A friend and one-time colleague in TV news, now toiling for the Colossus of Atlanta, recently sent me a link to a closing item on the CBS Evening News.
After The Mortician read a brief intro, I did a double-take when this graphic came up: OnTheRoad with Steve Hartman.
I don’t watch network news very often, perhaps not coincidentally since I began suffering from some of the geriatric maladies featured during the lengthy commercial breaks.
So I had not known CBS was On the Road again. Too bad Willie Nelson didn’t sing the piece.
Hartman’s item about the discovery of some old movies, a love story from the 1930s, was full of holes and unanswered questions.
His interview with one of the young lovers, now in her 90s, brought the piece to life – until he demolished it by pretending to read the old lady’s mind at the end.
Back on camera, The Mortician declared: “What a storyteller.”
Nowadays, people wear the word storyteller like an imprint on a cheap T-shirt. They proclaim it on their LinkedIn profiles, their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts, their press releases, their annual reports.
Hey, look at me! I’m a storyteller! Hire me! Pay me! Love me! Buy tickets to see me! Buy my videos! Buy my stock!
Watch us – we’re not just great newscasters, we’re storytellers!
Mark Twain was a great storyteller. So is my Pal Hal after a couple of beers.
So was the original man On the Road for CBS, Charles Kuralt.
There’s proof in his every yarn about the people he met on a back road in some tiny hamlet: the slingshot artist in North Carolina, the kitemaker in Indiana, the dirt-poor Mississippi couple who ensured all their nine children graduated from college.
Kuralt told soft stories with a soft touch. No exclamation points. Roll the pictures, ask the right question and let folks say their piece.
Q: Why are you, a tool and die maker from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, living here in the wilds of Alaska?
A: Well, maybe because I was a tool and die maker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Says it all. Cut to more of those scenic shots of Alaska.
Not that Kuralt couldn’t write the hell out of a script and mesmerize the viewer with his deep, rich voice.
“This is a story about Napoleon and Jefferson and Talleyrand and foreign intrigue in Paris and an empire changing hands. And this is the best place to tell the story – a swamp in Arkansas.
“By the time we get down to the end of this rickety footbridge, into the swamp, you’ll see what I mean.”
And, in that short walk, in fewer than four minutes, Kuralt tells the story of the Louisiana Purchase.
If you think I’m saying storytelling ain’t what it used to be, you might be right. And then again, I might be wrong.
But I do know these scratchy old YouTube videos of Kuralt – judging their merit as journalism and not as nostalgia – touches me in a way I’ve never felt watching the news on my HD TV.
The difference could be that today’s soft news seems to need a hard peg.
CBS lists its favorite Hartman road story of 2014 as: Cops in Missouri confronting poor people – not to arrest or shoot them as they did in Ferguson, but to give them $1,000 bills from a Secret Santa and make them shriek or cry like game-show contestants.
The hard-peg disease also infects words without pictures.
Since 2007, Dan Barry has written a feature in the New York Times called “This Land: Exploring obscure and well known corners of the United States.”
His latest piece in the series was from the South Carolina capital and the well-documented scene of protests over the Confederate flag.
Barry has written soft pieces too, from all across the U.S., and done them well.
But I can’t help but compare him to one of his predecessors at the Times, Rick Bragg.
When I was teaching journalism, on the first sunny day in September, I’d take my students outside, sit on the grass, and read them one of Bragg’s stories, set in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
It begins: “Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw.”
Nice. Nice enough to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Bragg did the big stories too – the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11. But he wrote the small ones as well as anyone in print.
Bragg is from Piedmont, Alabama; Barry from New York, New York.
Two men, at different times, staking similar ground at the same newspaper.
Kuralt was from Wilmington, North Carolina. Hartman is from Toledo, Ohio.
Maybe storytelling is buried deeper in the soil of the South than the sidewalks of the north.
Or maybe the soft touch is a harder sell these days.