Here’s the way it was:
If Uncle Walter said it, that meant it was true. You could take it to the bank and pay bills with it. Uncle Walter’s word was gold.
It will be difficult for anyone raised in the era of 24/7 TV news served up with a spin and a grin tailored to the ideological leanings of the viewer to fully grasp the importance of Walter Leland Cronkite Jr., the CBS News anchor who died Friday at the age of 92. You’d need to have grown up in the era of rabbit ears and three networks, to have drunk Tang because the astronauts did, to remember when Greg Brady said “groovy” and did not intend post-modern detachment.
If it was not a simpler world — and it wasn’t — it was a world in which media were not yet an oppressive white noise and one’s sources of news were fewer and less complex. No, that doesn’t necessarily make it a better world. There is, after all, something to be said for an era in which each of us has access to multiple conduits of constantly updated information and the average citizen can fact-check and hold accountable the people who purport to report.
But the multiplicity of voices, most of them loyal to no cause higher than a political agenda, has cost us something, too: our willingness and ability to acknowledge objective, verifiable truth.
Rather, a multiplicity of voices has led to a multiplicity of “truths,” many of them not true in any traditional sense of the word, but useful as a means of confounding or misleading the public toward some desired political end. Because a world where truth is never a settled thing, where nothing is ultimately, finally, knowable, is a world where people can be induced to believe any absurdity you wish them to: that Barack Obama was not born in the United States; that Sarah Palin is not the mother of her youngest child; that there was no terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001; and that Saddam Hussein orchestrated it.
What made Cronkite matter is not that he was without bias (no human being is) or opinion (no human being worth knowing is). But a good reporter will never allow bias or opinion to intrude upon fairness, much less fact. A good reporter’s loyalty is not to an ideology or party but to the truth, told completely and without fear or favor.
Walter Cronkite was a very good reporter.
That’s what all that “most trusted man in America” stuff boils down to: He was authoritative. You could depend on him to tell it like it was. And that’s why, on the rare occasion he did venture an opinion — he famously declared the war in Vietnam unwinnable — it carried weight. You knew he wasn’t shilling for one party or another. To the degree he was shilling for anything, it was simply, truth.
Try to imagine saying that of Keith Olbermann, Steve Doocy, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck or any of the other spinners and grinners who have turned TV news into an infotainment complex where reporting bleeds seamlessly into fiction bleeds seamlessly into opinion and nobody tells it like it is, choosing instead to tell it as their cohort of an ideologically balkanized nation wants it to be.
But when Cronkite finished reporting on the assassinations, the riots, the demonstrations, the war, the scandal, the moon race, and signed off saying, “And that’s the way it is,” you felt that it was that, indeed. You knew that you knew what you knew.
No, he did not have a magic screen. He did not have the ability to conduct interviews via hologram. He did not have Twitter, Google Earth or computer graphics. Yet he had the one thing without which none of those things matters: integrity. Which gave him what a generation of TV journalists brought up on those toys conspicuously lacks: the people’s trust.
That’s the way it is. Makes you wistful for the way it was.