And That’s the Way it Was

This weekend everyone is hearing a lot about a giant of journalism, Walter Cronkite.  For a generation of Americans, we could not imagine that a space launch could succeed without Walter helping it along.  We were all crying with him on the day of the Kennedy Assassination.  We loved him even more because he was human.

His career spanned a turning point in journalism.  His approach was to provide factual coverage, reflecting every viewpoint.  This extended to an interview with Mayor Daley at the scene of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, an event that independent parties later determined to be a "police riot."  Cronkite reported the story, and then offered a platform to Mayor Daley.  They shook hands, because it was possible to have differing viewpoints and still have mutual respect, or "be friends" as they called it.

There was a tipping point during the Vietnam War.  As the war progressed, the overall sentiment in the country shifted.  Walter Cronkite saw all of the data and all of the news.  He was better informed than anyone, since he had to take complex stories and turn the result into something that the average viewer could understand in a few minutes.

When Cronkite came out against the war, it was a sharp break from his past approach and a change in the practice of journalism.  Here is a good summary:

After the Tet offensive of 1968, it was Cronkite who dropped his trusty
mask of objectivity, risking everything with one line: “It is
increasingly clear that the only rational way out will be to negotiate
not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to the pledge to
defend democracy.”  This brisk summing-up of disaster prompted
President Lyndon Johnson to despair with perfect accuracy, “If I’ve
lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

A few years later, he took a similar approach on Watergate, raising the issue in the consciousness of the people.  It spelled the end of the Nixon Administration.

Here is the key.  This was not a man starting with an opinion.  It was someone watching the drumbeat of facts on an issue of national importance.

Cronkite was the most trusted man in America because people accepted his objectivity.  He was like them — examining the facts, but better informed.

And Now…..?

There no longer seems to be a market for objective, non-partisan analysts.  Those invited on TV are encouraged to have a controversial viewpoint.  That is what the viewers want — at least the remaining few who are still watching.  The TV hosts and anchors often have a viewpoint, aggressively stated.  They have an audience with an appetite for their position.

The Internet and the blogosphere have democratized commentary.  Nearly everyone participating in this free-for-all thinks it is great.  Few weep for the demise of the newspaper.  The traditional media sources are all imitating the blogs:  fast reaction, instant analysis, emphasis on conflict.

There has been a major shift from what is factual and important to what is popular and will garner a big audience.

We are all the losers as a result.  We miss you Uncle Walter….

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  • karen walker July 18, 2009  

    Well said, Jeff. Although I respect Cronkite’s efforts to be objective in the early years, I think most viewers knew his political leanings long before he spoke out on Vietnam.
    On election night in 1960, he was visibly crestfallen when he reported that it appeared Nixon would win. I thought I even saw tears in his eyes then, and again later when the Chicago cemetery precincts came in and he giddily reported that Kennedy had won. I was only nine years old at the time, but I remember thinking that the “TV Man” really shouldn’t be taking sides.
    I wish he had waited until he left the news desk to share his other political opinions, but for most of his career, he seemed to understand the power of his position and the importance of maintaining journalistic integrity. It’s too bad that today’s spincasters have no respect for the example he tried to set.

  • heywally July 19, 2009  

    “There no longer seems to be a market for objective, non-partisan analysts. Those invited on TV are encouraged to have a controversial viewpoint. ”
    It’s SO bad now. TV ‘news’ has devolved to an arena of screaming banshees, the main intent to sell advertising with over-simplistic and emotional viewpoints.
    I’m 57 and as a young man, could watch the news which back then, was just someone reading it, as sugar-coated as it sometimes was. I can’t watch anymore and that included CNBC.

  • Mike July 19, 2009  

    I still hold out some hope for Charlie Gibson. At least I feel comfortable “inviting him into our home” as we used to say. Was it Arthur Godfrey that coined that phrase?