Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Journalism, RIP

Over the weekend, the world became a little less bright. Walter Cronkite, journalist, newsman, elder statesman, and one of the greatest people ever to live, passed away at the age of 92. With so many celebrities and notables passing away this month, it's easy to get overwhelmed, and easy to miss his passing in the shuffle. Only Walter Cronkite was no mere celebrity. He was a national treasure. A thing not easily replaced.

It's hard to imagine a world without Uncle Walter: he lived so long, and was present to witness - and in some cases, participate - in many of the formative events of the 20th Century. He was a fixture of American life, a constant presence throughout rapidly changing events. Cronkite was a TV anchorman in the truest sense of the word: he was the anchor, the solid constant that those looking for news could always count on to be there. It's no accident he was considered the Most Trusted Man in America: with his distinct voice and his straightforward reporting style, he conveyed the image of the simple man of integrity, reporting the facts and offering opinions based on common sense. And what's more, it was more than just image. A look at Cronkite's life and personal convictions reveals a simple, down-to-earth rationality. He was perhaps the last of the true Progressives, supporting such lofty causes as world government, solving hunger, and campaign finance reform. A religious man, but a tolerant, open-minded one - as true Men of God should be. A man devoted above all to his craft: to the business of reporting the news, accurately and responsibly. He was almost too good to be true.

And now he is gone. It's a sobering moment. Uncle Walter wasn't supposed to go. He was supposed to be there forever, guiding us by example. It's almost a moment of Nietzschean proportions: God is dead. Now there is only Man. And one look at the state of modern American journalism is enough to conjure up despair of equally cosmic proportions.

Because what is TV news now? Talking heads, rattling off talking points. Accuracy traded for speed. Opinion published as fact. And journalistic integrity is just another buzzword. We saw this most damningly during the Bush administration, where discrepancies and outright corruption and lies went unchallenged by the media, for fear of censure...or worse, loss of advertising dollars. News has become just another business, subject to market pressures and consumer trends. Ironically, Cronkite himself saw this coming, and lamented that even he seemed powerless to stop it. The decline of journalistic standards, coupled with the rise of the 24-hour news networks, leads to a sorry state of affairs indeed. Ranging from the blatantly biased to the blandly moderate, not a single news network inspires much trust or confidence in the average viewer. And I'm hard pressed to find a figure of the same stature as Cronkite among all the talking heads. Someone who you trust implicitly, you respect utterly, and you believe has genuine wisdom to share.

It's a fleeting, naive hope that maybe someday the pendulum will swing back, and another great newsman will step forward from the shadows and become that Most Trusted Person we need. I wonder if it's even still possible nowadays, if perhaps we're too far gone, and simply wouldn't know how to do it any more. That's a sad thing to contemplate, and well, no one can truly predict what will happen down the road. It might well happen.

But for now, the good is interred with the bones of the king.

Goodnight, Sir. You will be missed.


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