I am of an age where current events easily trigger memories of past events and the rapidity with which the connections are made is in direct proportion to my age. A meaningful length of years for anyone who has not been comatose during a six-plus decade timeframe easily corresponds to the volume and variety of memories made and casually catalogued inside a prodigiously absorbent brain. Connections between then and now are a dime a dozen for geezers like me.
Current events these days get a much broader airing than what I knew as an avid listener to the nightly news growing up in the LA area. Now we have multiple outlets courtesy of cable and satellite technology reporting the same sad stories 24/7. Then we had a handful of independent television stations offering a local slant on the news in competition with the programming of the three national networks; this being before PBS joined the ranks of those having a nationwide audience. One major difference between then and now is that the news had a self-imposed cap of 30-minutes duration. Somehow we deemed that an appropriate allocation of our time for considering all the news that was fit to broadcast.
The number of TV stations available to us for free allowed us to select who we wanted to hear read the news to us, although our options were admittedly limited to mostly men who were generally returning World War II vets fortunate enough to hitch their professional careers to the rising star of the post-war television industry. Some held dual positions by also writing columns for local newspapers, giving them a rather extensive voice with an enhanced credibility when it came to reporting the news or framing an editorial opinion. This was also an immensely prosperous time in Southern California’s history. Not only were we boomers causing the area growing pains, but LA was like a giant vacuum, sucking people in from the rest of the country; people who became willing partakers of this new Eden. And with the growth came all of the vices from which reporters could earn their daily bread.
My personal favorite of the nighttime informers was a man by the name of Paul Coates. He had a nightly program on the KTTV station entitled “The Ten-Fifteen File”, which was appropriately named since his news segment aired at 10:15pm following the popular and patriotic newscaster, George Putnam. Coates’ half of the thirty minute broadcast consisted of interviews with topics that were highly entertaining to my childish brain for their outrageous content in my otherwise passive, suburban-drab existence.
Organized crime, drugs, prostitution, gambling, scams, infidelity and homosexuality were exhilarating topics for me and when you consider that this program ran in the early 60s you can better appreciate that my fascination with it occurred when my age had barely reached double-digits. Who knew that the news could be such fun? It’s a wonder that my parents never put a stop to my youthful viewing habits.
Coates once said of his programming decisions that “I’ll take people where they ordinarily couldn’t and wouldn’t go. It’ll be ‘Off-Beat Journalism’ on TV. It won’t be nice, but I believe it will be effective and will make for a better city and a better community.” In truth his program never redeemed Los Angeles from becoming a variant of Sin City, but it did make for better entertainment value than the after-school cartoon programs, which also filled by waking hours.
What I remember of those short but pointed interviews is that they took place in virtual isolation. There was no stage setting, just two people sitting in chairs facing each other with darkness as a backdrop. The somber tones of the black and white era made for a more intimate and nearly claustrophobic atmosphere, forcing the people to be your visual focus, while their voices and consequently their words came through with a clarity surprisingly compelling for a TV set that had rabbit ears for an antenna.
Coates was called an “urbane master of the art of probing.” And I am indebted to Roger M. Grace, co-publisher of the Metropolitan Daily News – Enterprise, for also being a fan and writing about Coates as “… a crusader, a communicator, a truth-seeker. Coates explored what had been taboo subjects on television, doing so without sensationalism, but with frankness. His interviews were incisive. He was focused, serious-minded, and effective.” This is an affirmation of what I recall from those nights, sitting in the dark of my room, learning about the world outside of the sanctity of my middleclass, suburban neighborhood. And here is the connection hinted at the start of this message.
“Without sensationalism” is antithetical to today’s broadcast, print and blogging journalism, where the word “expose” seems to be the norm even when reporting on the most innocuous of subjects. But it is the interviewing techniques which cause the greatest clash for me between then and now. No matter who I observe in my rare forays into television viewing, the questions seem to be nine parts editorial comment and one part query in the form of asking the target of the probe “Isn’t that so?” The journalists begin with the answers and merely seek affirmation of their fixed opinions. And when the reply seeks to veer outside the established bounds of the required response, the guest is cutoff mid-sentence and rebuffed for his or her independence of thought; censorship taking the form of talking over the interviewee in order to eclipse the opportunity for an unscripted insight.
Coates had the gift of listening, which seems to be absent in many of today’s on-air and on-line reporters, as if there is a fear of hearing something in contradiction to their own received wisdom. I would go so far as to offer a different interpretation of the Marshall McLuhan quote that the medium is the message in that the popular broadcasters of limitless air time to fill are like mediums at a séance, voicing the counsel of an intentionally nether world for consumption by a gullible audience in need of something to believe.
Ironically Coates was followed by a half-hour program hosted by the late Tom Duggan. He was the alt-newscaster of his day, being a sensationalist who was out and proud long before that phrase became a mantra for sexual preference. Think Rush Limbaugh at a higher decibel level and you will get a fairly accurate picture of his style and content. He was a man ahead of his time, while Coates was a man whose style diminished when the news media went Hollywood, glamour and glitz replacing substance and content integrity.
A lesser known quote attributed to McLuhan is that “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” The connections I would make of this are that a point of view is the “now’ of journalism, insight and understanding the “then” of the Paul Coates era. And for me, I am glad I had the chance to experience the one by which I can appraise the other, unfortunately however, with serious dissatisfaction.