By David Carroll
Being a news guy is a weird occupation these days.
When I got into the profession back in the 80s, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, and very few cable TV channels. It would be a while before some “news” channels went way left, and others went way right.
Walter Cronkite had just retired a few years earlier, and he had not reached the saintly status his name invokes today.
Almost every day, someone attacks me, or pretty much any news person because we have reported a story they don’t agree with, or one that doesn’t echo their views. They usually say, “The news ain’t been worth a (flip) since Walter Cronkite! Y’all tell everyone how to think, but he kept it right down the middle!”
First off, this is ironic, because the complainer obviously wants us to tell the news only from the side he or she prefers. This is nowhere near “right down the middle.”
Secondly, and I hate to break this to you, but Cronkite was not shy about sharing his opinion. For many people, all they know about him is that he emotionally broke the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was a moment that was captured for eternity by CBS News because the network was broadcasting live at 1:38 p.m. that Friday afternoon, enabling Cronkite to interrupt the soap opera “As the World Turns.” (NBC and ABC did not provide network programming to local stations during that hour, so they were basically “out to lunch”).
The truth is, Cronkite had opinions, as most humans do, and when so moved, he would share them. Most notably, he spearheaded a prime time documentary exposing misinformation being spread by the Lyndon Johnson administration about the war in Vietnam.
In 1968, Cronkite went to Vietnam to see who was really winning the war. Much to President Johnson’s chagrin, the anchorman compiled a one-hour program showing the harsh realities of American casualties that had previously been under-counted and under-reported. At the end of the program (buckle up, folks), Cronkite…expressed his opinion! He said, “It seems now, more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” Wait, what? We couldn’t win the war? At least, that was Walter Cronkite’s informed belief. Americans were not used to hearing such a negative report on our military efforts in the 20th century.
Although he didn’t call it “fake news,” President Johnson was quite unhappy. Wait, it gets better. Cronkite soon had lunch with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, urging him to run against Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hold on: the guy we now call The Most Trusted Man in America, was playing a role in presidential politics? Who in the Sean Hannity would do such a thing?
I’m not trying to criticize Cronkite, not at all. He was an excellent journalist who had filed reports from World War II, and he was an authoritative news anchor. But his newscasts almost always featured an opinion segment. It was usually delivered by his colleague Eric Sevareid, who did so with dignity, and without the histrionics and theatrics associated with the Tucker Carlsons and Don Lemons of the world. His opinions were expressed in a dignified way, during a more dignified time. It’s safe to say that if Cronkite didn’t want opinions during his newscast, they wouldn’t have been there.
Those opinion segments were clearly labeled as such. Many of today’s viewers are unable to tell the difference between opinion and news. We see a talking head on TV, and that’s “news.” We see a video on YouTube, and that’s “news” if it echoes our views. We see a diatribe or meme that has been copied and pasted on Facebook, and it is “truth” if it advances our existing beliefs.
So I get cussed out from the left when we give air time to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the ultra-conservative U.S. Representative from northwest Georgia, and then someone from the other side spews obscenities when we give air time to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is Greene’s polar opposite. They both make news, and they both have their constituencies. Neither side believes the other should receive any attention. Yet they say we should cover the news “right down the middle.”
If that’s true, why is WGN’s NewsNation, which promotes itself as totally non-partisan, attracting only 90,000 viewers daily, compared to 3.6 million for “conservative” Fox News, and a combined 3.9 million for “liberal” CNN and MSNBC? You’ve chosen sides, America. How is that working out?
(David Carroll, a Chattanooga TV news anchor, is on ChattanoogaRadioTV.com, and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 900 Whitehall Rd., Chattanooga, TN 37405)