ABC's telecast two weeks ago of the U.S. Open's final round from Tulsa left two widely divergent impressions. One is that the network is extraordinarily skilled, flexible, even daring, when it comes to technical matters. The second is that the journalistic credibility of ABC—and, to be fair, CBS—should be questioned when golf is their subject.
ABC set aside four hours for coverage of the last round, and the network used the time to good effect, tracking the winner, Hubert Green, from the moment he teed up for the 1st hole until he dropped his final putt. The home gallery saw 64 of Green's 70 shots, as well as innumerable strokes by 15 other top finishers. Although this type of blanket coverage is often achieved in England and Australia, this was the first time it had occurred in the United States.
It takes a true golf nut to stick with that much golf on a Sunday afternoon in June, even when the event is as important as the Open. But ABC's effort was worth the watch, both as an American experiment in long-format golf coverage and as a demonstration of how useful the latest miniaturized equipment can be to sports television. And the network deserves high marks merely for having the guts to go ahead with its 18-hole show, because it had to use supervisory personnel to man most of its gear. ABC technicians had been on strike for more than a month.
The network deployed about 350 people and 30 cameras, some of them the roving, shoulder-carried mini-cams that made the extensive coverage feasible. ABC did a good enough job to make all three networks reassess their plans for future tournaments. No longer can broadcasters or viewers be entirely satisfied with telecasts that show only four or five closing holes. In fact, a trend for golf already seems to be shaping up. Even while ABC was planning its 18-hole coverage, NBC was deciding that last year's industry-wide total of 66 golf telecasts was too much, and it will drastically cut down its telecasts of the sport. Golf fans, it seems, will be seeing fewer events in the future, but those they do see may well be covered like a blanket.
July 3, 1977
The second impression left by ABC's coverage—at least in the minds of those who think telecasters should act like journalists—is that the network should have told its audience Green had been the subject of a death threat. Although ABC was immediately made aware of the threat, the network never mentioned it. The reasons ABC and the USGA have given for this failure have been conflicting, but the fact is that the network had dispensed with journalistic detachment even before the incident occurred. ABC decided to use as "expert announcers" Frank Hannigan and Bill Campbell, both senior officials of the USGA, which conducts and promotes the Open and gets $430,000 from ABC for the rights to telecast the tournament. One of the tenets sustaining journalistic integrity is that you do not employ representatives of the promoter to cover an event, unless you want to be called a shill.
When the death threat became known, the USGA tried to keep it quiet, because it honestly thought silence might help protect Green and because, self-servingly, it wanted to protect the reputation of the tournament. ABC's decision to go along with the hush-up, particularly after Green had finished his round, is harder to explain. Did one of the world's largest news-gathering organizations not realize that the death threat was news? Or did ABC simply fail to pursue a story that the USGA by its silence hoped to suppress? Either way, it was bad journalism.
This was not the first time golf officials have attempted to influence telecasts. For years CBS has been accused of conducting its Masters telecasts exactly the way the members of Augusta National want it to. Announcers who work the Masters admit that they are "under pressures at Augusta they never encounter anywhere else." In fact, Jack Whitaker was barred from working the Masters for five years because he once described the crowd at the 18th hole as a mob.
Before this year's Masters, 33 rules "for the protection of the announcers" were given to CBS by the Masters television committee. Some of them were:
Never refer to the gallery or patrons as a mob or crowd.
Never estimate the size of the gallery.
Never refer to players' earnings.
Never refer to Masters prize money.
De-emphasize the players' antics.
Do not compare any holes at Augusta National with those at another golf course.
The water in front of the 13th green is not to be called Rae's Creek, but a tributary of Rae's Creek.
Make no reference to Masters tickets having been sold out.
Make frequent mention of the presentation ceremony to be conducted at the end of the final round.
Do not guess at where a ball might be.
Do not estimate the length of a putt.
Instead of identifying Lee Elder as the first black man to play in the Masters, say he is the first person of his race to play in the tournament.
CBS personnel claim the memo was largely ignored. Maybe so, but that is a very tepid response to a blatant attempt at censorship. Television has long maintained it can report events honestly while also paying millions of dollars in Tights fees. As long as it employs the promoter's representatives as commentators, or fails to react vigorously to attempts by promoters to censor broadcasts, its reporting will remain suspect.