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updated 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1989 01:00AM

It may sound a whopping overstatement to claim that television news has changed the way we view ourselves, get our information, even express our emotions. But consider this: What did you do when President Kennedy was shot? When Nixon resigned? When Challenger exploded? Even when a little girl was rescued from a well in Texas? If you did not race to a television set and sit before the screen with family or co-workers and let your pain, sorrow, rage or joy pour out, then you missed an American ritual.

The nation's observance of the supper-time TV newsbreak began in 1944. Back then it was a curiosity when an NBC newsman named Paul Alley, gathering film on a shoestring, put together the first network newscast. But the real intertwining of TV news and the nation's business came later in the '40s, when Douglas Edwards on CBS and John Cameron Swayze on NBC brought global events to the living room every night. TV news needed only a guiding intelligence to cement the revolution it was creating. His name was Edward R. Murrow, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, soft-hearted Southern CBS newsman who in 1954 made enthralled viewers ringside spectators to a historic confrontation. For four years, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy had played witch-hunting bully, lobbing baseless accusations of Communist perfidy against innocent citizens. The press, TV and public officials quailed at confronting him; Murrow took McCarthy on, and tore him apart in a program that recounted his lies, tallied his victims and began the end of his career. "We proclaim ourselves the defenders of freedom," Murrow said. "But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." When the Army-McCarthy hearings followed, only ABC, then a weak network with no daytime schedule, carried them fully. By hearings' end, ABC had become a major player.

Murrow may have been the father of TV news, yet every child outgrows its father. By 1956 Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the country-boy intellectual and the citified cynic, were sparking NBC toward news dominance, and in the next presidential election, TV may have changed history: "We wouldn't have a prayer without that gadget," said John Kennedy, whose athletic glow of youth made Richard Nixon seem pallid and shifty by contrast.

TV news grew as its equipment shrank; the bulky old 35-mm cameras would eventually evolve into 12-pound minicams. Meantime, using mobile units, the networks began going where the news was: thrilling the country with live coverage of John Glenn's first earth orbit by an American in 1962, offering a nail-biting tracking of the Cuban missile crisis in 1963. But TV news came of age, as we all do, by confronting the unspeakable tragedy of life. The eyes of Walter Cronkite (page 26) swelled with tears when he heard, from a young Dan Rather, that President Kennedy was dead. Tom Pettit's voice filled with horrified excitement as he broadcast TV's first on-air murder, of Lee Harvey Oswald, on NBC. The world sat in on these extraordinary events through the marvels of communications satellites that could visually and instantly unite the globe.

The medium also began causing Americans to question themselves as it showed the racial wars of Oxford, Selma and Montgomery, then helped divide them by bringing a war into their homes. President Johnson went to Vietnam in 1966, orchestrating his visit for TV coverage. The country was troubled by what it saw, and Johnson finally stepped down. It sometimes seemed in those days as if the medium were more powerful than any public figure. When the networks chose to air 1973's Watergate hearings live, Richard Nixon's presidency was all but doomed.

After that, TV news felt its gathering power. 60 Minutes, with abrasive style and uncompromising stands, became not just a staple but a smash hit. Robert MacNeil started a low-key discussion program on PBS; when Jim Lehrer joined him, they redefined the TV news show, bringing cool analysis to hot topics. Projecting authority as few since Murrow have, Ted Koppel in the '80s evolved into a parson to the nation, holding the great to account every week-night on Nightline.

Now TV news is spun into the fabric of our daily lives. The networks render wars, famine and folly in two-minute packages with a new equanimity, enterprise and vigor, while CNN keeps the most avid plugged in to the world every hour of the day. TV news is not impeccable, merely essential. We would not have understood the Iran-contra hearings, or felt the promise of Gorbachev's U.S. visit, without it. For 22 minutes each night this magic window brings the rest of humanity into our very lives. It has helped push our once-isolated nation even farther into the world and taught us the part we are to play in this century and the next; it has shown us the future.

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