On July 17th I was traveling far from home in a remote area. I saw a newspaper headline that said that Walter Cronkite had died at age 92. It was over a week before I was home and had internet access and could read the tributes and summaries of his long and illustrious life. In recent weeks, I have thought about him a great deal. He represented something in the media world which is long gone and will never return. In one sense, Cronkite’s death is almost synonymous with the death of news as we have known it.
Walter Cronkite was the predominant news voice in America for more than a generation. He anchored the then mighty CBS Evening News from 1962-1981. (I remember being so proud to place network TV spots in the evening news one month prior to Cronkite’s retirement). A poll in the mid-1960’s found that he was the most trusted man in America. When in February, 1968 Cronkite gave an editorial questioning President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War; Johnson said in the Oval Office, “if I have lost Cronkite, I have lost Middle America.” Several weeks later Senator Gene McCarthy won more delegates than Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary and Johnson stunningly withdrew from the 1968 race.
In his heyday, Cronkite packed a serious Nielsen wallop. He garnered a 13-15 household rating (hard to believe in 2009) for his 6:30 pm broadcast. Some of his specials in primetime delivered double that. He was authoritative and people in large numbers were informed. His main competition, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC were also first rate and between the two networks covered a large cross section of the American public each evening.
Today, we find that all journalism and broadcast journalism entities are either dying or struggling. News as we knew it still exists but it only reaches small numbers of the population due to fragmentation and people seemingly interested in far lighter fare. What passes for news is many programs that are almost salacious in content and the focus is on celebrities or macabre crimes.
People say that the digital world will bail us out. Yet, as of now, no clear business model has emerged that makes online reporting financially viable. And, we all know that there is no substitute for field reporting. Bloggers, and I love being one and appreciate your readership, cannot totally bail us out. As I wrote back in February about newspapers, there is no publisher left in the US who can afford to allow a 21st century Woodward & Bernstein to investigate a Watergate style scandal.
So much is left unexplored. Some people tell me that Americans want the celebrity news and their football as well and are oblivious about what is happening these days. College students watch the entertaining satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in lieu of news. Most Americans, I am told, just do not care about what is really going on. I am not so sure. If Cronkite at his zenith reported about last year’s financial crisis and our ongoing struggles today, a lot more Americans would realize that they are paying for the big mistakes of commercial and investment bankers in recent years. And, if Cronkite mentioned the seven figure bonuses that some of these individuals still get, while we taxpayers pick up the tab for their transgressions, people would be marching in the streets.
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