Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cronkite's reach: Media may be underestimating

Two days before Walter Cronkite died, I was talking about him to my 18-year-old son. He was asking, "What would you do if you picked up the phone and Oprah was on the other line?"

I said, "I don't know, but one day when I was working at IBM in Maryland I answered the phone and Walter Cronkite was on the other end."

Genuinely impressed, he said, "What! And what did you do?"

"I connected his call."

That was 1988, seven years after CBS forced Mr. Cronkite to retire. I didn't share this with my son but after I got off the call, I told my co-workers (it was a phone pool) and one of them said, "Oh, yes. He calls here all the time."

I don't remember who it was that Mr. Cronkite was calling, all I knew was that he sounded exactly on the phone as he had on the television during all my years growing up, and I felt blessed just for hearing his voice on the other end of the line.

My son recognized his name even though Cronkite was not on the TV as a news anchor, actually not on TV much at all in the last 18 years. So, I called him into the living room a few minutes ago and asked, "How did you know who Walter Cronkite was?"

He said he wasn't sure, that he hadn't been taught anything about Cronkite in school and didn't recall whether he'd ever seen clips of him on TV, but he knew he was an important reporter, and then he said, "It's not just me. Lots of my friends on Facebook knew who he was too."

When Cronkite died on Friday, I heard commentary such as "If you're in your 40s, you may not know why Walter Cronkite is so important." That struck me as an odd thing to say. Up until I was 21, Cronkite was still doing the news.

I'm 49, and I recall Walter Cronkite. President Barack Obama will be 48 next month. Granted we're both on the cusp of 50, but I think we both remember Walter Cronkite just fine.

But why do my son and his friends, people born after 1989, have any inkling that Cronkite was an important person and somebody to be revered?

I think Walter Cronkite had a greater impact on the world than even his fellow news anchors realize.

Tonight CBS will air its tribute to Cronkite. If I don't watch it live, I'll record it for safekeeping to watch later. For my generation and older generations, he was the anchor by whom we measured all news anchors.

When we look sometimes at dread at the rise of multiple pundits coloring news with opinion and fudging facts, when we see how even trained news journalists today--in order to survive in this new world where bloggers sharing personal opinion may have as much influence as a news anchor--have fallen into airing skewed reports tinged with propaganda, it's Cronkite we set beside them and judge that they aren't giving us the news. Some are giving us borderline yellow journalism.

We don't trust news journalists today the same way we trusted Cronkite, who moved from newspapers to television. (My bias shows here. I think there's a value to being trained in print.)

When Cronkite ended the news saying, "And that's the way it is," we believed that that's the way it was. If Cronkite said it, then it must be true because he seemed to not fall to one side or the other. He just told the story. And those of us who hoped to grow up one day and tell the story well thought that's what news should be, an objective report put into the context of historical and current fact.

You didn't have to worry that Cronkite had twisted information or "re-focused" as Fox News often does, for instance, to do a hatchet job on subjects in the guise of "investigative journalism" according to his ideological bent or to score ratings points. To draw back and report information without bias is a gift. Fewer and fewer mainstream media personalities today seem to have that gift.

And in some ways, fewer people seem to read the news with the expectation that it will be objective, which is why we need websites like FactCheck.org. Not only do we suspect that politicians spin the truth, we've discovered the news may twirl as well.

In addition, sometimes I think people want to be told what to think, and that's scary. Sometimes I write pieces without my voice, just collect and report information and tell it within the scope of related facts, and I can tell that those commenting assume the facts are my opinion, something to be questioned, confusing reporting with punditry or the editorial voice.

I wonder how much of this not knowing fact from opinion reflects that the education system is not teaching critical thinking and how much is it people crave to know what the writer is thinking and so assume that what they read is opinion, if they don't know the writer and fact if they know and like the writer. Do today's readers think factual truth is relative?

Whatever it is that drives readers to value opinion more than facts or assume opinion is fact when they like the person delivering information is probably not good for the nation. It means we're creating an environment where the personality has more influence than the truth, and that is never good.

Rest in peace, Mr. Cronkite, and may the study of your style of journalism inspire others to tell the news the way it is. We need reality checks to save ourselves from ourselves.

2 comments:

le0pard13 said...

I agree wholeheartedly, VP. Cronkite (and Edward R. Murrow) epitomized an era of news professionalism that's been systematically dismantled or subverted by corporations and ideologues. Your mentioning of that lack of critical thinking skills is spot on, too (and it's not good for us). Thank you for this great post, VP.

Max Reddick said...

I, too, remember the many years Walter Cronkite was on television. And I, too, held an immense amount of respect for him.

Walter Cronkite was from a totally different era. When I watch Fox News, and the news cast on many other networks, I wise for someone like Cronkite who would just give it to me straight and allow me to make up my own mind.

Thank you for a very respectful, very well written tribute.