When I was young, the TV news was very important. First, there was a half-hour of local news and then a half-hour of national news. The local news had all the news that happened in my viewing area and it left the national news for the networks. Local interest stories, local sports and the weather. I lived in Washington, DC so a lot of what passed for local news was also, to an extent, national news. But the bulk of the real news was handled by the networks and in my house, it was Walter Cronkite.
Walter Cronkite (November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009) was there when America went to war in Europe. He was a part of the “Writing 69th“, a group of 8 journalists who were allowed to go on bombing missions over Germany. He landed in a glider to cover Operation Market Garden and he reported on the Ardennes Offensive more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge. He was often called the Most Trusted Man in America and was a solid, solemn voice during troubled times including the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was a strong proponent of NASA and the American race to space. To this day, I can remember his barely contained glee as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He reported from Viet Nam and he was always there.
Even as a child, I knew that Walter Cronkite was a very special man. He was serious and he was, obviously, important. I vaguely remember my parents making time to watch the CBS Evening News and I remember that Mr. Cronkite held my attention, even at a very young age. And as I look back, I have to wonder what he would think now about the sorry state of journalism in this country.
“Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.” ~Walter Cronkite
In Cronkite’s day, there were very few places to get your news. You could watch TV, listen to the radio or buy a newspaper. The TV news cycle was longer than it is today. There was a morning show and an early evening newscast. It gave the networks around eight hours to fill the upcoming news cast so stories were weighed against each other and only the stories that were deemed important enough to report made it to air. Of course that means that some of the “lesser” stories were passed by and left to the newspapers to report. It was a system that worked but that was not without some flaws. There was no way to report everything to everyone and make everybody happy. On the other hand, it also meant that network news time was not taken up with stories of drugged out celebrities who missed a court date.
Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now our news cycles never end. MSNBC, CNN, Fox, CNBC, CSPAN have all filled a void that might not have needed filling. Now, instead of filtering the news based on national impact, anything goes. In order to fill a 24 hour newscast the networks have to add a lot of fluff, celebrity news, talking-head “experts”, analysts and opinion. The problem comes when opinion masquerades as news.
Editorials have always been a part of the news cycle. A certain amount of opinion is necessary to get the pulse of a nation. But the editorial has evolved from a single page in the Sunday paper to iconic commentators who have managed to eclipse the issues they speak on. Rush Limbaugh was one of the first superstar radio talk show hosts. His strong conservative opinions reach millions and he is seen, by many of his listeners, as the final word on all things political. But his opinions are not news, they are not mainstream and, some, are not even based on fact. Remember, he is the one who played the song, “Barack the Magic Negro” on his program.
Fox news is another outlet that masks opinion as news. Never in my lifetime has there been a news network that has worked so successfully to be the propaganda wing of a political party. They show unflinching support of the conservative way of life to the point of attacking the Muppets for their stand on corporate America. Fox Business Channel host, Eric Bolling, said on air, “It’s amazing how far the left will go just to manipulate your kids, to convince them, give the anti-corporate message. Hollywood, the left, the media, they hate the oil industry. They hate corporate America.” The attack on the Muppets may have made prime time but it made little sense. Claiming that Hollywood hates corporate America is a lot like saying General Electric hates corporate America. Only an editorialist with an agenda would conveniently forget that film studios are a part of corporate America. When a movie like Toy Story 3 makes over a $1,000,000,000 worldwide, it should be hard to claim Disney is anti-capitalism. But Bolling did just that and no one called him on it. In spite of the fact that The Muppets (2011) was a Disney release, Fox claimed that “Hollywood” was indoctrinating our children in their left-wing agenda. Disney owns 10 TV stations, a dozen or so networks if you count ESPN as one network instead of 13. They own movie studios, restaurants, radio stations, merchandising companies and, if my memory serves, they have a couple of popular theme parks. And yet, somehow, Disney is anti-capitalism. News and opinion collide in a cloud of false outrage.
“Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.” ~Walter Cronkite
Newsman Alfred S. Ochs took over the New York Times in 1896. He was facing stiff competition from the sensationalist papers of the time but wanted to build a newspaper based on reporting “the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.” I have to think that there are still journalists who know that they are not the story, that what they are reporting matters and that their own agendas, thoughts, preconceived notions and opinions are meaningless when telling the facts. But in a world where opinion counts as news, where bloggers are seen as journalists and where journalists want to be stars, I have to worry. Being a journalist should be a sacred trust. It should be an honor to report the news “without fear or favor.” It should be but it isn’t. There are no more Walter Cronkites to look up to. When Jon Stewart can become the most trusted newsman in America for anchoring what he calls a fake news show, it just might be too late.