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.

18 comments:

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Indeed... he is missed and has been for some time.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about it too, what did Cronkite represent? I think the saddest thing is that there is no more "prfessional journalist" in the anchor chairs that can separate the BS from fact. And this is what we sorely need. I wish we could have someone like Cronkite come on the air and say it as it is, someone who will arbitrate the issues and let us know who truly needs to get their ass handed to them.

kanye said...

I still find it amazing that he often did nothing more than scribble down a few notes to use as a basic outline, then do many, if not most of his newscasts off of the top of his head, scriptless.

To speak extemporaneously like that, night after night and in front of millions of viewers...the breadth of and confidence in his knowledge must have been incredible.

In many ways, Walter Cronkite is like one of those one or two special teachers that everyone has growing up. They affect your life by being excellent at what they do and by caring enough to share that excellence, without condition.

Maybe that's why he was so revered: He was a hell of a teacher.

Anonymous said...

Amen, and far too bad for all that

Mark Williams said...

Alas, speaking as one occassional TV talking head, I must agree.

Go easy on the twinkies though, the wholesale abandonment of broadcasters' public service obligations created the Frankenstein's monster that we have today. Ed Joyce saw it coming in the 1980s when he wrote "Prime Times, Bad Times".

At the same time, technology and political correctness have fueled a fracturing of our culture to a point where Cronkite would be about as marketable as PBS today.

You are right, we SHOULD mourn his loss (and what he represented) with everything we have... sadly there isn't much left with which to mourn.

The public gets what it wants and right now that is a 24/7 Bread & Circus the effects of which are devistating not just on the profession but on the Republic.

Allegra said...

Well said, and thank you. I'll never forget him narrating the short lived "The 21st Century" program, and his commentary on the Apollo program occupies a special place in my childhood.

Anonymous said...

i just wanted to say THANK YOU! This is exactly how I've been feeling. I have been watching the coverage talking about his contributions and how important he was, and how serious he was, and with a straight face, seqway go into celebrity gossip and twitter feeds. News will never be news again.

SteveR said...

He was an anchor in the truest sense.

PsyInteractive said...

Chez, I think I killed Walter Cronkite.

The night before my family and I were sitting around the dinner table and my grandfather was talking about the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 (which was that day), and the subject of Walter Cronkite came up. No one around the table could remember if he had died or not, because he must have been getting pretty old.

I turn on the news the next day, and the first thing I see is "WALTER CRONKITE - DEAD AT 92"

You'd better believe I cursed and called up my grandfather.

He was before my time, but the steady decline of journalism since has been glaringly in my time, so I mourn what I never knew - journalistic integrity. The world will miss Walter.

indystar said...

Very well said. I applaud your thoughtfulness!

The Manimal said...

In today's moral climate, journalistic integrity will only be fashionable again when it becomes profitable. To put in another way, McDonald's isn't going to come out with a healthier menu until the demand for salads eclipses the demand for cheeseburgers.

Walt said...

I'm getting to be an old guy myself and enjoyed watching Mr. Cronkite often but I have to ask: what made him so great? He spoke in deep and measured tones and made few pronunciation errors, and I know of no scandals but other than that, what?
I mean no disrespect. He seemed to be an nice guy and was a pleasure to listen to.

Nathan said...

I got a tremendous kick out of watching the local news on CBS the night he died; Katie Couric and Chris Wragge (Howdy Doody), going on and on and having to stop every time they were about to complete a thought because they kept painting themselves into a "we suck compared to him" corner.

CWE said...

No, no, sadly, no. Walter Cronkite will not be missed. We will want him to be missed, and he undoubtedly will get a postage stamp out of this, but he will not be missed by more than the dozen-or-so individuals who post here, and in a few other crufty corners of the Internet. Metarchy has yet to become a significant movement, and, as Roger Ebert has stated so eloquently, these are not the time of subtlety and sober reflection. More likely, his passing marks the winning of a small cash prize by some 'lucky' contestant in an dead-celebrity pool in an office somewhere. sigh. I need a hug.

Milton said...

well said. instead we get three weeks of the Michael Jackson death fest and all that absurdity that passed as "news". what a sorry state of affairs.

celery said...

i wonder what cronkite thought when barbara walters decided to become a professional yenta.

JLG said...

on the channels of 3 tv stations of the 5 we have in australia free to air, 3 news channels do not feature news. they only show events, celebrities and sport. the only news channels are not watched by a large percentage of the community. everyone grows up believeing miranda kerr's victorias secret ad job is news and this continues to the next generation. its heinous i would rather hear about darfur than the melbourne horse race even though i wish that what happens didn't happen. because it is actually news. what happens there actually does impact people. so it matters enough to be shown. not who won masterchef.

SteveR said...

Chez, do you ever get a chance to watch the CBC or BBC?