Jack Ohman

In our news media/Twitter culture, I still miss Walter Cronkite...

Yesterday I wrote about the subject of "nothing is going on" in the news, which got me to thinking about how it is now when something is going on. Something huge.

We've had a few major stories in the past few weeks, the Boston Marathon bombing being the most prominent. And, certainly, we have all been adequately informed by the news media about it. The Boston bombing is one of those stories that television does particularly well, if not exactly accurately, mostly because everything is on the fly. Mistakes are made (misidentification of a bombing suspect, for example), but mostly they keep the pictures rolling and the commentary droning.

What I felt has been missing in the past few years (let's say ten) has been recognizable news anchors. I was chatting with a colleague today about this. She's in her fifties and has the same frame of cultural media reference that I do. We both grew up on people like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, John Chancellor, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Frank Reynolds, and Ted Koppel. Something big happened, and you would turn on your tv and not just learn something, you would get your hand held ("Col.Glenn reports everything is A-OK"). We laughed about our mutual memories, and yet there was a ruefulness about it, like something important was gone.

Now the news flies at you at Twitter speed, like a dead salmon thrown into your face, and you have virtually no time to put it context, or, indeed, anyone you know or feel you know to help cushion the blow. This afternoon, as I was drawing, I was listening to some old CBS broadcasts of space launches. I know what you're thinking--why? Do you listen to music? Yeah, sometimes, but there is something comforting about listening to these familiar voices from 40 years ago, discussing some major event that requires a little more humanity than I think is now projected by television news. 

For example, during the coverage of the Apollo 11 launch, Walter Cronkite would say things like, "Oh, boy!" and express a real human emotion. Oh, boy. Look at that big honker going up. That's exactly what I felt. Oh, boy. He'd discuss how many stereos the sound of the launch would be comparable to (eight million), or how Neil Armstrong sounded confident. Now, you have 29 year olds discussing Twitter feed over continuous tape loops while stock quotes flow at the bottom of the screen. Oh boy.

Walter didn't do Twitter feeds. 

During the Boston event, CBS News was a pretty sparing presence, I thought. They broke in from time to time, but it wasn't a continual seance like some of the events from the 1960s, where news events would command all-day coverage. It seems incredible now, but they used to run gavel to gavel coverage of political conventions, and people would actually watch them. Now they show a prescribed three-hour chunk of completely scripted event, where the outcome is precisely known, and political drama is reduced to an elderly actor addressing an empty chair. The reason this is happening is that as we wean the American people from news, the less they feel they need to pay attention, and not just to television news, but newspapers as well.

Having a familiar face or two to sort things out, like a beloved uncle teaching you how to fish or a trusted teacher walking you through a complicated math problem, was enormously useful in a time of national crisis. Pointing out the First Lady's dignity, or the astronaut's training, delivered in reassuring tones, was something you could really grab on to in a sea of frightening information.

Now that our media environment is atomized, goodbye to all that. I am not sure how to get it back. I guess we won't.

That's why I sometimes listen to and watch things like 40 year-old moon launches. It helps me to remember why I got into the news business in the first place. I actually had the opportunity, as a very young man in my early twenties, to be peripherally involved in the ABC News Nightline program. I got to know Ted Koppel in passing, and I can tell you that he was just as composed and cool in person as he was on camera. I also met or saw Sander Vanocur, Sam Donaldson, Jules Bergman (Quick: who is the ABC News Science Editor now?), and a few other quite well-known ABC correspondents. They were all educated, cultured, and erudite. It made me feel that sensible people were trying to do the right thing in informing the American people. I'm not saying the people on the air are not the same type of people. I've met some of them, too, and they are indeed impressive at the network level. 

It's just that they're not on the air much, and that television news seems to be shrinking, too. That's bad. It makes for a less-informed electorate, but, more importantly, it conveys the message that if paying attention to the news isn't important to television networks, why should you?

That's the way it, I guess.

Oh, boy.