Back in the days when he was a sportswriter instead of a global oracle, daily journalistic pontificator and self-styled liberal crusader. Heywood Broun watched the great Babe Ruth perform in a crucial World Series game. Bam, bam, bam.Ruth stars, Yankees win.
After watching the muffin-faced slugger, also known as the Sultan of Swat, circle the bags (they wrote that way then, in that breezy, florid era of innocent exaggeration), Broun penned a celebrated lead for his paper: "The Ruth is mighty, and shall prevail."
Similar tributes are being paid to Walter Cronkite these days but with, of course, a difference: Ruth, the King of Sports, still had years of playing time ahead, while Cronkite, the King of News, now leaves his throne. pEven Cronkite's competitors are trying to cash in on the afterglow of this departing star.
The ultimate in the art of puffing yourself while praising your betters came with ABC News' "Thank You, Walter" full-page newspaper ads on the eve of Cronkite's farewell Friday night as he dropped his anchor. They wished the CBS veteran well, praised him for "extraordinary contributions to our profession," and not-so-subtly reminded the public that they're ready to fill the void and "maintain the high standards of excellence he set for so many years."
Confirmation indeed, if such were needed, that the Cronkite is mighty. The question is whether the news values he exemplifies shall prevail. ABC's pledges notwithstanding, don't count on it, American consumers of TV news. We're in danger of losing even more than our nation's most familiar and reassuring face.
For years, newspaper people have depreciated electronic journalism and its practitioners -- too shallow, too sensational. That's not real journalism; those people aren't real journalists. By and large the argument is specious. It stems in part from jealousy over the far greater pay earned in the electronic media and misunderstanding about its different role, plus a kind of arrogance within the newspaper fraternity, which too often thinks only it holds the key to truth.
Long before television began to dominate the news business, the electronic side of American daily journalism had compiled a brilliant record. Such radio correspondents as Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, Elmer Davis, Charles Collingwood and H. V. Kaltenborn produced some of the most memorable journalism of the past half century. Listen today to those early Murrow broadcasts that came crackling through the ether from London during the blitz and you'll discover that great reporting survives the long passage of time -- and transcends the journalistic form in which it is produced. They, and others like them, still have the capacity to stir emotions and make the listener feel he shares in that moment. Some have a prophetic quality.
May 10, 1940, the dramatic day Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain, Murrow reporting:
"For the last seven years he has sat in the House of Commons, a rather lonesome and often bellicose figure, voicing unheeded warings of the rising tide of German military strength. Now, at the age of 65, Winston Churchill, plump, bald, with massive round shoulders, is for the first time in his varied career as journalist, historian, and politician the prime minister of Great Britain. Mr. Churchill now takes over the supreme direction of Britain's war effort at a time when the war is moving toward Britain's doorstep. Mr. Churchill critics have said that he is inclined to be impulsive and, at times, vindictive. But in the tradition of British politics he will be given his chance. He will probably take chances. But if he brings victory, his place in history is assured.
"The historians will have to devote more than a footnote to this remarkable man no matter what happens. He enters office with the tremendous advantage of being the man who was right. He also has the advantage of being the best broadcaster in this country. Mr. Churchill can inspire confidence. And he can preach a doctrine of hate that is acceptable to the majority of this country. That may be useful during the next few months. Hitler has said that the action begun today [the Nazi invasion of Holland, Belguim and Luxembourg] will settle the future of Germany for a thousand years. Mr. Churchill doesn't deal in such periods of time, but the decisions reached by this new prime minister with his boyish grin and puckish sense of humor may well determine the outcome of this war."
Those standards of reporting, analysis and commentary were carried over into the new visual medium of television. The TV networks survived their penchant to make lead journalistic performers out of radio announcers, often with little else than an ability to rip off news bulletins and read them in mellifluous tones. In time such stylists as David Brinkley, whose influence on the last generation of electronic journalists has been profound, became stars. Others of solid talent and sound judgment -- John Chancellor, Roger Mudd, Charles Kuralt among them -- helped build a tradition of TV news enterprise and integrity while the network ranks have been filed with bright, young aggressive correspondents.
But other factors are at work. In recent years, as TV news has become so profitable and important in building audiences for the commercial network offerings that produce the really big money, more and more elements of entertainment have intruded on the news process. Hyped-up productions, emphasis on graphics and gimmickry, on form over substance, personality over professionalism, are filling the screens at local levels -- and slipping into the network telelcasts. The bidding for local anchor people and sportscasters has reached obscene levels; $400,000 salaries and million-dollar insurance policies are being provided for people whose talents, if any, lie in their capacity to be obnoxious.
They are the antithesis of Walter Cronkite and the standards he has set.
In his typically low-keyed farewell the other night Cronkite brushed aside all the attention with a self-depreciating remark: "Those who have made anything of this departure I'm afraid have made too much."
Fair enough, Walter, but you're wrong. It's not only your dignified nightly presence we'll miss. It's those new values and seriousness of purpose you personified that made us admire you. Since you didn't speak for yourself on the air, let this pencil-pusher from the print media recall two observations you made in a speech here in Washington last December. The first involved tomorrow's anchor people:
"There are, certainly, some very bright, talented and dedicated people coming along in our profession but we have some right to be concerned that too large a proportion of those coming out of our so-called communications schools are more committed to being instant successes, 'stars' in show business, than in being journalists. Their ambitions are fed in some degree, of course, by the excesses in our business, not the least of which are the hiring practices at too many local stations that put the highest premium not on reporting but on the ability to giggle. It seems to me as I travel about the country that all it takes today to be an anchor person is to be under 25, fair of face and figure, dulcet of tone and well-coiffed. And that is just for the men! That and be able to fit into the blazer with the patch on the pocket."
The fault, as you defined it, was not with those people but the managers who hired them -- and the "so-called news consultants whose advice the managers buy." As you said, "The result too often is sickening trivialization and sensationalizing and a total abdication of news responsibility on the local level."
Your other concern was with the failure of the networks to go beyond the 30-minute evening news format.
"We cannot in the limited time alloted to us possibly do justice to all the great questions and issues of our day," you said. "The amount of information we deliver cannot possibly be adequate to enable a citizen to cast an intelligent vote. The network evening news broadcasts are given are less than 30 minutes to report on the events of a turbulent, complex and danger-filled world. The transcription of one of our broadcasts would fill less than three-quarters of one page of a standard newspaper. In our attempt to give our viewers at least a guide to their world each day, we must compress to near the point of unintelligibility."
It creates, you said, a distortion, what you called "the inevitable result of trying to get 10 pounds of news into the one-pound sack we are given each night."
And that, sadly, is also the way it is.