With the passing of Walter Cronkite, who died yesterday at age 92, we not only lose a major figure in broadcast journalism (and journalism period), but we see another nail being driven into the coffin of integrity and fairness. The acclaimed and award-winning reporter was once called “The Most Trusted Man in America,” known for his in-depth, insightful and impartial reporting. Reportedly demanding off camera, he was calm, likeable and authoritative on camera. He covered many of the major events of the 20th century, including the Moon Landing, Vietnam and the assassination of JFK, during the announcement of which he fought back tears. We felt like he was one of us.
When I was young and watched Cronkite on television I never thought about politics. My parents never influenced me on that topic nor even discussed who they voted for, and I simply tried to interpret things in my own way, eventually developing my own set of beliefs as I grew older. Even though in later years Cronkite evidently became less shy about expressing his liberal opinions, he almost never brought them into his reporting, the lone exception being a rare editorial such as one about the futility of the Vietnam War that made President Lyndon Johnson exclaim: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
The media has taken a lot of hits throughout the ’00s, for reasons that should be fairly obvious, but I’ll recap quickly: the War on Terror, corporate control and the gossip glut that clogs our media pipeline on a daily basis. Often times the factual, nonpartisan reporting of important news gets buried under a deluge of political propaganda, the nattering of dunderheaded pundits and the reporting of celebrity-focused non-items. In Cronkite’s day there weren’t vapid reality series, endless talk shows, relentless teaser trailers for mere 15 second news pieces, nor 24-hour news channels always hungry for content in any form. Back then people really did tune in to watch the news together and pay attention to what was going on in the world. And reporters like Cronkite were not easily bullied by politicians or their administrations, as Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew learned.
One wonders what Mr. Cronkite must have thought of the ascension of online news, with its instantaneous delivery, lack of proper-fact checking and frequently erroneous information. Or the way that television news has become more personality driven and, in some cases, sexed up with many of “the beautiful people” serving in place of more qualified individuals. News has become a commodity for advertising revenue, not the public service it was between the years of 1962 and 1981, when Cronkite presided over the CBS Evening News.
As an intellectual commodity the news has lost ground in the new millennium. We absorb things in sound bytes now rather than longer reports. Much of that has to do with the fact that the pace of American life has increased immeasurably. We don’t tend to congregate at the dinner table, the television or generally at home the way we used to. We’re too busy texting, chatting online or multitasking ourselves to death with numerous distractions. We have become impatient as a society and let our knee-jerk emotional responses override the rational choice to wait until all of the facts have been collected to make reasonable judgments on various issues and events.
If we should learn anything from the life of Walter Cronkite, it is that one does not earn trust simply by being connected to a major television network, through the famous friends you have or how big of a mouth you shoot off. A newsman earns our trust through respect, which comes from doing his or her job well — taking it seriously by triple-checking facts, talking to multiple sources and taking time to do research, thus ensuring integrity and fairness. Of course, with all of the multi-corporate interests connected to television now, that golden standard has become harder and harder to uphold and may be impossible to retrieve without a complete separation of corporations and newsrooms. That is unlikely to happen.
I believe that bias has always existed in the news, even to a small degree, but it has never been as strong as it is today. We live in an MSNBC versus Fox world now, and while that works if you always like your side’s opinion being expressed, that means there is less impartiality. It is truly sad that some of the best news one can get now comes from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”. While I think the show is hilarious and often quite insightful, there is rich irony to be found in the success and influence of an award-winning show that is at heart a satire.
These days, it seems, there are very few serious newsmen we can trust.