STEVE BOUSER: Cronkite Is Gone, and So Is Objectivity
Watching all the attention Walter Cronkite's death received (though not nearly as much as Michael Jackson's, of course), I found myself recalling a biblical phrase.
The words are from Luke 23: "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children."
Last week's passing of the longtime CBS News anchorman elicited many tears and lamentations from colleagues and viewers. But in many cases, I think we were weeping for more than just the death of one 92-year-old man who had an amazingly long and fulfilling life. We were also mourning the things we as a society have lost since his heyday.
Many of our tears, in other words, were being shed -- or perhaps should have been -- for ourselves and for how much we and our attitudes and our media institutions have changed. And in many ways, I fear, for the worse.
Technologically, of course, we're light years ahead of those early black-and-white days when Cronkite first sat down in a cheesy-looking newsroom set to tell us what was going on in the world. (He didn't hit upon the celebrated phrase "And that's the way it is" until some years later.) The graphics were laughably primitive, and Walter's slicked-back hair and nerdy mustache and horn-rimmed glasses looked anything but cool.
But what he did project came across loud and clear: Authority. Sincerity. Trustworthiness. Credibility. And most important: Objectivity.
Cronkite, who came from a print background, clung firmly to the same article of journalistic faith that still prevailed when I came along a generation or two later: that those producing the news pages of a newspaper or a 30-minute evening newscast had a sacred obligation to play it straight: to give readers and viewers an unbiased account of the day's events and let them decide on their own what to think about it.
Notice the words "news pages." A corollary of the above principle was that newspapers also needed to publish a variety of strong and spirited institutional and personal opinions on pages set aside for them and clearly marked as such -- pages like this one. The ideal, perhaps unrealistic, was that never the twain should meet. A similar principle applied to news broadcasts.
Much has been made in recent days of the trip Cronkite made to Vietnam in February 1968, after which he went on the air and editorialized that the war was unwinnable and the U.S. should get out. But it was the exception that proved the rule. Cronkite's statement created such a sensation and carried so much weight ("If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country," President Lyndon Johnson said) precisely because it was such an unheard-of departure from his normal dogged objectivity.
Compare that with what we've got today. From MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on the left to Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on the right to CNN's Lou Dobbs, wherever he is, today's primetime blowhards see it as their nightly job to put their own partisan spin on the news and rile up their segment of the political spectrum to ever-higher levels of outrage and divisiveness.
Meanwhile, network anchors like CBS's Katie Couric, caught in the middle and trying to carry on the Cronkite tradition, find their audiences shrinking.
Though it's tempting for conspiracy theorists to blame "the media" (usually used in the singular, as in monolith) for these unsettling trends, we should remember that TV networks are obsessively ratings-driven. Like it or not, they're giving us what they know we'll watch, based on experience. If there is an enemy here, it is us.
Can we ever go back to the days when a more unified nation shared in experiencing wars and assassinations and moon landings through the eyes of "Uncle Walter," the most trusted man in America? No. And I'm not even sure I'd want us to. But we've sacrificed a lot in our rush to fragment our society into warring camps and special interests.
One big thing we seem to have lost along with Cronkite is the concept that there is an objective truth out there somewhere, perhaps never totally and cleanly attainable but still worth striving toward.
That's worth weeping over.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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