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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite and Our Fractured Media Landscape

I was watching a little bit of MSNBC's coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite, and for a while there they had Dan Rather, who was Cronkite's successor, in the studio and Tom Brokaw on the phone. At one point, Brokaw mentioned the respect he, Rather, and the late Peter Jennings all shared for Cronkite. That got me thinking about how much has changed about the way we get our news.

What's changed the most is that there are no longer widely respected cultural institutions imparting the news to us, but instead a vast and unknown plethora of personalities, often with known biases or unsavory reputations as journalists.

Walter Cronkite's image is synonymous with several of the biggest stories of the 20th century. Taking off his glasses and pausing before breaking the story of JFK's assassination. Telling Americans, in a then rare display of opinion in news, that the Vietnam War was spinning out of control. It was Walter Cronkite that most people watched narrate the events on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

Even when people of my age were younger, there was a sense of this same instituionalism in the network news anchors, except it was more evenly split among Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather. All three were trusted journalists with wide audiences. (In my house we watched Jennings purely because his telecast preceded Jeopardy!)

With the advent of cable news and 24-hour reporting, the prominence of the network anchors took a hit, but the even more disturbing element is the slivercasting going on in news. Slivercasting means broadcasting to appeal to a narrow constituency, and it's obviously common among cable channels, where you have a whole channel devoted to game shows, or what have you. But in news, it means you can tailor your newscast to the people you expect to watch it. This enables people to seek out news that agrees with their own preconceptions, and this is a bad idea plain and simple. I don't care how often you agree with Keith Olbermann, it's not healthy to hear your own ideas regurgitated back to you. Even if you never change your mind, you need to have it challenged every once in a while.

With the fracturing of news, we no longer have a core touchstone of recognized and verified journalists informing us the way we need them to. What does it say that arguably the most powerful person in the media today is a guy who was once the third male lead in Death to Smoochy?

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