Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering America's Most Trusted Newsman

My father called him “Mister Disease”. He wasn't slagging on America's most trusted news man, he was just cracking a joke. In his mother tongue, German, the word “krankheit”, pronounced the same way as Walter Cronkite's surname, meant ill health or disease.

The world of news reporting was a lot less sick than it is today when Walter Cronkite held forth on the CBS Evening News each weekday at about the time most of us were eating dinner. There was more emphasis on hard news and news analysis, and even though there has always been a spin factor in news, it seemed to be much less prominent at least on Mr. Cronkite's turf. His competitors, NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, had an excellent daily news program which ran for a full 90 minutes. It too featured hard news and news analysis. Its theme music was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which gives you a very good idea of how highly network executives thought of their viewers.

Today, the only extended-length daily news programs left in America are National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. Television news, once an intellectual oasis in the vast wasteland that was and is commercial TV, is now just more “entertainment” programming. “All-news” channels repeat the same 20 minutes' worth of headlines over and over again, taking little time for covering details or doing in-depth analysis. The emphasis is now on celebrity gossip, hot-button political issues and high-profile disasters. AM radio is chockablock with cookie-cutter programming by loudmouths who appeal to the basest emotions of a frustrated working class with inflammatory rhetoric. One fair and balanced TV network is so disdainful of fact and of viewpoints other than its own that it's ended up becoming the biggest propaganda outlet since the Soviet house organ, Radio Moscow went off the air. Newspapers are folding one after the other. Pundits blame TV and the Internet, but their unceasing rah-rah drumbeat of blind support for the Bush administration's misadventures is said to be another factor which turned off many now-former newspaper readers.

Walter Cronkite lived to see and report on the assassination of a U.S. President, the resignation-in-disgrace of another, man's first landing on the moon, the worst commercial nuclear accident in our history and the Cuban Missile Crisis which almost plunged us into World War III. And he lived to see the profession he devoted his life to, the one which our nation's founders considered vital to the functioning of a free society, mutate into a cheapened, weakened and thoroughly co-opted shadow of its former self.

And that, as the man used to say every evening, is the way it is.

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