Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Image credit: Screenshot of Newseum clip by Cujo359

Being otherwise occupied recently, I missed this, as reported by Peter Hyman:

Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” has died. He was 92. There are no shortage of obituaries and tributes from every major media organization, as befits a man who delivered the news with grace, elegance and a sense of measured fairness. One cannot help but compare the current state of broadcast journalism to the heightened form that he practiced. Indeed, it feels as if an important door to the 20th century has been sealed tonight.

Walter Cronkite, Consummate Newsman, Dead at 92

Perhaps no better contrast has been drawn between Cronkite and his contemporaries, and the pretenders and spokesmodels who try to fill his shoes today than these two quotes Glenn Greenwald led his article with:

"The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past" -- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.

"I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role" -- David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam died, media stars everywhere commemorated his death as though he were one of them -- as though they do what he did -- even though he had nothing but bottomless, intense disdain for everything they do. As he put it in a 2005 speech to students at the Columbia School of Journalism: "the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be . . . . By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are."

Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did

[links and emphasis from original]

Posers like Gregory, and empty-headed spokesmodels like Brian Williams, are the norm these days. What Cronkite said at the end of the Tet Offensive in 1968 has proved true. If anything, he was stating the obvious as far as anyone who understood history was concerned. Britain's colonial campaigns and their aftermath were lesson enough. At the time, though, it took courage not only on Cronkite's part, but on the part of the management he worked for. They caught no end of flak saying the things that should have been blindingly obvious to their critics. In many cases, as with Robert McNamara, they were.

Yet today, the supposed journalists who populate the TV news have abdicated the only role that really makes them useful - that of the people who ask the questions and find out whether the answers are true. I gave up watching shows like Gregory's Meet The Press more than a decade ago, because it was obvious even then that all they were doing was providing politicians another soapbox instead of asking them to explain the difference between what they say and the obvious truth. No doubt Gregory and his contemporaries take a dim view of the likes of Talking Points Memo or Screw Loose Change, where the reporters' political opinions are front and center in most articles, yet they're ten times the journalists the David Gregorys of the world could ever hope to be.

What did Walter Cronkite think of his successors? Here's a quote from an interview he did in 1996, as quoted by Glenn Greenwald:

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation.

Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did

That's a polite way of saying that the current crop of TV "news" organizations have failed to stay true to Cronkite's legacy.

The fact that more young people watch shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report than watch network news shows should be all the wakeup call that network news divisions need, yet they seem to have no plans to change. That is what's so sad about Cronkite's passing.

UPDATE (July 22): Thanks to Dana Hunter's mentioning it in the comments, I found this smackdown of Brian Williams by Jon Stewart yesterday. Williams, once again, proves shameless when people point out exactly what's wrong with how he does journalism.


Anonymous said...

I still can't get over the fact that this man's passing was given so little air time as compared to Michael Jackson. He was a man of amazing intelligence, presence and dignity. It's so sad that we emulate a person of almost exact opposite traits over a man of such worth. It scares me to think where we are headed.

Cujo359 said...

I think that choice illustrates perfectly what's wrong with the news today. My guess is that Cronkite's death has been given nowhere near as much play as that of Tim Russert, someone who was generally considered sycophantic by the previous Administration.

Dana Hunter said...

Did you see Jon Stewart smack down Brian Williams when BW was wanking nostalgic over Cronkit? Daaamn.

That, my friends, is why we young 'uns trust the Daily Show more than the nightly news.

Cujo359 said...

No, I missed that. I'll have to find it on the intertoobz, I guess.