Anyone over 50 can remember when almost all radio and television news programs were 15 minutes long. But in September 1963, Walter Cronkite's CBS news program expanded to half an hour, and it was only a matter of time before everybody else followed suit, at the local level as well as on national network news.
Are we better off or worse off to have twice as much television news? Worse off - perhaps dangerously so.Back in the 1960s, there was often too much news to pack into 15 minutes - the war in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the space program going into high gear, campus violence, ghetto riots, independence spreading rapidly throughout the colonial Third World, landmark Supreme Court decisions and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr.
Every decade is not the 1960s, however - thank heaven. But, as life returned to normal, TV news was like a factory with excess capacity. What do you do when you still have a 30-minute news program and only 15 minutes' worth of news?
Part of that time is taken up with the kind of lighthearted chitchat among TV reporters that has become so widespread, and so stereotyped, that it now has a name - "happy talk." It's stupid but harmless.
What is not so harmless is the dependence of TV news on organized noisemakers to keep them supplied with something to put on the screen to fill up time.
It would be considered corruption if someone paid a television station to broadcast their opinions on the news programs. But all sorts of "movements" get free air time for their messages by supplying the TV news programs with outlandish demonstrations or outright violence. They are paying TV news in kind.
It is certainly news when someone paints himself green and chains himself to the courthouse door. But how often would this happen if TV news reported: "Here is a painted man being arrested at the courthouse as he tried to promote his political views by breaking the law"?
What those political views are is not news. All sorts of people have all sorts of political views. It is only the crazy behavior that is news.
What actually happens is usually just the opposite. Television reporters are often almost panting with eagerness to hear the political line of those who keep them supplied with colorful footage. TV news becomes a megaphone for those willing to act crazy or commit violence.
Hearings and deliberations by all sorts of governmental organizations become playgrounds or battlegrounds, as all sorts of competing groups turn disruption into the magic key to free advertising on television. Years ago, sports programs learned that the way to keep bozos from coming out of the stands onto the fields to interrupt games was to refuse to show them on television.
So-called "serious" programs like TV news have not learned that lesson because they don't want to learn it.