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No one does what he does any better than Steve Hartman

Nobody does it better, as Carly Simon might say. And it really does make me feel sad for the rest.

What nobody does better than CBS’ Steve Hartman is the 2-minute-and-50-second “human interest story” that has been, in one way or another, part of journalism since its first disreputable beer-sozzled reprobate heard a good tear-jerking yarn from a guy at the bar and made it part of next day’s professional output.

I don’t always respond emotionally to such things. Nor do many inside the profession. We know how they’re done. We’ve done our share. We can certainly admire the craft of the really good ones but that doesn’t mean that our own eyes will begin to glisten in response. Nor does it mean you’ll start hearing us clear our throats a lot as we watch.

But let me issue a challenge here: Go to YouTube and look up “On the Road With Steve Hartman.” As of last week, you’d find 125 videos there of Hartman’s work. They’re generally the stories run at the end of the CBS Nightly News every Friday and rerun as part of “CBS Sunday Morning,” for many years now the best news magazine on television.

If you can watch any three of those stories in a row with a completely dry eye, you may have switched off one of the crucial engines that keeps humanity alive.

It is, to be sure, part of a solid modern education to cast a critical eye on blatant emotional manipulation. It is an unfortunate fact of the human race that our tear ducts can be purchased at an appallingly low price.

And all too often it means nothing. Human history is full of monsters who weep over their puppies and, five minutes later, order the deaths of thousands, even millions, of mere humans.

It’s the straightest road to hypocrisy – which, as La Rochefoucauld said is “the homage vice pays to virtue.”

To that, the best response is this: Some hypocrisy is essential to civilization, and vices are universal, which probably makes any complimentary feint in virtue’s direction a boon.

That’s another way of saying this: Every week I watch what Steve Hartman does with awe-inspiring professionalism on his “On the Road” segments. Every week I know what he’s doing and if I don’t know exactly how he’s doing it, I can make a good guess. This, after all, is not a fellow who stumbled into broadcast journalism because he was looking for the men’s room and wandered into the wrong office. The 52-year old studied at Bowling Green and made the profession’s characteristic long upward pilgrimage from local TV news (Toledo, Minneapolis, New York and L.A.) before landing on a CBS newsmagazine. He’s the kind of pro who’s studied to be one – probably since he began to shave regularly.

He did not begin the “On the Road” franchise at CBS. Quite famously, Charles Kuralt did – just as Kuralt, as the anchorman, was one of the inventors of “CBS Sunday Morning” all those years ago. (The other was a hugely inventive well-traveled TV news producer named Robert “Shad” Northshield, a name virtually unknown to any but insiders.)

It was Kuralt who famously drove around America in an RV with his camera crew. It was Kuralt whose extraordinary little vignettes of life away from the American superhighways were so influential. Kuralt was an admirer of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that he came to a powerful new journalistic trope through American literature.

But I always felt that as extraordinary as they were, there was always a little bit of off-road self-righteousness in what Kuralt did. He was making a statement about journalism and was proud of himself for doing it.

Ironically, his reputation after his death became a wonderfully eccentric off-road instructional tale about journalism in its own way. It was discovered after he died that he virtually had a second family far off road in Montana – one that was eventually judged legally entitled to property there.

And that is part of the reason why, I think, Steve Hartman may be the best there has ever been at what he does. Charles Kuralt could have been a Steve Hartman story.

Hartman will, to be sure, tell you shamelessly sentimental stories but he’ll leave in the nettlesome details.

Here are two, almost at random, from the last few weeks:

1) “Texas High School Team Gets Unlikely Support” is the headline on one YouTube video about the high school basketball team from the Gainesville State School in Texas. A few times a year, the team faces much fancier schools elsewhere in the state.

That is, they’re allowed out to do so. Because the Gainesville State School is a correctional facility for underage felony offenders. When they go on the road to play, then, they have no fans to cheer them on.

Until they played a school named Vanguard Prep, whose basketball team was dispirited by having to play a team with no fans at all. So they designated half their own audience as fans for Gainesville and even provided some makeshift cheerleaders for the Gainesville kids who couldn’t imagine such a thing happening.

That is typical Steve Hartman – the swerve far outside middle-class respectability into emotions which will moisten your eye quite nicely.

Even more typical was:

2) A story called “Daughter Sends Letter to Father in Heaven.” It was about a teenage daughter who sent messages to her father in heaven on Mylar balloons – which, in one case, came down far from heaven at a restaurant 450 miles away.

So far, so good. You could see such human interest TV journalism, you might think, on any well-appointed local TV broadcast in America.

Not quite.

The heartrending kick to the story was this: For most of her life, the kid’s father had been in prison. And, she admitted, he would send her letter after letter as she was growing up. She responded to none of them. She cried on camera as she told us that.

And when he died from an aneurism, she was left with a desire to communicate with him after all that could never be fulfilled. Hence, the Mylar balloon letters to “heaven.”

Said Hartman, “How many of us go through life this desperate for one last contact?”

How very many of us go through life with so little contact with the kind of people Hartman brings us every week on CBS News?

Maybe someone in TV history has done such things better before. Right at the moment, I can’t think of anyone. As extraordinary as he was, I don’t think Kuralt ever did, despite his immense creative influence.

I’d be willing to bet, though, that Kuralt would watch Hartman’s work and be willing to pay homage to its virtues.


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