Measuring what has been lost at the end of the Walter Cronkite era
Much has changed since Walter Cronkite left the air as "The CBS Evening News" anchor, writes Alex Alben of Seattle, who worked for Cronkite in the early 1980s. Though information sources are multiplying, lost are a centrist synthesis of the news and investment in investigative reports.
Special to The Times
FOR 19 years, Walter Cronkite concluded each broadcast of "The CBS Evening News" with the phrase: "And that's the way it is," adding the day's date as a coda. In that era of journalism before cable news, the Internet and the mobile revolution, Cronkite's authority as anchorman gave special weight and credence to his summary of the events of the day.
Now, in the era of Twitter, blogging and histrionic cable-news personalities, we can measure what we have lost over the past generation and wonder what the end of the Cronkite era means not only for journalism, but also for public affairs and the way our society perceives reality.
In 1980, when I began a stint as a researcher for Mr. Cronkite during election and national convention coverage, CBS was known as the "Tiffany Network," commanded by owner Bill Paley to produce a highly vetted editorial product. Paley emphasized quality over cost, and CBS Entertainment subsidized the budget of the news division. The network did gavel-to-gavel coverage of the major political conventions and sent units across the globe to cover conflict.
When Cronkite returned from a Vietnam visit in 1968 and reported that the war was stalemated, President Lyndon Johnson concluded that if the war seemed unwinnable in Cronkite's estimation, he had lost public support and would need to shift U.S. policy to seeking a political exit.
Rapid changes in media and the business of journalism eroded the "old school" professional values represented by the CBS team, NBC's Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and John Chancellor, and Public Broadcasting stalwarts Robin McNeil and Jim Lehrer, leaving us with a chaotic news landscape. With the advent of satellites, news footage could be zapped across the globe and brought to television screens within hours of events on a battlefield or in a parliament. The news analysis "filter" refracted in the commentary of Eric Sevareid and Bill Moyers was lost, leaving radio and newspaper columns to pick up the slack.
With the FCC's relaxation of television station ownership limits, the broadcast audience became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The Fox Network aggregated nearly 40 percent of the domestic TV audience, while GE bought NBC and the Walt Disney Company purchased ABC News. In 2006, CBS was split off as a weaker unit of Viacom.
As a result of corporate ownership more closely concerned with stock performance than investing in professional journalism, news divisions began to reflect "what sells," abandoning investigative reports and news segments presenting complex policy options, which historically attracted fewer viewers.
In the new fractured media landscape, consumers can choose news that fits their political leanings — ranging from MSNBC to Fox. Or Internet users can log on to "The Huffington Post" and its brethren for a host of opinions on the left, or the Drudge Report et al on the right wing of the political spectrum.
People with the time and bandwidth to sift through newspapers, online publications, radio and TV news programs each day can assemble a balanced and nuanced collage of the events and forces shaping our world. A centrist synthesis, however, is increasingly out of reach and very few news budgets allow for long-term investigative reports.
Journalists trained in Walter's Cronkite's generation can't help glancing back at the golden age of broadcast television, when the three network newscasts attracted 90 percent of American viewers each evening. Cronkite took this responsibility seriously and inspired his staff to be both fastidious and fair. He frequently asked for multiple sources on even light news items and insisted on rigorous fact checking.
Working for "the most trusted man in America," was a demanding task, which made everyone perform at a high level. You could also get your phone calls returned quickly if you mentioned that Mr. Cronkite needed an answer to your question.
As technology and business trends continue to shape changes in the media landscape, we must be concerned that opinion journalism is rapidly displacing unvarnished factual reporting. We might also reflect on how our sources of news have changed since Walter Cronkite left his anchor desk, and speculate whether any future news personality will ever again declaratively state, with authority, "And that's the way it is."Alex Alben, a high-tech consultant, is writing a book about the impact digital media has had on our analog culture. He lives in Seattle.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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