SMITH COLUMN: The good days of the nightly news

Published 9:30 am Saturday, July 16, 2022

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The nightly news is not for me anymore. It is just too much murder, mayhem, venom and hate. I would much prefer the “News from Lake Woebegone,” if I could find it somewhere. Since I can’t, I rather read a book.

No offense to David Muir and the newsreaders of today, I much prefer the past when Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC and Walter Cronkite of CBS told us what was going on in the world before they signed off.

“Good night, Chet.”

“Good night, David.”

Even their signature signoff captured the fancy of the viewers who chose the Peacock network for their dose of the evening news. When Cronkite

ABC’s evening host was a man named Howard Kingsberry Smith who was the lesser known of the newsmen of that era, but I liked him for different reasons.

It was my good fortune to spend time with him on a couple of occasions.   

He had been a successful high hurdler at Tulane. In 1936, Howard K. Smith, as he preferred to be known, set the school record for the Green Wave by running the 120-yard-high hurdles in the outstanding time of :14.5.  If you know anything about this event, you know the impact of that time in this race.

However, his time was not good enough for the network newsman-to-be to best the best in the league which happened to be Georgia’s Spec Towns who was consistent at running the high hurdles in :14.1.

Spec would make it to the Olympics in Berlin, winning the gold medal in 1936 and stunning the track and field world a few days later when he set the world record in the astonishing time of :13.7 in the 120-yard-high hurdles in an exhibition meet in Oslo, Norway.

The official timers could not believe their stopwatches.

In the sixties and beyond, the broadcast department at the UGA College of Journalism and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters hosted an annual Institute at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education which attracted the icons of the broadcast industry.

The announcers whose presence came into your den with the news of the world annually showed up at the Georgia Center. When Howard K. Smith appeared one February, I approached him about Spec Towns, telling the ABC news anchor that Towns was still active as the Bulldogs track coach.

His response was, “How can I meet with him?”  That, of course, was easy, so a meeting of the two former hurdlers was arranged. The two men, born about three months apart in February 1914 had much to reminisce about.  Their recollections about SEC hurdles competition and World War II were engaging and stimulating.

Smith started covering the war before the first shots were fired which afforded him an opportunity to interview the Nazi brass at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps, which included Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader; Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister and Hitler, himself.   

Spec came home from the Olympics only to return as an officer and eventually was in command of a Prisoner-of-War camp.

Three of his prisoners became good friends, and I was able to meet all three of them — one in Amsterdam, one in Mainz, Germany (near Frankfurt) and the other, who moved to Australia, but came to Athens for a reunion with Spec.

After breakfast at my house, we were walking down the sidewalk to the car and Spec dropped back to whisper to me, “Don’t make me out to look like a softie.

They are still a bunch of (unprintable) Germans.” He never forgave the Nazi’s for killing his younger brother, Preston, at Bastogne.

This trip down memory lane, makes me lament that there was not so much universal hostility among Americans back then.

It also makes me wonder why we lost the broadcast institute where the icons of the industry rubbed shoulders with students with addresses such as Portal, Hahira, Suches and Moreland. 

And this parting shot regarding our nightly news.  Never has there been a time more of essence than today when we desperately need to “…beat our swords in the ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks.”

If we were to pull that off, perhaps, we would enjoy only good news.