Monday, July 20, 2009
The Way It Was (and Never Will Be Again)
I'll make this quick.
I've spent the past couple of days "collating" -- as Ash from Alien might say -- my thoughts on the unfortunate death of Walter Cronkite. It would be easy to go into detail about the man himself: his dignity and dedication, his irreproachable level of professionalism, his enduring legacy in honest journalism. But for some reason, in spite of all that can be said about Cronkite's vast contributions to television news and news in general, I can't seem to get past the unintentionally amusing irony of what the coverage of his death says about the importance of the man and how it defines in clear-cut terms exactly what was lost -- and what will likely never be regained.
Put simply, to watch the often pompous lightweights who now dominate television news -- from the vacant Kens and Barbies to the self-satisfied jerks whose commentary has turned TV journalism into one big echo chamber -- react as if the passing of Cronkite is some sort of personal distress is more than a little laughable. The fact that Cronkite's nominal on-air progeny have not only a mere fraction of the talent that he did but possess almost none of his ethical backbone and commitment to journalistic excellence -- and yet are still more than happy to make a big show of genuflecting at his feet -- highlights in no uncertain terms just how much the news industry as a whole has changed since the days when people like Cronkite ruled the airwaves. Many of the TV newspeople of today are, for the most part, not so much in a league far beneath Cronkite's as they are not even in the same business. To hear the talking heads of today lament the passing of a man who helped define television news, you'd think they were actually doing the same thing he did all those years ago. In fact, they probably believe that they are; there's no doubt they think that by sitting in front of a camera and reading the news, they're the automatic inheritors of Cronkite's mantle. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While there are still excellent journalists out there, excellence is no longer a prerequisite to climbing to the top of the TV news game -- particularly on-air. Unfortunately, almost any barely-educated idiot can do it.
Add to that the fact that the industry itself has changed so drastically -- abandoning so much of what guys like Walter Cronkite stood for and against -- that even the best work can be overshadowed by a business model that seeks profit above all, even, occasionally, the truth. And that's what it really comes down to: Cronkite stood for the truth. For telling Americans what they may not have wanted to hear but certainly needed to. He put the story above himself and his own personal gain. He was passionate about his responsibilities and didn't ask to come into your living room each night because he liked seeing himself on TV; he did it because he knew that the news he brought you mattered -- that a well-informed public was a strong public.
Contrast that with the modern mega-media ethos, in which important news stories can easily be tossed aside in favor of trivial fluff designed to keep you hypnotically glued to your TV, keep you asking your doctor about Cialis, keep the money rolling in for the stockholders, and keep your brain happily sedated and getting smaller by the minute. The job of journalism now is, to paraphrase the great H.L. Mencken, to discern what the people want and give it to them good and hard.
The death of Walter Cronkite truly is the end of an era. One that's never coming back -- and one which this country should mourn with everything inside it.