Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kids these days

That defining moment unfolded Nov. 22, 1963, after Cronkite was drawn to the urgent, five-bell summons of the United Press International ticker in the CBS newsroom: Shots had been fired at the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy.

Bah, kids these days. Your Editor had to walk uphill through a swarm of pterodactyls to his first newsroom shift, and when he had sharpened all the quills and put whale oil in the photo machine, he sat at a desk in front of the UPI ticker, and an "urgent" was four bells. Five bells was a "bulletin."*

Attention to detail aside, wouldn't it be nice if newspapers could tell a big story without the need to make it the Biggest Story Ever in the History of the World in Space?

He led us to Saigon, to Jonestown, to Selma, to Attica.

He escorted us to all corners of the Earth, then he showed us to the moon.

As anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” Walter Cronkite – who died at 7:42 p.m. Friday at age 92 after suffering from cerebrovascular disease – not only narrated a tumultuous era in American life, but presided over the instant that television achieved its potential to be the most powerful communication tool in history.

And that moment, as you've guessed above ...

For the next four days, he led a mourning nation through wrenching grief. For anyone alive in that time, the TV images of the Kennedy funeral procession, the salute of Little John-John to his dead father and the jailhouse execution of Lee Harvey Oswald are indelibly stored in memory.

Cronkite was still a few years away from being the top-rated news reader, let alone the Most Trusted Man In History, so it's hard to give much credence to his "leading" the nation through much of anything. (And -- ahem -- "execution"? Do you guys still look words up before you use them?) Apparently we've followed another of those fine old Liebling observations and thrown out all the type smaller than Very, Very Large.

I think it was William McGuire who best summed up the persistent urge to believe in big-effects theories of media: People look around and think, quite naturally: With all that media, there must be some effects. News, like other media products, tends to produce small, cumulative and contingent effects. A single broadcast, even one as famous as Cronkite's Tet commentary, doesn't turn public opinion around in its tracks. But consistently friendly reports from a variety of sources over a period of months can make a really dumb idea seem like the logical state of things.

One doubts Old Walter would have approved of all the breathlessness. And one hopes he would have raised one of those biased liberal eyebrows at the idea of leading the frontpage with the demise of a 92-year-old retired journalist.

* Ten was a "flash," but by the time I saw my first flash-level story, we had a real front-end system, which made the same annoying buzz for anything from "bulletin" on up.


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