20 July, 2009

That's the Way it Was

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. — The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

I remember almost every room in Carroll Hall, the home of the  School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I remember nearly every professor who taught us about "good", ethical journalism. Chuck Stone, with his slow and steady speech, his warm and jovial manner, transferred his wisdom while simultaneously questioning censorship; Rich Beckman, with the simplest of instructions, gifted us with the minimalist approach to photojournalism and photo editing, ensuring all we did with our cameras and our computers as journalists was honest; Jay Anthony transmitted to us the rules of design and the tools with which to illustrate; Ferrel Guillory, whose door was always open, bequeathed to us the gift of good, solid reporting; Deb Aikat consistently had jokes, but was insistent that not only did we create our web content with purpose and readability, we learned our Internet history as well; Bill Cloud, after whom I modeled the requirement of my students to comprehend current events, coached us on the intricacies of copy writing and editing - it was a strict education and a valuable one; Harry Amana, a force to be reckoned with, opened our eyes to the true history of the media with information we will never forget and acts we hopefully will never repeat; Cathy Packer constantly reminded us that journalism is the fourth branch of government - the "watchdog". Each of them more than well-respected in his or her field, passed on knowledge, wisdom and experience in the most professional of ways. Each of them transferred feelings of both respect and honor, at least, for the profession of journalism and for the First Amendment.

The First Amendment greeted us each day as we entered the hallowed lobby of Carroll Hall for class. At some point I had to memorize the First Amendment, word for word, although I do not remember specifically for what class. Later, after my brief career as a journalist, I engendered my high school journalism students to memorize the First Amendment as well, during my mission to teach them "good" journalism. Although many of them did not comprehend at the time why I was so hard on them, nor did some of them wholly invest in the idea that there was a difference between "good" journalism and journalism, they understood later. And although many of them thought I was "crazy" at the time for making them write relentlessly and edit interminably and thought I was "too serious" about their Newspaper class - I often reminded them it was "Newspaper Journalism" - I later received words and letter of thanks, often followed by the news that said student was majoring in journalism or communications and was grateful for the madness of writing so much and so seriously.
Therefore the news of Walter Cronkite's passing is undeniably moving for someone who came from the school of "good" journalism. Although Dan Rather remarked that Walter Cronkite made television journalism what it is today, he was wrong. Television journalism today is far from what "the most trusted man in America" did in the two decades he covered the stories of America. "That's the way it is" was exactly the most appropriate way for Cronkite to end his newscasts because that is exactly what he was reporting on. The editorializing that pervades American journalism as we know it today is not why Cronkite was invited into the homes of millions of Americans every evening.

Friday night I was on the computer and saw that Cronkite, at 92 years of age, had passed. I told my Aunt, ten years my senior.

"Oh my goodness, I have to call Judi," she said, referring to her sister. "Many trying times in our lives revolved around Walter Cronkite."

She picked up the phone and dialed my other Aunt. She gave her the news and Aunt Judi responded.

Aunt Jill laughed, said "say that again" and put the phone up to my ear.

"Walter Cronkite was at our dinner table every night," Aunt Judi said. "Yup, we weren't allowed to talk either. We had to stay up on current events."

So I pictured my aunts, my mother, my grandmother and grandfather sitting around the television, with the sixth spot at the table filled by Walter Cronkite, whose presence was so much larger than the television screen he occupied. And with that I pictured every American family who was fortunate enough to eat dinner together and own a television between the years of 1961 and 1981.

As many have stated, there is no one who can replace Walter Cronkite, not now and not ever. On the CBS special "That's the Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite", one guest noted that it is a good thing there is no one else whom the American people have put their faith in the way they did Cronkite. "He was the right man at the time to be "the most trusted man in America". True. Times have changed and we, in the United States and abroad, consume news differently and it is produced differently. We no longer accept that "that's the way it is." Our news is editorialized and analyzed during its delivery so that what we receive is far more than the way it is.

While I love Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, David Gregory, Bob Schieffer, and(gasp) Stephen Colbert, they deliver our news in a very different format and formula than did ever Cronkite. Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, Bob Herbert and George Will I love too. But they are pundits - they analyze the news for us. They present it, discuss it, analyze it and synthesize it for we the consumers of the United States of America and we don't have to do it on our own. It's a brand new school. Even those from the old school of broadcast journalism - Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Katie Couric, Sam Donaldson, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, Charles Gibson, Tom Brokaw- have not the same no-nonsense, face-forward savvy as Walter Cronkite. The man gave his last newscast 28 years ago and until this day he has remained a name in our common vernacular.

Much of the eulogizing regarding Walter Cronkite relates to the man. Cronkite was the journalist he was because of the human being that he was. All of the professors in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication whom I was lucky enough to encounter, believed in the value of "good" journalism - there are many people who do. I am grateful that while practicing their own "good" journalism - most of it print - they educated so many of us to do the same. But learning to do something well and actually doing it well are two different things. There are those of us who are purists - who do not taint the well nor do we want to. But times have changed and both the consumers and the producers of news have changed with them. It is rare to consider it simply "news" or "journalism" anymore. A whole generation is coming of age in an era when the difference between "news" and the rest of the media is inscrutable. We have the Internet, multimedia content, video, video on the web, animation, television, cable, newspapers, magazines, commercial radio, public radio, newscasters, bloggers, pundits, talk show hosts, political ads, commercials, YouTube, cell phones, social networking, Facebook, and Twitter - all of which deliver current content in some form or fashion. I am in no way implying that the press or the media as we know it today is bad or wrong or inadequate. I am simply stating that it is different. We are continually challenged to sift through the media, to figure out and decipher the difference between truth and fiction. The media is not the news, and the news has changed in the last three decades since Cronkite retired. It is a rare occasion that any one can safely say "that's the way it is." CBS presented a beautiful tribute about Walter Cronkite and it was aptly titled "That's the Way It Was" because it is that way no longer.

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