Editorial: Cronkite honored in words – not deeds

Published 10:02 am Monday, August 3, 2009

Monday, Aug. 3, 2009

In our modern media world, where a Michael Jackson death circus is the new norm and serious journalism the anomaly, Walter Cronkite’s descendants’ tributes ring hollow, words over actions.

Everything, even serious public policy discussions necessary for health care reform (canceled for the summer replacement series “The Beer Summit”) or confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, are packaged as shallow, who’s-up/who’s-down, food-fight entertainment with pundits chomping at the bit to weigh in from little picture windows like “Hollywood Squares” players – Ann Coulter to block!

It must be hard for the Onion to find anything to satirize, so unbelievable are instantaneous, eyeball-riveting events piped into our homes for their corporate sponsor’ product pitches, which last longer than the programming.

On July 20, NBC debuted “The Wanted,” described as seeking to wed journalism with the look and style of “Mission: Impossible.” Mere journalism isn’t considered enough in an age where Twitter enables attention span destruction.

Boundaries between reality TV and news were erased because there was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews playing softball with producer Charlie Ebersol, son of NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol to promote the series.

ABC News had “Over a Barrel: The Truth About Oil,” a serious hour look at U.S. energy anchored by Charles Gibson, alongside “Primetime: Family Secrets” – “When Dad Becomes a Woman.” The week before on the alphabet network it was “The Jacksons After Michael,” which reportedly paid patriarch Joe Jackson six figures for video rights.
CBS’ July 19 tribute to its avuncular anchorman, known as the Most Trusted Man in America, aired the day after a “48 Hours Mystery” about “a computer genius, his Russian bride, the KGB, intrigue and murder.”

When NBC anchor Brian Williams dodged the question of whether news divisions adequately honor Cronkite’s legacy, he was on the July 20 “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, king of fake news.

As a CBS clip reminds us, Cronkite himself said, “We are endangering the democracy by our failure to understand and to carry out our responsibility.” Uncle Walter told us that President Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, he narrated the space program, including Apollo 11’s moonwalk and when he lost faith in the Vietnam war it was a turning point for President Lyndon Johnson, who knew he lost middle America.

It’s hard to imagine Uncle Walter anchoring the “CBS Evening News” from Los Angeles, as Katie Couric, who inherited his chair from Dan Rather, did for two nights to chronicle the Jackson memorial. Couric, whose newscast has been a consistent third since arriving in 2006 from the “Today” morning show where she once flew across Rockefeller Plaza like Peter Pan, lauded Cronkite’s integrity without a trace of irony.

This is not to bash Couric, who said in an interview published last February, “Clearly, I knew this was a declining genre when I came here, because I’m not an idiot, you know? I knew that network news was declining, and evening newscasts in particular. But they really play an important role, and I thought that if I could have the opportunity to somehow revitalize it in some small way, it would be a noble endeavor. I have to believe that there is a place for quality and experience. Because many of these outlets are not necessarily legitimate news sources, whether it’s blogs or people who are spouting their opinions about this, that and the other thing. And there should be, I think, outlets for accuracy and credibility and experience and evenhandedness. But I don’t know. What will ultimately be considered legitimate news may change in the future.”

Documentaries are still broadcast, but they’re like CNN’s four-hour “Black in America 2,” where entertainers such as Soledad O’Brien masquerade as reporters in a self-congratulatory way. O’Brien opens crowing about CNN uniquely possessing resources to undertake such ambitious, in-depth reporting, reminding us of the old quote if you have to say you’re a lady, you ain’t.

News has always been a tug of war between what people need to know and what they want to know, but show business clearly carried that battle.

Vegetables have all but been banished from the niches of the dessert buffet along the information superhighway, where grazers tend to consume more of what they already believe than challenge themselves with new ideas.

And that’s the way it is in mid-2009.