Monday, July 20, 2009
The Way It Was
The word most associated with Walter Cronkite is one that hardly ever gets used to describe individuals in media in contemporary times: "trust."
"The most trusted man in America" was his reputation. And it wasn't just a rep: Polls in the 1970s supported that notion. That's raather interesting because it became rather clear in Cronkite's retirement years that he was what could be considered conventionally liberal. Indeed, that wasn't much of a surprise: After all, it's been reported that George McGovern had toyed with the idea of selecting Cronkite as his running mate in 1972 against Richard Nixon. Obviously, a nominee wouldn't have even entertained that idea if he didn't think that, to some extent, Cronkite reflected it views.
It goes without saying, that the GOP never entertained the thought of bringing Cronkite on board. But, at the same time, he never engendered the raw animosity from Republicans that Dan Rather did. It was hardly a surprise that Rather's end on the CBS Evening News came in the rather ignominious fashion of being caught in a blogger storm that he sparked with a poorly reported story about George W. Bush's military service. A direct line of Rather-GOP dust-ups could be drawn from Richard Nixonasking a reporting Rather if he was "running for something" (to which Rather responded, "No, sir, are you.") to George H.W. Bush getting into a verbal on-air fight to the latter controversy. And how oddly fitting that the new media reflecting the new political non-consensus brought down Cronkite's seemingly arrogant successor.
One reason why Cronkite was universally adored: He had his views (as when a rare on-air editorial against the Vietnam War helped seal Lyndon Johnson's doom), but he declined to make -- or let -- himself become the story. Rather reveled in becoming bigger than what he was supposed to be reporting or anchoring on. Cronkite believed that the anchor chair was more important than he himself was -- exactly the opposite of Cronkite (who would never have walked off the set in a huff the way Rather did in 1987, leaving a black screen for nearly seven minutes).
But, considering Cronkite was personally liberal, how did he manage to be seen as "trusted" in a way neither Katie Couric nor Brian Williams nor even ABC's Charlie Gibson are today? It's quite simple. Cronkite may have been liberal -- but, generally speaking, so was the country to which he was broadcasting. He was an anchor for the twilight of the liberal social-political consensus that formed post Depression and World War II. As has been noted, Cronkite became a fixture because he seemed to be the rock in the hurricane that was the 1960s and '70s -- pushing aside the "can-do" American sensibility of the '40s and '50s.
Cronkite brought into American households news of an unpopular war, assassinations, riots, a presidential resignation, etc. Through it all, his view was laconic -- with the notable exception of the JFK assassination, where his emotion came through. His Vietnam editorial, was a rare time when his opinion on the news of the day was made most clear. But he was reporting to an America that was only beginning to assess broad changes that had taken over the country since the days of FDR, Truman and Eisenhower.
Rather than preaching on the changes -- or telling Americans how they should feel about them -- Cronkite acted as a guide with a just a tad more understanding on what was going on than everyone at home. He may have had his own views on the role of government, and perhaps on taxes and social programs too, but his respect for the chair was such that he held back in favor of reporting the facts of a world in going hyper.
Today, the liberal political consensus is long dead. It took the liberal media consensus much longer to fade. It took the rise of talk radio in the '70s and '80s, cable in the '90s and the Internet in the '00s to create multiple streams of information -- the totality of which forced the American people to start trusting on a case-by-case basis on who and what they want to trust.
There can never be another Walter Cronkite because the world he reported on no longer exists.