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Sunday, August 2, 2009

“The Days of ‘49”: Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan and the death of network news

My comrades they all loved me well, a jolly saucy crew
A few hard cases I will recall though they all were brave and true
Whatever the pitch they never would flinch, they never would fret or whine;
Like good old bricks they stood the kicks in the days of ‘49

Believe it or not, there once was a time when “the most trusted name in news” was more than just a pithy slogan: a time before the barrage of 24-hour news channels, a time before the Internet, a time before the incessant, perpetual stream of information that now runs across our television sets, computer screens, and iPhones like an endless, mind-numbing loop.

It was a time when the most trusted name in news wasn’t a name at all— it was man. And with the passing of Walter Cronkite on July 17th at the age of 92, we were reminded of that time.

Known for his metered, straightforward delivery, and his iconic sign-off line, “That’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite wasn’t just the anchor of the nation’s most-watched news program. He was our Rock of Gibraltar at a time when America was awash in a sea of instability, unrest and turbulence.

The Kennedy assassination, the Apollo moon landing, Watergate, Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam. Cronkite covered them all, and did so with an accuracy and authority that hearkened back to a time when those who referred to themselves as ‘reporters’ actually engaged in the business of reporting.

Yet for all his attributes, all the qualities that made him the consummate newsman, Walter Cronkite was not without his frailties.

He cried when he read the news John Kennedy had died at the hand of an assassin’s bullet. He allowed his boyish sense of awe to spill over as he watched Neil Armstrong take that one small step for man, that one giant leap for mankind. And he tempered his disgust when he reported on a president who had put his own political aspirations ahead of a nation’s moral authority.

Walter Cronkite may not have invented TV journalism, but by the time he relinquished the reins of the CBS Evening News in 1981, he had most certainly become the epitome of it.

He also sowed the seeds of its demise.

For two decades, Cronkite had reported without bias or bravado on America’s slow and slippery descent into a civil war in far off and distant land. But when the most trusted man in America referred to Vietnam in a 1968 as a “bloody and endless quagmire that is costing both American and Vietnamese lives,” he effectively ended the era of the impartial, impervious reporter.

So did Cronkite destroy network news? Far from it. In fact, he set the bar by which network news will forever be measured. But he was held in such high esteem, his opinion so valued, that when he broke from the reporter’s credo of sticking to ‘just the facts’ by opining on Lyndon Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, he paved the way for the evening news’ transition from a factual clearinghouse into a bully pulpit.

Of course, political punditry is hardly new. Just as trusted newsmen like Cronkite reported on the stories of the day, traveling troubadours like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan made names for themselves by crafting songs that painted a stark portrait of injustice, inequity and intolerance in a way that often elevated point of view over matter-of-fact.

But can Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Arianna Huffington, Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes or the myriad of other pundits whose sole reason for existence is to pontificate and polarize really be laid at the feet of Walter Cronkite? Of course not.

But in a time when Jon Stewart can be voted the “most trusted newscaster” by 44% of Americans, beating out real newscasters Brian Williams of NBC (29%), ABC’s Charles Gibson (19%), and CBS’ Katie Couric (7%), it's evident the pundits haven't merely found a place alongside news—they've replaced it altogether.

Just as there is power in the facts, there is power in opinion. But for all he brought to network news, the moment Cronkite allowed the two to become intertwined, he unwittingly brought an end to the ‘golden era’ of TV journalism that he had come to define…

In the days of old, in the days of gold;
How oft’ times I repine for the days of old;
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ‘49.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think we all lament the days of old. Cronkite was a legend. But Dylan is far more than a pundit...even on a bad day.