To many of us baby boomers who had been or are in the news biz, Walter Cronkite, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was a journalistic role model who represented a kind of trustworthy reporting that had been nurtured during World War II and blossomed in the early to mid 60s — one we assumed would thrive and blossom forever. Just as Cronkite didn’t, it didn’t. Here are 10 reasons why we will never see another Walter Cronkite:
1. He was selected by journalism broadcast giant Edward R. Murrow who revolutionized the broadcast news business during World War II and made CBS News the broadcast gold standard. There is no Murrow-like broadcaster, or mentor, on the scene today.
2. By the time Cronkite was reluctantly removed from the CBS Evening News, CBS’ own corporate values changed and overall network news values had begun to shift. CBS enforced its mandatory retirement age (a ridiculous 65 at the time) to force Cronkite out. But a key reason was that the network’s own values had changed at the time: by the early 1970s the network was most preoccupied by demographics (it even axed a whole bunch of top-rated variety and rural comedy shows because they appealed to older viewers) and by 1980 it feared losing the (allegedly) demographically more appealing (read “younger”), aggressive and flashier Dan Rather to replace him. They feared Rather would go somewhere else until he got the top slot — and Rather’s more low-key rival for the Cronkite spot, Roger Mudd, lost out.
In doing so CBS made a major long-term mistake: as the network later painfully learned, in the long run Rather did not fill Cronkite’s shoes as anchorman and didn’t have Cronkite’s gravitas. Yet, in reality, CBS DID have a back-up Cronkite who they dismissively passed over: Bob Schieffer, the closest thing to a Cronkite clone, a broadcaster with the same tone as Cronkite, print background and virtually the same gravitas. (Here’s Schieffer’s take on Cronkite.)
3. Cronkite was one of several top reporters of the era who came from the discipline of having had a solid background as a PRINT reporter who put the absolutely highest premium on meticulous, accurate news gathering and the presentation of these facts to news consumers so they could make important decisions for themselves. The idea wasn’t to give the people their opinion or strengthen one political party and its partisans and undermine another.
Newer broadcast journalists are now less-likely to have a print background and in the future — with the downsizing and virtual collapse of parts of the print media — it will be even less likely to happen. Present competition between print news organizations is now far less intense, so that background won’t be the same as it was in Cronkite’s youth. (A journalism prof of mine at Northwestern once argued that I should never join a political party but remain an independent. He felt working journalists should give up party affiliations because political views could change and, no matter what, a journalist should remain “overtly” unaffiliated).
4. Today’s audience is more diffuse. Cronkite was broadcast journalism’s king during a day when there were three networks and BROADcasting was also king. In politics, entertainment and news presentation, we now live in an era of NARROWcasting that tries to attract parts of a broader polity or audience.
5. Opinion-based journalism is clearly booming while fact-based journalism is under attack and waning. American’s political culture is now greatly dominated by the talk radio political culture. Most news organizations that once had foreign or domestic bureaus have cut back or eliminated them, some local papers barely compete anymore and TV evening newscasts and local newspapers are just one (increasingly less significant) element of a larger media picture. Wire services that once relied on a healthy newspaper business to fund their operations now see newspaper organization clients dying, ailing or buried. Some now say opinion-based journalism always has a viewpoint behind it, so it’s hypocritical, so why bother? That assertion is in itself symptomatic of today’s mind-set.
6. The media of Cronkite’s heyday was competing largely against other mainstream media but in recent decades it has had to take on on competition from tabloids, talk radio and now the Internet. By the 1980s, news media had to take on refurbished tabloids that had dumped the old “DOG EATS DOG TO STAY ALIVE!” headlines to get readers by going after more mainstream celebrity and political scandals. Then came CNN, which instituted a 24 hour never-ending news cycle. Then came Fox News which transplanted a politically-slated talk radio show model onto news in a network that argued that mainstream media had certain unadmitted assumptions (Democratic) behind its reporting so it instituted its own wearing-it-on-its-sleeve assumptions (conservative Republican).
7. The audience greatly changed. Many in Cronkite’s audience were of The Greatest Generation and their parents, individuals who experienced the depression and World War II and who took substantive political issues and the need to know about them as a duty of citizenship very seriously. Being “flip” and not taking news seriously was both unseemly and professional to them. Today’s newspapers have flopped in their (weak and at times laughable) attempts to attract younger readers. The younger audience prefers to have an interactive voice now and can through You Tube, Twitter, news website comments and weblog comments. They don’t want news from an “uncle”; they want to talk and argue about it with “family” members of the same status.
8. The declining audience and diffuse nature of news media has spawned a group of Americans who brag about not bothering to get news from news sources. There are people who proudly say they get all of their information from talk radio and news weblogs. As someone who owns a news weblog and is a blog addict I will flatly say: that is a TRULY scary thought.
Some bloggers blast the mainstream news media — while all the while linking to it and quoting it on weblogs that could not draw readers if these websites could not link to and paste and discuss work and reporting of the salaried mainstream reporters and editors that they so disdain. Most weblogs do not do anything resembling reporting: most (but not all) are today extended op-ed pages, often running some posts that would never be considered for a print op-ed page. Moreover, the fact-checking that news organizations do before print or broadcast pieces are released doesn’t happen on blogs (including this: we don’t check each sentence we paste from mainstream media reports we — just as bloggers who blast the news media do when they run these same reports — assume these reports are correct which is our way of saying we and others pasting these excerpts assume they are produced by professional news gatherers). Talk radio hosts cherry-pick, insist they don’t cherry pick, often make flat-out assertions that are inaccurate or (left or right) propaganda, and or set up “discussions” consisting of a liberal, a conservative and maybe someone in the middle — all picked to reflect a predetermined viewpoint and to present a loud, confrontational, emotion-eliciting partisan spin.
Some readers and viewers will absolutely not visit a news site, read a publication or watch a TV show unless they already agree with it in advance.
To many, news-consuming has now shifted from a thirst for getting more information to a demand to see a reaffirmation of existing beliefs.
9. News resources are being cutback across the board as the Internet continues to change the context of news. The cutbacks will likely hurt investigative reporting and reporting. Newsweek recently revamped its magazine into a highly-appealing and accessible weekly (I am a very happy subscriber) that places a premium on reporting and discussion of key issues and offering more opinion and analysis. But here, again: the meticulous reporting of events is what by necessity is being edged out. The idea of a newsweekly that arrives once a week after most people have already watched the news and discussion of it on cable or gone online and read a zillion blog posts or analyses may not be a good business model. So Newsweek is assuming most readers have read a lot of that already and is getting right down to the journalistic nitty gritty. Which is more on solid, compelling analysis, think pieces and enterprise reporting — not the by-the-seat-of-your-pants reporting Cronkite and many reporters of his era did. The number of people working on by-the-seat-of-your-pants solid reporting is in sharp decline and the numbers will likely go down.
10. Cronkite’s heyday wasn’t during an era when many considered insults, demonization and discrediting as a sign of intelligence. The 50s-60s had its moments (McCarthyism), but if most viewers watched Cronkite and didn’t like a report, they wouldn’t dismiss him as a liberal, a tool of JFK, someone out to impose his agenda on America. They recognized that he was a news professional who was like a doctor performing an operation: the doctor doesn’t not operate on someone because he doesn’t like them or their views, he seriously gets down to doing his job. Similarly, Cronkite and news professionals of that era had readerships and viewerships that accepted that journalists would cover news professionally, gathering facts from each side, and trying to package it in a balanced way.
In recent years, it has become in the interest of some to discredit those who report stories with which they disagree or don’t like to see in print or on television. Today, the first instinct by some partisan and news consumers is to go after the reporter/broadcaster if a report doesn’t bolster their political agenda or biases.
The popularity of talk radio — where people listen to a host that has become their radio friend for three hours a day do nothing but attack and demonize one political party or anyone who might share that party’s views and then do virtual public relations for their own Republican or Democratic party — has helped shift this context. No one would ever have imagined when Cronkite ruled the airwaves that Americans could ever tune in by the millions for three hours a day to listen to demonization of one political party as a form of entertainment and as a valid news source.
It was notable yesterday that, while I was stuck in traffic, some conservative talkers were honoring Cronkite for a few things but blasting his “liberal bias” over the years. One suggested Cronkite basically pulled the wool over America’s eyes for years and was pushing an agenda and applauded today’s new era where this kind of hypocritical reporting is seen for what it is.
Cronkite passed from the scene — but the heyday of the fact-based journalist and the mass audience that favored and steadfastly demanded fact-based journalism and looked a bit down on opinion-based journalism was over some time ago.
Cartoon by David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star. This cartoon is copyrighted and licensed to run on TMV. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.
UPDATE: Two final thoughts:
1. All of the networks including Fox have some solid reporters and anchors, but none of them have Cronkite’s authority.
2. As noted above, Schieffer is from the same school and would have been a smoother transition from Cronkite than Rather was. The only other journalist on the scene who came close to where Cronkite was was someone who didn’t live long enough to realize his full, quickly-blossoming potential: NBC’s late and missed Tim Russert. Russert wore several hats and came from a political background, but his fame and well-deserved credibility didn’t stem from hard news reporting, as Cronkite’s originally did.