the press”, and ”scoop”, come into vogue. This created a climate in which reporters and papers were always vying with one another for the freshest information, the newer the better. 

By 1900, the competition for readers becomes so fierce that papers would print nearly anything as ”News”: not only the newer, the better; the more sensational, the better. The term ”Yellow Journalism” refers to this period. It’s what is commonly called tabloid journalism. Catchy headlines, spotty reporting, and unsubstantiated rumors are the stock-in-trade of this new brand of ”news”. 

Warning: Rabbit Trail: Unfortunately, the remnants of yellow journalism practicioners have stuck around to this day, and are in the midst of quite the revival. Scandal-mongering, non-factual-salacious gossip, and fear-and-anger-inducing disinformation sells. Sadly, many people take it seriously. Not only is there now no penalty for lying to the public, lying can actually confer benefits to the liar, especially if the liar(s) can obtain the complicity of ”news” organs to help with propagation of the propaganda. Claim anything you want, stamp ”news” on it, and gain instant credibility with the intellectually lazy. By intellectually lazy I mean anyone who gets their information solely from television and/or the internet. I regard print media as the true, last bastion of serious professional journalists. YMMV.

Finally, the term ”news” is born as that which is reported, distributed, and consumed as the most recent events of the day. It literally gets its meaning from the French plural noun nouvelles used to designate ”things which are new to you”, and ”things you haven’t heard yet.” 

This usage of nouvelles first applied to current events in French radio broadcasts. Information could be presented by radio more quickly than by print. This was decades before television became the go-to medium for current events, ”news”. 

But, Cable Things Which Are New To You Network, or Cable Things You Haven’t Heard Yet Network, just don’t have the same ring as Cable News Network or the even shorter, CNN. 

But presenting only “news” is a dog chasing its tail. Is it okay to sprinkle in some olds for context? Watch news programming, and the most recent information comes with a banner proclaiming, ”BREAKING”. Which, as we know, is to compete with the proliferation of instantaneous information coming from those highly trusted sources Twitter, Facebook Live, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and various live-streaming blogs, which serve as proxies for legitimate, trained, responsible journalists. Yet, most watchers know even when the banner screams, ”BREAKING”, the information could be several hours old. And hours old is hardly current ”news”, right? But ”RE-CYCLED BREAKING NEWS” definitely won’t work as a catchy banner graphic.

I predict it won’t be long before some clever marketer coins a term for ”Nows”.

Anyway, like I began, the anniversary of the legendary and trusted Walter Cronkite signing off for the last time got me thinking about the absurdity of the word ”news” as used for current events media. 

I find it amusing that there is such a thing as the ”24hr News Cycle”. That’s shorthand for anything that can capture the attention of the fickle, ADHD public for one day. Not much!

The news cycle is so meaningless (in every sense of the word), that I think I’d rather watch the 24hr Olds Cycle. It would be like watching M*A*S*H* and Kung Fu re-runs in the student lounge at my dorm in college.

Someone could sign on in a deep, serious voice:

Coming up, an hour of things you’ve undoubtedly seen and heard by now. Just in case you missed it on our sister station when it was News, we present the following Olds.

An hour later the same serious baritone could sign off:

And that’s the way it was.

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