Saturday, July 18, 2009

Uncle Walter- A Remembrance

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

I remember a time where hard news meant real news, and Uncle Walter shepherded that brief moment of time. And it occurred to me last night what the age of Cronkite actually taught me.

He taught me at least two things.

The first thing he taught me was that if integrity was to last, you needed to work at it. He worked at it every night. His newspaper underpinnings made it possible for him to be concise and authoritative. His deliveries were straightforward without a need for glitz or self aggrandizement. Looking back, I realize now how his presentation never deterred from the message. You got the message clearly, succinctly, and even if you didn’t like the message, you stayed to watch anyway because you believed him.
I was talking to my wife, Naomi, about him this morning, and I couldn’t help but think of a very odd analogy. In my opinion, I think people want to believe in a god who is always benevolent, never judging, and will always protect you from harm. In other words, this is the god we want and not the God we need. We need a God who does judge but is also benevolent. We need a God who allows us to be in harm’s way but who will also save us. When I look at news consumption today, I see a public that receives news as it pleases. We can arbitrarily decide what the necessary information for the day is, and we can discard those things we deem unimportant. We want news the way we want it to be and not always what we need it to be. I believe Cronkite personified the news that we needed. Whether it was bringing Vietnam into our living rooms or drawing the proper conclusions concerning Watergate, Uncle Walter gave it to us whether we wanted it or not. To me, that’s integrity; the ability to report what needs reporting, politics be damned.

The second thing he taught me was how much concentrated power resides in an anchor chair. If you think about it, what is news is decided by a relatively small group of people. Someone has to make the decision that this ‘something’ is news. Though the temptation is there for me to jump into the ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’ news slant argument, I will resist. But I will say that ever since Nixon started attacking the media for its investigations into his shenanigans, the media, rightly or wrongly, has lost a lot of its bite. And that makes me sad.

But back to my point. The handful of people who decide the news is very powerful, and we give them that power by deciding what channel works for us. Broadcasters know this, and to keep you tuned, they give you what you want with the slant you prefer. To me, that’s an impressive amount of power residing in the minds of just a few. Is it right or wrong? I have no idea. What matters is that we ‘know’ it is the way things are. And that we know that the full story is never told whether you are watching Fox or watching MSNBC.

Cronkite taught me about a responsible use of that concentrated power. His news sensibilities, I feel, were unmatched. And even with all that power, Cronkite sought out the news that was actually news, politics still be damned.

I miss Cronkite. I try to watch network news, but it’s difficult to extrude the actual news through the lenses of infotainment. With the explosion of political pundits passing their opinions off as news, it’s even harder to find truth in any news story.

I’m glad I am part of that generation that grew up with Uncle Walter. He was truly a blessing to those of us who tuned in every weeknight at 6:30.

Whether we wanted the news he gave us or not, we always received.

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