Walter Cronkite died on July 17, 2009. Understandably, people are focused on what a great newsman he was. He reported concisely, fairly, and rarely broke out from behind the fourth wall. When you look at journalism today, especially television journalism, what you find is that Cronkite and his peers were, sadly, perhaps the last of televisions true journalists.
I rarely watched Cronkite. My father was a Huntley & Brinkley man, and in those days of one TV per household, the dial was pretty much ruled by whatever dad wanted to watch. For some reason my father didn’t cotton to “Uncle Walter”. I think it was only during the lunar landings that we spent any time watching him at all because none of his peers were as good, and CBS’s coverage overall was typically better.
Walter Cronkite was noted for his catch-phrase “That’s the way it is.” And, truly, that’s the way it was. He reported the verified and mulled facts. No commentary. No editorialising (well, the news did have some, but not from him). Just the news. I miss that.
As I flip through the myriad channels that purport to report news/information, I soon stop flipping and go back to doing something productive. Journalism on CNN? Not so much. Journalism requires time to gather facts, to consider what they mean, and to share what is relevant. CNN started as that, but it soon devolved into an unfiltered, raw-footage behemoth whose primary task was to fill a 24/7 hunger.
FOXNews? Don’t get me started. That is even worse than CNN (though by less of a margin every day, not because FOXNews is improving, but that CNN is falling to their level ). It’s more a bully-pulpit than it is a journalistic enterprise.
(It’s sad that the satires of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion actually present themselves as saner manifestations of the mainstream journalistic media.)
And I’m not necessarily talking about the “shouting heads”. Just changing a minor news story that used to be something like:
John Smith fell to his death from a grain elevator located just outside Lawrence, Kansas. It is the third such incident in the past five years. Investigators are on the scene and expect to release a report by the end of the week.
To the more modern:
John Smith tragically fell to his death today. This fall, from the sort of grain elevator that has long been a concern with local Kansans, brings into stark relief the dangers to workers responsible for providing food to America’s tables. Even with the five-year death toll now leaving three families without their loved ones, officials have been reluctant to give an immediate cause for the accident but indicate that investigators have rushed to the scene in the expectation that some answers will be available before another tragedy like this happens again.
The newer version is filled with dubious adjectives and implications intended to incite viewer interest and outrage (and thus keep them tuned). It’s also wordier, so as to fill up time. This wordiness also underlines the off-the-cuff nature of much reporting. But, despite the wordiness, more useful information isn’t there for consumption. In fact, because of the slant placed on the story, even less useful information is delivered.
To what end? It certainly isn’t the public interest. No, it’s intentionally sensationalized solely for the purpose of raising emotions so that people will have a neurochemical thrill when they tune into the news. Basically it’s about the carnival barker getting the marks to part with their money/time and see the freak show inside the tent.
Whether it is local, national, or cable, too much of what passes for news is like this. Needless to say, I watch as little as I can get away with. Too much makes me bilious.
What I’d like to see is a news program that Walter Cronkite would have been at home in. You give the facts and then you move on to the next story. You follow up only when the facts warrant. If a subject needs more depth, then you do an expanded program (a.k.a. “a special report”) on just that one topic. No editorializing. No opinions passing as thoughtful analysis. Just the news.
In today’s America, would such a program find an audience? I’d like to think it could, but even if it couldn’t, such a program is desperately needed. I know I’m not the only one sickened at the state of journalism today. Stories are more complex than cell-phone-videos and tweets can possibly convey. Perhaps at one time these sorts of raw data could be interpreted well by the public, but so many Americans are so under-educated and under-trained in the skills needed to interpret meaning from raw data that it just become fodder for propagandist agendas. Is it hardly a surprise that news about celebrities garners so much attention and air-time?
My grousing isn’t a condemnation of the press. Press freedom must be maintained for all. The first amendment’s guarantee was to ensure that people wouldn’t be muzzled. But in this interpretation, “the press” doesn’t mean journalism. It means publishing. “Journalism”, the legendary “fourth-estate” has a higher mandate. People like Walter Cronkite met that high standard. I wonder if another will even rise up and give the people not only what they deserve but what they need?
Journalism isn’t easy. It isn’t about being young, or well coiffed, or having your byline announced whenever you speak/write. It’s about caring to deliver the news in as factual and complete a way as possible.
Isn’t it amazing how, in the 60s, when TV news was 1/2-hour, that the public was actually better informed? I don’t often like to take a step back, but I think the time has come when we must. I miss journalism. I miss being able to uncynically trust the information I was presented with. I miss Uncle Walter.