…poor old Walter Cronkite went and died on us at the age of 92 on Friday.
Once upon a time, I wanted to be a reporter when I grew up. At a very early age, in grade school, I was inflicting home-made newsletters, none of them really reporting anything of any consequence, upon my classmates. In junior high, I quickly found my way into the journalism department, and by the time I was off to high school, things had gone really well – the junior high paper had gone from, for all intents and purposes, a typewriter thing to a computer layout thing. Granted, the computer was an Apple II, and the software used had to be all but abused into doing anything that looked really impressive (not unlike my experiences with the Avid many years later, come to think of it), but it was an enormous amount of fun. My friend Robert and I poured a ridiculous amount of effort into it all, and I was under the impression, by the time we got to high school, that we were rock stars. Just a little bit.
High school was a good deal more challenging – as often happens in the transition from junior high, even if you thought you were a rock star, you were lucky if anyone thought you were a roadie now. Still, the same pattern repeated itself, in a slightly more compressed time frame – our junior year was awesome. Our senior year was, on the other hand, a nightmare – we turned out three papers because the department was broke. I doggedly stuck with journalism as a major going into college, but by the end of my first year, this thing that everyone had assumed that I’d be spending my life doing was gone; journalism wasn’t my major anymore after what I’ll simply refer to as a spirited debate with the department advisor about writing down to a third grade level for a college paper (in short: I refused to do it).
Oddly enough, I wound up still working in news – in a way. Nearly ten years later I was writing and producing news promos. It wasn’t being a reporter, but by that time I’d found my calling sitting behind a computer and making stuff look cool.
One thing I remember from my very, very brief stint in college journalism, however, was the semester that was spent on journalistic ethics. You did this semester before you were allowed to write a single thing for the school paper. If you didn’t ace ethics, you were outta there. At the time, even though I did well with that semester, I thought this was a bit draconian: some perfectly good writers fell under the axe because they didn’t score better than a B in ethics.
Now I wish every freakin’ college journalism department in the nation operated that way.
The news media landscape today is something I find deeply troubling. Entities that in the past were reasonably impartial have, for lack of a better term, chosen sides. I’m not a big fan of “news” that leans heavily conservative or heavily liberal, because either way, there’s a slant, there’s a spin, and you’re no longer in the same room with the truth. It’s down the hall somewhere, having inconvenient bits lopped off in the edit.
This is completely at odds with what I knew halfway through my freshman year of college: that you don’t infuse a news piece with your opinion unless you have specifically been entrusted with that duty by the management. That you don’t just present one side of the story. That you don’t just regurgitate the official press release with no further research. That you don’t treat people accused of something as if they’ve already been convicted. And that you don’t play to the lowest common denominator and let tragedy or weeping victims – who have had enough by the time a camera was stuck in their faces – stand in for the full human impact of an event.
What happened to that kind of thinking? Are we about to bury it with Walter Cronkite? Is no one having to run a brutal, semester-long gauntlet of journalistic ethics in school anymore? Or is everyone going into that field now going in with the understanding that the public wants pundits more than it wants the truth?
What’s scarier is that, after the past decade or two, there’s a very real possibility that, indeed, that is what the public wants. In today’s media landscape, Cronkite might find himself shuffled off-stage because he couldn’t pop the ratings numbers. These days, outfits that are charged with telling us the truth are axing trained reporters to save costs – and inviting the public to send in camcorder “reports” in their stead.
I didn’t have the chance to grow up with Walter Cronkite narrating the mind-blowingly major stories of the ’60s, but he was enough of a rock-solid presence in the ’70s that a kid like me could watch him in action and say, “That’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Walter Cronkite should be remembered in the same breath as Edward R. Murrow as a member of a generation of journalists who truly raised the bar for their entire profession. But who is there to provide my son’s generation with that same spark of inspiration by way of integrity?