Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Unlike millions of other Americans, I didn't grow up listening to Walter Cronkite. My parents were newspaper readers (Bergen Record plus the Sunday New York Times), and I encountered Cronkite more as a figure of history than as a nightly presence in my home. It is easy to take shots at Cronkite's age of television news as stodgy, deferential to the establishment, and too sure of itself. ("And that's the way it is....") But Cronkite and the television journalists of his generation had traits much in need today.

Above all, they thought of news as a public service. Their conversation with the public may have been one-way, but they took seriously the obligation of informing our national conversations.

They could do this because they worked for a regulated oligopoly that was required to serve the public "interest, convenience and necessity." Networks made plenty of money. In return, their news divisions produced news and documentaries. Since the deregulation of television, the documentary units are gone and news broadcasts are ever more beleaguered. The worldwide ring of CBS news bureaus no longer exists.This has been a disaster for journalism.

In an age when Republicans have made it a commonplace to attack "the liberal media," it is instructive to recall how patriotic Cronkite was, how deferential he could be to government officials. His famous commentary after witnessing the Tet offensive is revealing for its use of the word "we":

To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Cronkite thought of himself as one American among many, not as an outsider journalist. There are problems with this stance, but it is thoroughly dishonest to suggest that Cronkite and his generation of television newsmen were anything like conspirators against the war in Vietnam.

After his retirement Cronkite was involved with the Media Studies Center, where I worked. I worked on a few projects with him. I found him amiable, professional, and utterly certain in his own judgment.

He wasn't openly political. Still, over time the word got out that the thought the economy was becoming dangerously unequal, that media moguls who pursued profits above all else were bad for journalism, and that television news had become trivial. He also thought the Iraq War was the worst foreign policy disaster that he had seen in his lifetime.

All of these strike me as sound judgments. They also strike me as the products of a mind formed in the era of the New Deal. I miss that sort of thinking, and I miss television journalism grounded in those kind of assumptions. And that's why I'll miss Walter Cronkite.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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