I awoke this morning (at least fully acknowledged being awake) to the smell of a latte and an invitation from David to watch Sunday Morning together in bed. Cleary this was going to be an unusual day since that’s something we usually do while having dinner on Sundays since David’s usually out with his running group when the show airs. The show was a tribute to Walter Cronkite who died yesterday, leaving a legacy that is quite remarkable. Watching this show together was like reliving our youth; we had to keep pausing the TV to talk about “where were you when” as event after event was revisited and flashes of memories sparkled and faded. Today I have to thank Walter Cronkite both for the part he played in my life and for teaching me something important as I watched TV this morning.I think that we watched the show with so much melancholy in our hearts because we yearn for the days when we could actually learn something about the news by watching “the news”. President Obama said this morning that “In an industry of icons, Walter set the standard by which all others have been judged.” He was a news reporter, not an entertainer. He gave us the results of careful research and thought and not the clever banter that mostly takes the place of real analysis these days. Here’s what others have said about him:
He handled it (the news of JFK’s death) as a human being first and as an anchorman second. And I think that at times like that, that’s what you want. Katie Couric
The person who connected us all – Barbara Walters
He calmed America down – Don Hewitt (creator of 60 Minutes)
He was one of the few people in power positions who pushed the story … who could identify social change and report on it – Spike Lee
He thought he knew what the truth was, and he thought he had an obligation to tell it – Bill Clinton
When Walter Cronkite went to Viet Nam in 1968, during the Tet offensive, he went on air and said that “whatever price the communists paid for this offensive, the cost to the allied forces was high“.
Cronkite himself said it was an abberation, the only time in his 20 years at CBS news anchoring that he gave a personal opinon. “There was a vast exaggeration of our successes out there and we decided that maybe some guidance might be helpful; a little personal opinion. We knew it was a chance we were taking and a violation of all the rules of the game.” And then came the final summary statement: ” It has become increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then would be to negotiate.” When Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, heard those words he said: “If we’ve lost Walter, we’ve lost America.” And that is when the resistance to the war in Viet Nam jumped from a demonstration by young people with flowers in their hair to a widespread call for withdrawal. Amazing.
So here’s where I’m caught. I think that when we’re being misled it’s the job of reporters to tell us what’s really going on. But didn’t Walter Cronkite inadvertently open the door for personal opinion taking the place of news reporting? Today it’s really all the same. That was clear earlier this morning when I woke, and snoozed a little, woke up, snoozed … and I kept waking up to the same news story …. which wasn’t much of a story any of the three or four times I saw it. We’ve fallen – and I use that word purposefully – from Walter Cronkite to Fox News and CNN. The words I heard Cronkite speak as I watched yet another tribute to him this evening will remain with me. Do note that the words in [brackets] are my own.
The context: Bill Clinton is commenting on his relationship with Cronkite and says that: “the passing of his years did not diminish as nearly as I could tell one iota of his interest and his love for his country and his desire to see the world get better“. These words were said in such admiration and respect … not like the words I heard from a social worker a few years ago who was supposed to be helping us sort a few things out and told me one day that I should just “grow up and give up this idealism thing.” That was our my last visit with her; and even to this day I’m quite comfortable in responding … “never, I hope”. His desire to see the world get better. Mine too. Yes.
This is followed by Walter Cronkite saying: “We’re not doing our job in television news nearly [and I’m adding in education nearly] and we are endangering the democracy by our failure to understand that and to carry out our responsibility in this regard.” As Katie Couric said … a human being first.
The news should, I think, carry that old warning “the following is a paid political announcement” these days. Cronkite himself worried about this; he worried about the politicization of newscasters as he faced continued pressure himself to consider running for office. He said that if he was seen to have political ambitions the public would “have every right to question every other news person on the air as to whether they have in the back of their minds political objectives and therefore are skewing the news to build a platform for some time in the future. And that would be a terribly dangerous situation; just one more nail in our coffin of believability.” And isn’t that just where we’ve come? The biased political reporting we’re exposed to – the kind of thing that results in Sarah Palin being presented by Fox News as an icon of wisdom and virtue – has left many of us concerned.
I agree with the commentator this morning who said that “When momentous events occur, and the country is deeply shaken, they gather at the television set. That is the national meeting place.” So shouldn’t there be more of real value to watch when we turn on the news? Shouldn’t we be able to turn to the TV for something more than fear-mongering and political delusion and deception?
We need to work together, I think, to bring pressure to bear that will at least return our access to honest news.
I have to keep working to do whatever I can to get the word out that education must give our children the critical thinking skills they know to differentiate between “the news” and entertainment and – more importantly – that will enable them to know how to be human first. I thank Walter Cronkite for reminding me and encouraging me … even now.
For in the end, Walter Cronkite was simply an amazing human being.
“He’s an explorer” said Robin Williams.
Andy Rooney added to that: “He was really dedicated … he really cared … it was that simple.”
And that’s the way it is.