On Saturday morning NPR’s Scott Simon explained something important about our loss of not just the person of Walter Cronkite, but his legacy. He said that in today’s media landscape, where most of us only consume the programming that confirms what we already believe, based solely on the “facts” that fit our assumptions about “the way it is,” who will we ever trust again to tell us when what we think we know “is not the way it is?”
The night before, about the very hour of Cronkite's death, something from out of the blue made me plunge my wife and I into a dinner discourse about George Orwell’s 1984.
I was thinking about Orwell's book because Michael Jackson's 1984, and the revolution in American pop culture his paradigm breaking success ushered in was still on my mind. In my book, American Skin, I theorized that the revolution in commercial—i.e. corporate—media Jackson’s elevation represented would drive a wholesale reinvention of American identity relative to race.
What I failed to see was that the same media-marketing technology revolution would also drive the value of the product of network news divisions like Cronkite's CBS down to zero, as the value of “pop” dwarfed the value of traditional news judgment. Thus there is no irony left in how much critical "real news" continues to be crowded out, or otherwise trivialized in its coverage as Jackson related infotainment still stalks us, weeks after his death.
Orwell’s thesis was that in a 1984 future, a powerful yet hard to identify totalitarian world government would not only control all information, but all memory. History itself would be rewritten on the fly to suit the ruling order’s shadowy purposes, and no one would know better. Or, more importantly, care.
But my revelation over dinner (and under one martini) was that instead of Orwell's fictional totalitarian information regime, what actually happened in our 1984 was the emergence of a slow rolling coup by commercial popular culture against everything that the journalism of a Walter Cronkite represented—even as he was still on the air.
We came to call it "infotainment," and then, in an Orwellian way, shoved serious discussion about it down a memory hole.
The “government”—the very term now totally debased by years of dumbing down to fit people’s prejudices— still doesn’t have the power to suppress or censor news coverage it doesn’t like. It can, of course, deny, withhold and even outright lie about stuff, and often does. But with fewer and fewer Cronkite journalism institutions and Cronkite minded journalists employed, there are fewer and fewer writers committed to sorting the wheat of the facts from the chaff of spin and celebrity that comes out of Washington. And even if they did, how would they get a significant audience or readership willing to listen with an open mind, much less trust?
Take just one of the many adjectives being tossed at the Cronkite legend today like so many dying roses on a coffin: accuracy. Fox News, still the leading cable news network by some important measures, was built on the notion that accuracy is in the eye of the beholding producers; all of its direct competitors have had to follow suit to a degree.
The tyranny of Big Brother has been replaced by the autocracy of the 24-hour-news-cycle, the orgy of self-gratifying, self-validating corporate media consumption. We pick the news and the facts that define us for a given period in much the same way we pick the a new playlist for our iPods or decide which talking head’s recitation of partisan talking points sounds good this week.
We pick from the buffet table of what is now an endless corporate propaganda banquet, from the soup of prescription drug ads to the nuts of drug company press releases parroted undigested on the 11 o'clock news, to the meat and potatoes of corporate lobbying campaigns that double as “Harry & Louise” type ads.
It would be an easy cliche to say Cronkite will roll into his grave and never stop spinning at the state of the profession he leaves behind. But, to honor him, we should put ourselves on record; we have no facts to back that up.
Being the newsman that he was, though, I’m guessing Walter Cronkite will rest in the peace of having reported all he could, as well as he could, for as long as he could.
I think, in his humility, Cronkite would have no problem accepting that this is “the way it is,” all the way to the grave. Maybe I’m being romantic here, but I think real journalists shouldn’t need to know more than that to rest easy whenever that long good-night comes.