Last Friday was a very sad day in television land. Walter Cronkite presided over his very last edition of the CBS "Evening News." Then he was gone.
We all should have been prepared for the historic passing. Months in advance the news stories began fluttering to earth. He was pictured on the cover of national magazines. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Countless tributes were heaved up to him. Nonetheless, on Friday night tears were shed in the CBS newsroom, and all over America the historically minded roosted before their television sets for a last glimpse of that warm oval shape that was Cronkite. He will be missed -- for how long I cannot prophesy. But for now, we mourn his passage.
The reverence accorded the man in his last days was reminiscent of the witless pageantry accorded the return of the hostages. Viewing that inglorious event, Peregrine Worsthorne, sharp-eyed English journalist that he is, wrote: "The exaggerated admiration accorded the hostages . . . suggests a sadly low level of expectation. . . . How serious can the new American nationalism be if it is so easily aroused and assuaged?" American nationalism aside, all the hoopla over Cronkite does indeed suggest a rather low level of expectation, at least toward American journalism.
After all, here is a man who in all of his public years merely sat in front of a microphone. Yet he is esteemed as an authority and a moral paragon. He leaves behind him no books, no essays, no memorable epigrams. I cannot think of a heroic moment, not even a romantic escapade. Not even a scandal. He dwelt in the land of bromides and wholesome attitudes. He was amiable, but he was unexceptional too. Nevertheless, last week Newsweek spoke of his "awesome stature as a national icon," his "almost mystical appeal," his "integrity, credibility, sagacity, geniality." Well, I do not want to be caught snickering during such a solemn ceremony. I recognize that Cronkite is a good and decent man. Still, I cannot see that Cronkite has done anything all that transcendent.
Surely we ought to expect a bit more from our icons, even when they are television journalists. Cronkite may be a genius; he may even be a philosopher. But throughout his career never was there an indication of it.
On his behalf it must be said that Cronkite never demanded the adulation accorded him, though he never very strenuously discouraged it. More to his credit, he never joined the television sages in exaggerating the benefits and the possibilities of television news. In truth, he occasionally scaled down their absurd claims.
Over the last 20 years, television has done more than anything else to darken the middle-class citizen's understanding of public events. Millions of thoughtful Americans, who a generation ago would return from work to read an evening newspaper or a popular periodical, now get their news from television; and when all the professors of the television art have finished their testimonialsto the brilliance of the tube, the simple fact remains that the spoken word coming through a television set does not engage the brain as vigorously as does the printed word. Television cannot convey the information that print conveys, nor can it cultivate the critical faculties of its audience. Its only virtue over newsprint is that, thanks to television cameras, it allows us to see certain public figures in action. It conveys a sense of immediacy and intimacy. But, of course, the sense of immediacy is meretricious and the sense of intimacy is false.
One of the ironies of television land is that the camera, a device that was thought to give viewers a more accurate perception of the world, actually gives viewers a distorted perception of the world. It falsifies events and personages. Dramatic filming techniques, different lenses, different lighting all combine to present different images of life. The very art of placing public figures and public happenings within a rectangular frame, with voiceovers and musical backgrounds, is a falsification of reality.
Life just does not happen the way it appears on television. The television set brings us fiction, even it its news. Yet the appalling fact is that in America nowadays the fictions of television are actually taking on a life of their own. This week, the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, while investigating the pharmaceutical industry and orphan drugs, will introduce as its star witness Jack Klugman, an actor who plays the role of a medical examiner on the NBC show "Quincy." Time marches on, and things get worse.