Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why there won’t be another Cronkite

There never will be another journalist with the stature, authority and power of Walter Cronkite.

We were lucky to have him at the CBS anchor desk during the 1960s and 1970s, two of the most turbulent decades in modern history.

But the accelerating disintegration of the media assures that no one ever will emerge again as a single, almost-universally trusted source of straight-up, down-the-middle information during great moments of national trauma and euphoria – and all the ordinary days in between.

Cronkite rightfully earned his stature as the “most trusted man in America” by applying to the ethereal – and sometimes surreal – realm of television the values drilled into him early in his career as a young United Presser: Get the facts, get them straight and get them first.

His authority relied not only on thoroughgoing mastery of the story at hand, but also a time-earned reputation as an honest broker of the information he had gathered. He betrayed no spin or bias, because he was trained to believe it would be unprofessional for a journalist to do so.

In seeking to focus the nation’s attention on such colossal failures as the Vietnam War and the Watergate break-in, Cronkite relied on facts and logic to tell the stories, reporting his findings in a dispassionate style that, he hoped, would lead viewers to the right conclusion.

Cronkite’s power derived from the fact that he was the anchor of the flagship evening newscast of the most prominent of the Big Three networks at the time there were only three national networks.

CBS was the place you went for instant and in-depth coverage when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. There almost was no other choice.

Everything has changed since then.

Audiences today have fragmented among countless cable networks and interactive venues scrambling for ratings and clicks. Like so many petulant toddlers, the vast majority of the modern “news” venues are stomping, screaming and spinning themselves crazy in the hopes of gaining attention.

Rather than emulating the values and discipline the made Walter Cronkite the towering figure he was, broadcasters for the most part have gone the other way.

That’s the way it is. And, from here on out, that’s apparently the way it will be.

14 Comments:

Blogger TeachJ said...

The esteemed Mr. Cronkite was not entirely without bias. He was an avid supporter of the space program and of the US doctrine of protecting our sphere of influence in both Europe and Asia until his famous Vietnam editorial.

But no one can be entirely without bias. He was fair and tried to make sure he collected the facts before he wrote any script to be aired on CBS.

I don't entirely agree that we'll never see that type of journalism again. I think that we could see web sites spring up that try to put accuracy ahead of speed. There already are a few out there that fact check speeches and keep track of presidential promises, etc.

But I think it is a good thing that we won't see a return to a single voice of authority in the news. Walter Cronkite had a lot of power in those days. Many say he single-handedly ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam by causing an erosion of public support in mainstream America. That is not necessarily good journalism. It may be good citizenship, and that can be debated.

I think Cronkite was what America needed at the time. He helped set a standard for an industry. It's too bad so few emulate him.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous bevo said...

Good, insightful comment especially the second to last paragraph.

First a question and then an observation.

Do we want another Cronkite? Dan Rather comes as close to Cronkite in terms of reporter who became an anchor. By the end of Rather's career, though, he had become a shell of himself.

Unfortunately, we lean toward the bombastic (Keith Olbermann), the blowhard (Bill O'Reilly), and the bland (Anderson Cooper). Brian Williams comes off as the nicest guy in the world. He also comes off as being completely baffled by bullshit.

This comment leads to an observation. The talking heads are not reporters, and their reporters have become nothing more than talking heads.

Walter Cronkite knew what the hell he was talking about. More importantly, though, the reporters at CBS knew what the hell they were talking about. They were not baffled by bullshit.

Go back to those CBS nightly news broadcasts of the 1970s. You will find men (and, later, Leslie Stahl) who knew how to leg out a story, who blew past public relations specialists and lobbyist, who were competent. They were backed up by people who know how to produce a (news) product. Unfortunately, for our society, we have lost this competence. And we are the poorer for it.

Walter Cronkite's death and Dan Rather's retirement do not represent the passing of the anchorman as Man on the Mount. Rather, they reflect an institution's inability to maintain an informed citizenry.

It is not Walter Cronkrite who has died, but our society.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For anyone who has been in a career that is supposed to be about substance but that has deteriorated to what sells and sound bytes, your blog hit the nail on the head. "News" folks report what sells. Politicians and legislative staff focus on good politics and skip the good policy.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The end of such an era is a good thing.

It is not healthy for a democracy when one man effectively dictates the public agenda.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Grieg Mayberry said...

Amen! Today's spin doctors wouldn't equal a pinky toe on Walter Cronkite's left foot. Walter Cronkite reported the news...the facts and had the sense to understand that the American people were smart enough to fill in the blanks. He was the most trusted man in the media because you knew he was telling you the truth and not just giving you his opinion of that news. Rest in peace Mr Cronkite. Just as Paul Harvey that went before you, you truly were a life well lived and that is the rest of the story!

5:41 PM  
Blogger tarpon said...

True, it's far tougher these days to anoint the head of propaganda, with so many outlets putting out real news.

I think America and the world is better because the propagandists can on;y work their magic in a completely controlled news state environment, something that died in America when the big three propaganda networks died.

RIP in peace, preachers of the craft of misleading.

5:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He was a news reader. Why are we making so much of a man whose claim to fame is that he correctly read a script into a TV camera each night? His career can be attributed to the blessing nature gave him of a deep voice and his acting abilities, but other than that, why all the adulation?

6:59 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

I normally don't quibble with commenters but I do take exception to the one immediately above.

Cronkite was far more than a "news reader." He had a strong role in leading CBS coverage and certainly in shaping what he read on the air.

His extemporaneous, unscripted and real-time broadcasting during times of trauma and uncertainty proved that he possessed an exceptional combination of acumen, judgment and poise.

He was far more than a news reader, though he was good at that, too.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Denise said...

He also had a sense of history. It is history and a working knowledge of geography that triggers the events that make the news. I never had a sense of listening to Cronkite as much as I had a sense of hearing the news. And that's the way it should be. Forget the ego-driven personalities. Just let the events tell the story.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Boomka said...

As the great icons from generations past pass away, and the ability to generate any kind of content shifts to the masses, it is a wonder if our society will have people of such relevance in our future. It is curious no? We will miss Walter.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Topsnoop said...

Walter Cronkite was so grounded because he learned the reporting trade in the wire services and print media where accuracy and fairness were the norm. His experiece as a print reporter, working under demanding editors, gave him the foundation to succeed in the new electronic land of TV news. As a print reporter with about 36,000 stories under my belt, I always admired Cronkite and his reporting skills.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Arnon said...

Without belittling Walter Cronkite's journalistic standards, which were considerable, I believe you miss the point when you suggest that today's "bombastic" anchors are an unfortunate choice today's organizations. I believe they are a direct function of the economics of an increasing number of news venues. In the three network world, the rule of programming -- all programming -- was refered to as LOP "Least Objectionable Programming" -- the least objectionable programming got the largest audience. In such a world, a figure like Cronkite -- who personified the fair, middle, unbiased, wound up winning the largest share, over, for example, the somewhat sardonic David Brinkley, who often had greater insight, as well as others. The same economics led monopoly newspapers to ensure that their editors focused on not offending readers, and ensuring that people not cancel subscriptions. It was not "how many people love you" it was "how many people will not turn you off." In a world of many, many channels, the only way to get noticed is to have some kind of edge. In markets with multiple newspapers, (even in the distant past in the US), newspapers evolved to take a very clear stand and position on issues -- just as they continue to do in France, Britain and other countries. Similarly on television, the winner is the person with the largest number of people "who love them" and who cares if the rest detest them. So on cable TV, the Keith Olbermanns, Glenn Becks and Lou Dobbses win, and on the internet, the Huffington Post and the TPM cafes win.

One can miss the past, but do not think that anyone playing in today's media, unless they lead a not-for-profit, has any choice but to play the game by the emerging economic rules.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Cronkite was great because he understood the power of television to "show the viewer" the news. His tour of Vietnam was powerful. Of course he did very much interject his opinion of that war in a commentary at the end of that documentary. He showed emotion (which is opinion) for many stories including Kennedy, the Space Program and others. Uncle Walter was great but he wasn't some stoic news reader as is suggested in your article.

7:55 AM  
Blogger California Girl said...

Your post resonates and Arnon's comments resonate. I can see both POVs. I am a Sixties kid and grew up with Cronkite. I admired and respected his telecasts. My father, a WWII vet, was not a big fan of the Tiffany Network as he considered them to be very liberal and biased. As to his opinion of Cronkite, I do not recall. I do, however, recall he thought Eric Sevaried to be an extreme liberal.

In today's fractured media, most news channels are owned by either the networks, news organizations or the studios. While I understand the drive for profit, these HUGE corporations set the standards of responsibility to the public.

They can aim high or they can aim low. They choose to aim low.

7:20 AM  

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