July 8, 2013

'Into the Fray': A Work of Love, Unrequited

Into the Fray: How NBC's Washington Documentary Unit Reinvented the News
By Tom Mascaro
Potomac Books
397 pages

In the Preface to Into the Fray: How NBC's Washington Documentary Unit Reinvented the News, Tom Mascaro writes, "My purpose is to fill in the historical narrative of NBC News and documentary, which is lacking compared to the bibliography on CBS." More on that later.

He continues, "I also intend to challenge the simplistic characterization of ‘the media' that Vice President Spiro Agnew advanced in Des Moines in 1969, when he criticized network analysts . . . [referring to] journalists as ‘a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one.'" In the 165 pages of Mascaro's book that I read, he failed to do that. And why bother? Agnew resigned in disgrace four years later and pleaded no contest to a criminal charge arising out of a federal investigation of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy. If ever there was a straw man to challenge, Agnew would be your guy.

And, yes, I quit reading long before finishing the book, something I have never done before in reviewing a book. I pretty much gave up on it at page 19 in Chapter 1, which dealt with World War II, when I read, "Eight million Americans, including 800,000 African Americans, served during the war." Actually, more than sixteen million Americans served during the war, including 1.2 million African Americans and 350,000 women. For a professor, writing a book of history, to make an error of this magnitude, and for it to go uncaught suggests at best a rather careless attitude toward checkable, factual information, and at worst an author who is overwhelmed by his project.

As another example, on page 67 he talks about the search for a lab to "process the flow of double-system filmstock." There is no such thing. There exists single-system filmstock, which was in heavy use by television news organizations at the time. It has perforations on only one side. The optical sound track recorded in the camera runs down the smooth side. Single-system filmstock cannot be processed in machinery with double sprockets.

Oh, well, I stuck it out to page 165. That's halfway, but as far as I could go.

Why?

Well, in the first 165 pages there is almost nothing about making documentary films, a theory of documentary filmmaking that evolved in the Washington documentary unit, or even much in the way of description of the films that were produced. Just program titles and TV Guide log lines. Finally, at page 119, the author writes, as if it were a new idea, "Our Man on the Mississippi showcased the Washington unit's practice of starting with questions and discovering answers rather than setting out to prove preconceived ideas." C'mon, that's what documentary is. Or should be. And if that wasn't the case at NBC until 1964—four years after Drew Associates made Primary, Rouch and Moran made Chronique d'un été, and Murrow and Friendly at CBS made Harvest of Shame—then it would have been instructive for the author to explore why that might have been.

Didn't happen.

Here's the problem. This book lacks a focus. The main reason I quit at page 165 is that I couldn't figure out what the book was supposed to be about. And if one doesn't know that half way through a 324-page narrative, one is obviously wasting one's time.

It appears the author wants to tell his story through the people involved—a sort of Band of Brothers set at NBC. Unfortunately, he has neither the talent nor the skill as a storyteller of Stephen Ambrose. So he tells it the way the human relations department might—facts and dates in chronological order—not as a story of interesting people and interesting events. A name is introduced, background given, and we haven't a clue about why.

For example, we learn on page 50, "Richard ‘Jim' Norling was born in Washington, DC, but became a Montgomery County, Maryland, resident before age two." That's a factoid I absolutely do not need to know. I have no idea why he has bothered to tell it to me. Nor does he give any indication why I should care about Richard "Jim" Norling. He just starts reciting Norling's résumé. There's a plethora of useless detail like that. For instance, he informs us (via parentheses) the abbreviations for "question and answer (Q&A)" and "military policemen (MPs)," as if we didn't already know that.

There is way too much of all the wrong stuff about David Brinkley. And way too little about how Brinkley did or did not contribute to the growth and evolution of the Washington documentary unit.

There is often confusion between television news and documentary, apparent even in the subtitle of the work. A news program is never a documentary. And a documentary is always more than journalism. Unfortunately, in the era covered by this book, television documentaries were often made by the same people who did the news. And those people considered a documentary to be a form of news. The author states, "‘Documentary' in this work refers primarily to a single topic, nonfiction news program that fills its time period." I find that an exceedingly parochial view. As the documentary film evolved to the form we have now, it has become clear that the best documentaries are made by people who (1) have nothing to do with a television news department and (2) probably do not think of themselves solely as journalists.

The best thing that I can say about this book is this: It is a running chronology of facts about the people who made television news documentaries at NBC from the 1960s through the '80s. The chapters I could not bring myself to read appear to include a longish section on the Vietnam War, and then some more about some other wars, and a wind-down as the characters introduced in the first 100 pages fade away.

There is a lot here for someone who really cares about media history, if they are willing to dig for it. In that, the author has made good on his expressed purpose to "fill in the historical narrative of NBC News and documentary." I'm convinced it was written as a work of love by a man who wishes he might have been there. I can only wish he had been up to the task.

Barry Hampe is the author of Making Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition (www.makingdocumentaryfilms.com) and is working on a new book about filming behavioral documentaries. E-mail: barry@barryhampe.com.

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