If you’re of a certain age, you’re able to answer the question “Where were you when you heard JFK had been shot”? For me and my generation that question is more “Where were you when you heard Princess Di had been killed?” or “Where were you when you heard about 9/11?”. Regardless, there’s a commonality between those three events. For each of them the answer to the implicit question “how did you find out about…?” would have involved some form of mass media. Radio or TV. Or a friend, who had heard the news on mass media. That quarter century between 1963 and 1997/2001 saw very little change in the way we found out about, and consumed, news. But Paris last weekend showed me how all that’s changed.
JFK’s assassination – the start of the TV era in news
TV – the new broadcast medium in 1963 – came of age as the medium for news with JFK’s assassination. Up till then people had relied on another broadcast medium for decades: radio. The power of radio was seen in the panic caused by Orson Welles’ 1938 Mercury Theatre production of “The War of the Worlds”. Or in the galvanising effect of Edward R Murrow’s reports from the London blitz back to America. Have a listen to this report of an air raid warning in Trafalgar Square from 1940 – “like ghosts shod with steel shoes” – they don’t make reporters like that anymore!:
But November 1963 marked a shift in power from radio to TV. Broadcast media was changing – pictures were winning. This incredible piece from Walter Cronkite at CBS on the death of President Kennedy is so powerful:
Have a listen at 3:41. “We’ve just had a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas that President Kennedy is dead”. But they treated this still as unconfirmed. They only believed it when they got the “flash” on the wires – watch at 5:00 for the famous words “the flash – apparently official…”. Here is that “flash” – the wire report:
The University of Virginia has put up the whole set of wire reports from that day. It’s worth a read. I’m old enough to remember physical wire reports. When I was a teenager I would spend my Summer school holidays with my Dad and Stepmother in Malaysia. We would often go to the Hotel Equatorial in KL for a swim and ais kacang. In the foyer of the Equatorial was a teleprinter connected to the Reuters wires. I would stand there for what seemed like hours watching the news come through, printing off from locations around the globe…
The first Gulf War – the triumph of CNN – the apotheosis of TV news
TV news reached its apotheosis with the first Gulf War. No one who saw it can forget the way CNN covered that war. I remember going down to the dealing room floor at work to watch CNN cover the Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv. The dealing floor had TVs hanging from the ceiling. The whole floor went silent. We didn’t know what Israel would do. Would Saddam manage to make this war spread to the entire Middle East?
Interestingly, on the day that George Bush Snr announced the invasion to retake Kuwait, the Sydney Morning Herald printed a special afternoon edition of the paper. Can you imagine that happening today? I remember buying it on my way home from work. Information flowed more slowly in 1991.
9/11 – the last days of TV news
I don’t think any of us knew it then, but 9/11 marked the last days of TV being the primary news vehicle. I’d gone to bed early that Tuesday night (Australian time). I’d set the video up to record The West Wing. I woke up that Wednesday morning to the news on the radio in the bathroom. Straight away I turned on CNN. Television mediated all our experiences of that event. (By the way the video I set up makes interesting viewing. Channel 9 cut into the program and went to their American affiliate. It’s amazing to hear the news commentators trying to make sense of the unthinkable. As the first tower falls they think it’s another explosion. They can’t process what their eyes are seeing. They think the tower is still there.)
7/7 – London – the start of the change
Only a few short years later, the 2005 London attacks were mediated differently. For me at least. I was in Melbourne at a work dinner. Coming back down in the lift I pulled out my Blackberry to check emails. (This was in the days when Blackberries were set to take over the world.) CNN Breaking News had sent an email. Multiple London bombings. For the first time I had found out about a major news story from a narrow channel. Not a mass medium.
But interestingly, the internet back at the office that night didn’t prove to be a good way of getting information. I had to wait to get back to the hotel room to turn on BBC World.
Paris 2015 – it’s different now
And so Paris this weekend. This time it was my watch that told me. Sitting in my hotel room working on Saturday morning before a conference gig. My watch buzzed. ABC news – multiple shootings in Paris.
And this time, my response was different. I didn’t turn the TV on. I didn’t even go to the ABC News website. I went straight to Twitter. I searched “Paris” in twitter to see top tweets. Then I went to my French news list (I’d set one up after the Charlie Hebdo attacks). I pulled it up. Very quickly, through the accounts I was already following (and that I trusted), I could find journalists on the ground tweeting what they saw. It seemed too slow to have to wait for these journalists to formally file to their websites. Twitter was more immediate. Here is @edemareschal – a Figaro journalist on the scene:
Les voitures de police sécurisent le quartier autour du stade de France pour permettre la sortie des spectateurs, circulation coupée.
— Édouard de Mareschal (@edemareschal) November 13, 2015
“Police cars secure the quarter around Stade de France so as to allow the exit of spectators, traffic blocked.”
Il y a eu trois explosions àSaint Denis, une voiture a explosé devant le MC Do, une explosion devant le Quick et une devant le café Event — Édouard de Mareschal (@edemareschal) November 13, 2015
“There have been three explosions in Saint Denis, one car exploded in front of the MC Do, one explosion in front of le Quick and one in front of the Event Cafe.”
And then some of the scale started to emerge:
Beaucoup de craintes autour du bilan qui pourrait être très lourd au #Bataclan.
— Nicolas Chateauneuf (@nchateauneuf) November 14, 2015
“A lot of fear around the toll which could be very heavy at #Bataclan”.
Twitter mediated this story. Its immediacy and its “locality” seemed right for this. The TV stayed off in the hotel room.
“We are all Parisians now”
This piece, by Ben Myers, says everything I would want to say about last weekend’s events, and says it much better than I ever could: