Walter Cronkite, the iconic journalist and news broadcaster, died yesterday at the age of 92. The best of broadcast journalism died with him. He was, after all, "the most trusted man in America" when he anchored the CBS Evening News--more people tuned in to hear him than any other anchor at the time.
I remember so many historic events to the voice of Cronkite...the assassination of John Kennedy, where Cronkite almost broke down...the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr...the 1969 moon landing, when I saw and heard the joy and amazement in his voice...the Vietnam War--Cronkite in the trenches, bullets whizzing by, and bodies carried out of the rice paddies in color. This wasn't a newsreel war--it was blood and guts and horror. Through all of this, Walter Cronkite delivered the facts with honesty and controlled emotion.
That's not to say Cronkite didn't express his opinion. His assertion that the Vietnam War could not be won drove Lyndon Johnson to despair--he knew if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the American middle class.
Look at who brings us the news these days...Anderson Cooper, reporting from a devastated New Orleans in Prada; Katie Couric, a former morning talk-show host; the revolving talking heads at CNN and HLN, who spend hours repeating the same stories until some new "crisis of the minute" stirs up the broadcast. On other cable networks, we get pundits so far left or so far right, that any "dialogue" degenerates into a screaming match--instead of listening to one another, these people are so intent on making their opinions heard that they overtalk, yell, and blatantly ignore what anyone else has to say.
I blame us, the people who "watch" the news. We don't want to hear the "facts" or the "truth," we just want to hear whatever confirms our fears or our beliefs. Personally, I won't listen to a thing Anne Coulter says. She's a poster girl for the far, whacked-out right; the words she spews make no sense to me. She's a hate-monger, intent only on controversy for the sake of book sales. On the other hand, I'll listen to Al Franken all day, as a comedian or a senator. See what I mean? I'm not interested in your point of view--just confirm mine.
And many people I know--not all of them, mind you--I know better than to spout generalities--don't want to hear about Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran. All that drama, all that money committed to death and destruction, all those civilians and soldiers dying--how depressing; how real! These days, the news from "the front" comes from "embedded" reporters. Because the government "lets" them report, they can't show us the true horrors of what's going on. They can't show us soldiers being carried off with missing limbs and their guts hanging out. That's not the picture the government wants us to see.
The news channels can get away with running the same footage of an ambulance whisking away Michael Jackson's body every five minutes because that's what people want to see. We don't want to think about some war in some far-away country--we want gossip! I'm thinking of Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry"--"Give us dirty laundry."
We want our "bubble-headed bleach blondes," our "talking heads" to look good. They don't have to be able to write cogent, elegant journalism--they just have to be able to read without stumbling over the words on the tele-prompter. They don't have to have any personal interest in what's going on, as long as they have a smooth delivery. I wince when I listen to these people--whoever writes that copy can't...grammatical errors abound. But it's not just that--most of the newsreaders can't be bothered to learn how to pronounce anything correctly. They don't care about the news they report; they just read it.
And that's why I miss Cronkite. He delivered the news, yes. But he wrote his copy; he was elegant; he was interested. He knew what he was talking about. He was a hero to me and the main reason I minored in journalism in college. If I could "be" anyone else, I'd want to be him. His passion for life and for delivering the news to America--I could feel it. When he retired, I stopped watching the news on a regular basis. Yes, Dan Rather was good, but he eventually let his own desire for greatness bring him down. Walter Cronkite never put himself before his news...and his passion for his profession helped him become "the most trusted man in America." He had integrity, and I think that's what most newscasters today lack--it's all about the next big scandal and who breaks it first.
As Cronkite would say, "And that's the way it is..."