By Bob Dorn
Last Sunday (May 17) on 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley summoned every hormone and nanoparticle in his body to reach that sweet spot where his voice can sound like a god’s and said:
“Time is the enemy of history.”
Say what? I mean… What?
At the end of a certain amount of time, say 60 minutes, history ceases to exist? Time wins and history loses? Does history end when Scott Pelley runs out of time?
History doesn’t find time an enemy. Time is its medium, its currency, its lifeblood.
Any historian—what the hell, any real journalist—recognizes time isn’t the enemy of history; time is the enemy of journalism. It takes a lot of time to research, report and write the news intelligently. Pelley put his foot in it when he sounded those mistaken words. I’ll bet it was because his staff at CBS is short of time and didn’t catch the mistake.
Media people have always been constrained by time. The language of the industry is filled with considerations of time. Reporters try to beat each other to the story. They’re always racing to deadlines. Last century a publication named TIME became one of the most important in the business.
History doesn’t care about the minute by minute suppositions of average media stars, other journalists do. Media people race to cover (in the musical sense, like on FM radio) the work of other journalists, so that they can appear not to fall behind the story. The effect of this pell-mell rush to a perceived legitimacy is that everyone has the same story, and they’re all sticking to it. Sometimes the story sticks to the journalists, like a dog turd does to the flip flop.
It wouldn’t be fair to call TIME the enemy of journalism, but like most all the nation’s news and entertainment organisms it is a corporation. And the news business is necessarily heavy with employees. Think of Doug Manchester’s operation here in San Diego. When he bought the SD Union-Tribune from Platinum Holdings the staff had already been cut nearly in half. Manchester cut it further.
Media people, like everyone else on a salary, are being asked to do more (while they’re paid less, but that’s another story). They have less time to get the real meaning of the new proposals offered by the Chargers cabal because corporate news is cutting jobs. That’s what corporations do these days.
And, boy oh boy, Scott Pelley’s boss is one strange corporation. A man named Sumner Redstone owns National Amusements, and National Amusements owns CBS Corporation and Scott Pelley. Redstone’s business was movie theaters before he bought CBS Corporation from another entertainment giant, Viacom.
Like a lot of network news programming, that of Sumner Redstone’s CBS News has suffered a decline in quality. 60 Minutes is no exception. Under Viacom’s and then Redstone’s ownerships the leading network news show has all but given up the depthy investigations of the last century and substituted for them on-camera interviews of heroes and evildoers; these are simply one-source recordings of one person’s idea about the story. This is not journalism, though it probably still makes money for Redstone.
Time isn’t the enemy of history, it’s the enemy of corporations.
Pelley’s, and CBS’s, lame but sonorous error came during a 20-minute (minus commercials) effort to do justice to the newly emerging National Museum of African American History.
The network and Pelley at one point focused its lens on Nat Turner’s bible crumbling under the plucking of disembodied fingers, this to show the difficulties that sometime face museum archivists. That’s when Pelley intoned those silly words about time, and history, trying to do justice to his subject.
But Nat Turner’s dying little book is just a curious pile of dirt and mold, no more important than a 70s copy of Hustler magazine. The loss of Nat Turner’s bible is only a loss to the people who invested in it. The Bible still exists in lots of hotel rooms and in every library in San Diego.
We all make this mistake of trying to find a material definition for time, and for history, something that can mark passages, arrivals and departures. We try to make time our tool, to section it off and distribute it, so much for this person so much for that project. We’ll say time is racing by when all we mean is, we haven’t noticed or thought about what just happened. Our consciousness failed us; time didn’t run out.
In CBS’s thoughtless construction Nat Turner’s bible became The Bible. But Nat Turner himself, the man who led his fellow slaves in a rebellion that preceded The Civil War by nearly 30 years, was not presented by CBS’s 60 Minutes. That giant network could have invested just two minutes, as I just have, and found these words from Nat Turner, presumably spoken at the trial that sentenced him to death:
“You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it. To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.”