This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 22, 2008- In his new book, "Flash Frames," Don Marsh, host of KWMU's St. Louis on the Air, takes readers through his nearly 50 years of broadcast news experience, covering big stories from the hot days of the Cold War to the Midwest flood of '93.
Within four years of when he came on board with the American Forces Network in Germany in 1959, the Soviets constructed the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis put the world on the verge of nuclear warfare and President John F. Kennedy became the fourth U.S. president to die at the hands of an assassin.
"When you're young and you're in the middle of all this stuff, it's very professionally stimulating and invigorating," Marsh said. "It's very hard to forget those days and some of the things you saw and were involved in. I've been on the edge of a lot of history."
And sometimes he was smack dab in the middle of it, as in April 1968, when riots broke out across the country in response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Marsh was in Baltimore working for WJZ-TV when rioters set the city afire. While he was covering the widespread destruction and looting, Marsh and a cameraman were attacked by arsonists armed with rocks and bottles.
Six years earlier in Munich, Marsh was on the receiving end of more than one blow from a police truncheon while he was covering a student riot there for AFN.
In his book, Marsh presents his observations of the news events with which he was so intimately acquainted -- from the riots in Baltimore and Munich to U.S. intervention in Somalia -- in short, self-contained sketches he calls "flash frames."
"It basically was dictated to me by what popped into my head -- what I've talked to people about over the years, the strongest recollections," Marsh said. "I thought people might be interested in that little slice of (history) I happened to see. It's not about me. It's about what I saw. What was going on was more important than my being there."
In one of his flash frames, Marsh recalls this fact being driven home to him during his discouraging first interview as an AFN reporter. Armed with little more than a year of experience and a recording device he had never handled before, Marsh was dispatched to the Frankfurt airport to nab an interview with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Marsh now assumes he was given this as a "rite of passage" assignment by news directors who had few expectations of him getting anything.
But he didn't return empty-handed. Marsh came back to the newsroom with a recording devoid of any comment from Old Blue Eyes and dabbled with one and two word answers from Martin -- trite answers made even shorter by the fast speed of the recording, which made the velvety-voiced singer sound like Alvin the Chipmunk.
The Martin-Sinatra interview shook the rookie reporter's confidence for years. He recovered, though, and went on to interview such celebrities as James Garner, Duke Ellington and Henry Fonda. Marsh recalls spotting Sinatra at a national presidential convention years later when he worked for KTVI in St. Louis. Marsh did not attempt a second interview.
From Frankfurt to St. Louis and everyplace in between, Marsh was never keen on climbing the corporate ladder. Though he was sometimes thrust into managerial positions, once serving as news director for WJZ in Baltimore, Marsh found that such positions were always temporary and usually distasteful.
As a candidate for reportorial job openings across the country, Marsh found that his distaste for advancement often confused news directors who thought he was overqualified for a job as a reporter. But Marsh's view is actually quite simple.
"Being a news director in today's newsroom environment is essentially getting out of the news business," Marsh said. "The news director doesn't direct the news, he directs the department -- sometimes 30, 40 or 50 people. You can go for several days as a news director and never see your newscasts."
But Marsh has another reason to be glad he's not in news management, and that's what he sees as the devolution of news into "infotainment."
"When I started in my business, the idea was to give people the information they would need to make intelligent decisions about their lives and their communities, their states and their country," Marsh said. "(Now) there's an awful lot of pop culture stuff out there that is being treated as important news, and it's not."
Marsh's book follows the trend of entertainment news, providing a stark contrast between the "real" news stories he covered and ones that crossed the line into the "infotainment" -- like a contrived spotting of a fictional Mississippi Mud Monster.
"When people are being fed a lot of information about the Paris Hiltons and Britney Spears of the world, it's to the exclusion of things that could be a lot more important," Marsh said.
Amanda King, a senior at Webster University, is an intern with the Beacon.