Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on Uncle Walter

Last Friday, Walter Cronkite died in his New York home. The Times wrote a pretty solid obit that's worth a look. I was sad to here the news even though I did not come of age during the Cronkite years. The man was a legend, and as a journalism student, it's been a foregone conclusion that he set the standard for what television journalism was supposed to be.

But, I suppose in truth I'm not really sad abouthim dying (seeing as I didn't know him), but rather his work and what it represented dying with him. I suppose that makes his death a bit like Michael Jackson's passing: I'm a few decades late in mourning what we liked him for in the first place.

Still, I think sometimes we give Cronkite's generation more credit than it is due, probably because of what Cronkite and other journalists of the era embodied. That statement merits some explaining.

I think Walter Cronkite was a legend in his field for three reasons. First, you have to give credit to the man. I don't care how much circumstances affect or influence success, somebody's behind it calling the shots. Chalk one up for Walt.

Second on the list has to be the culture. Though Cronkite was managing editor of the CBS evening news for most of the 1960s and 1970s, his most memorable moments -- as well as the country's -- occurred during the 1960s. That decade had a lot going on: civil rights movements (race, gender, sexual orientation), assassinations (JFK, MLK, RFK), the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the explosion of rock 'n' roll, and a MAN WALKED ON THE FUCKING MOON. That time was everything at once. A collision of hope and hate, love and war, and the last moment in American history when straight, wealthy, white patriarchy faced a legitimate challenge to its cultural authority from united countercultural forces. News of that magnitude is historically important no matter who the voice behind it is. In my lifetime the only news events I can even remember are the collapse of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Most everything else -- O.J. Simpson's trial, Clinton's blowjob, the little Cuban boy, etc. -- seems fairly trivial.

Lastly, the media environment cannot be ignored. CBS was one of only three network stations during most of Cronkite's run as anchor. With fewer television options, Cronkite had a much easier time commanding a larger audience as well as the nation's respect. Having a captive audience gave Cronkite the freedom to run a newsroom with some journalistic integrity.

The business of television has changed since then, though the profit model has not. Now we can just as easily escape the news for something more trivial as we can pay attention to current events. This reality isn't necessarily bad until the news becomes watered down in order to compete with entertainment programming. Television journalism is, for all practical purposes, as dead as Cronkite himself.

But this is what I meant earlier when I said that I think we give earlier generations too much credit. I'm not sure they appreciated the value of actual news more than we do now; I just think it may have been the only thing on during a time when channel surfing took all of three seconds. Would they have given Cronkite the same attention and respect had he been competing against more "entertaining" pundits or reality television? I don't know. Probably no more that we would.

I will say this much: Cronkite knew the business, and he was good at what he did. In the way of news anchors, we don't even come close. Brian Williams is okay, but that's about it. Charlie Gibson seems like a smart man, but unfortunately he doesn't play one on TV; and watching Katie Couric is like watching a trainwreck smile at you. I just hope someone is waiting in the reserves to bring back some of the old Cronkite integrity, but I see no reason to be hopeful, and that's the way it is.

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