The End of Trust
Monday, July 27, 2009; 9:07 AM
If there were still a most trusted man in America, in our cynical, irony-drenched, somebody-must-be-lying culture, it sure wouldn't be a journalist.
Too many people find the agglomeration known as the media to be biased, inaccurate, sensational, simplistic or irrelevant for a Walter Cronkite figure to stride among us today. Too many columnists, bloggers and cable channels spend their time urging folks not to believe what those other slimeballs are peddling.
In pondering Cronkite's passing, I have been thinking about the death of two other journalistic giants: Peter Jennings four years ago, and Tim Russert last year. Each unleashed plenty of end-of-an-era chatter, which makes me wonder: Is the news business changing into some alien form that betrays their legacy? Or is such shorthand simply our way of saying they set an unmatchable standard?
Television's intimacy is what makes people feel they "know" anchors and correspondents, so if you stick around long enough, viewers recall that you guided and comforted them through wars and assassinations, election nights and impeachment, space shuttle disasters and terrorist attacks. And there is some truth behind this emotion: TV news, even in its shrunken state, remains the electronic hearth around which we gather when we hear that protesters are massing in Iran or Michael Jackson has been rushed to the hospital.
Perhaps the tributes are ultimately about personality. Jennings was the smooth, witty and urbane narrator of events. Russert was the blue-collar Buffalo boy who feasted on politics because he loved the game. Cronkite, the product of an earlier era, had that plainspoken, avuncular delivery that made you feel it was your friend registering shock at JFK's death, or exclaiming "oh boy" as the Eagle landed on the lunar surface.
Each man was also a superb journalist. Jennings, a high-school dropout who got his education in the field, was a tireless foreign correspondent for ABC. Russert, a former Democratic operative, did prodigious research before grilling politicians on NBC. Cronkite, who as a wire-service reporter flew bombing missions during World War II, regularly left the CBS anchor desk to visit Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Cape Canaveral and other newsworthy spots. So the public's esteem was forged by admiration for both their journalistic skills and their on-air personas, tied to a sense of shared history.
Russert's death was the greatest shock, because shortly after we heard he was being hospitalized with a heart attack, he was dead at 58. Jennings was also cut down at his peak, dead from lung cancer at 67 just four months after announcing his diagnosis in a raspy voice. Cronkite was 92 and had been in failing health, but his passing still felt like a blow, at least for those old enough to remember his decades of domination.
But if we were simply paying tribute to people who excelled at their craft, there would not be this larger feeling of loss, a belief that they represented a golden era that is never to return.
It goes without saying that the splintering of the media universe means no one will ever reach the mass audience that Cronkite, Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan did, not when people can spend time cable-surfing, YouTubing, XBoxing and Facebooking. Cronkite, who became a critic of cable's this-just-in mentality, had the luxury of broadcasting once a day at a time when most people didn't know the day's headlines until 6:30.
And that brings us closer to the nub of the matter. When we are drowning in information, those who deliver the bits and bites become less important. Minute-by-minute developments are available not just on television but on countless Web sites and blogs and Twitter feeds. To be heard amid the cable cacophony, one must analyze, opine or simply pop off -- the very antithesis of what Cronkite and Jennings did. Russert was a political analyst who also appeared on MSNBC, but he reflected what he was hearing from his sources rather than spewing opinions. When he declared in May 2008 that Barack Obama would win the Democratic nomination, it was not because he was rooting for Obama but because he knew the senator from Illinois could not be stopped.
Once the media moved en masse into the opinion zone, the most bombastic practitioners strafed a variety of targets, including, naturally, the media. The landscape often seems divided between Bush-bashers and Obama-bashers, between those who say the media aided and abetted George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and those who see a slobbering love affair with Obama.
As Lee Siegel wrote on the Daily Beast: "Now the Olbermanns, O'Reillys, Stewarts et al. sign off after assuring us that nothing is as it seems. Their job is to puncture anyone who in the previous 24 hours told us, with any kind of authority, that this is the way it was. And we happily accept their performance of ironic, sarcastic anti-sincerity because we want to."