Walter Cronkite's death symbolizes are that ended long before he passed
Mitch Perry about over 4 years ago
Legendary television anchorman Walter Cronkite’s death on Friday at the age of 92 has prompted massive encomiums on his career and how no one figure could ever dominate mass communications like “Uncle Walter” did in the ’60s and ’70s. It also allows us to ponder the state of national television news.
In the immediate days (and weeks) after Michael Jackson’s death last month, America’s broadcast and cable news networks went — predictably — hog wild over the pop superstar’s death. They saw their ratings rise, while also receiving criticism from a lot of quarters that they were overdoing it.
But were you really surprised?
Pardon the expression, but haven’t we seen this movie, err, blanket news coverage before? Can you say Anna Nicole Smith? Ronald Reagan? Princess Diana anybody?
Each of these personalities of course was quite different in terms of their significance on the body politic. But then, other than to her friends and family, what significance did the late Natalee Holloway fall have on you?
The fact of the matter is Fox and MSNBC over the years have devolved since their creation in the mid 1990’s from offering cable news to being mostly presenting a shred of news but mostly analysis. They do a solid job of covering the White House and national politics, albeit from a distinct ideological perspective. But they don’t deliver much hard news.
CNN, unfortunately, has become the last, best hope for Americans who crave straight up news reportage. They definitely deliver more of the goods, particularly on international stories. But that’s not really saying a whole lot.
Michael Jackson’s career was legendary. In terms of his vast talents, however, he peaked in the early 1990’s. The past 15 years were were mired in scandal and bizarre excess that easily made him an international punch line. But his death was a shock, and so it shouldn’t have been any surprise that the coverage was extensive. In U.S., and throughout the world even, most people categorized as post Baby Boomers had lots of stories to share with their friends about their own experiences listening to Michael Jackson’s music (mostly of course, in the 1970s and ’80s).
But when the coverage continued long past the first long weekend of his death, some people became upset and angry at the cable news networks.
Some, like conservative media critic Brent Bozell, cited the deaths of 7 U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan in juxtaposition to the grotesque excess of the musical star.
Underneath some of the resentment was no doubt racial. The white backlash was best articulated by Long Island Republican Representative Peter King, who famously blasted Jacko as a “pervert” unworthy of nonstop media coverage.
And though lots of people felt that way, a significant slice of the population didn’t. Specifically black people. Polls showed a huge discrepancy between blacks and whites about how excessive the coverage actually was. There were criticisms that the performer’s controversies were (pardon the expression) whitewashed. But MSNBC seemed to have extensive coverage of Vanity Fair scribe Maureen Orth on the night Jackson died, talking about her reporting on his 1993 legal problems regarding allegations of inappropriate behavior with a young boy.
But to Bozell and others who decried the networks failure to cover more “important” stories, I wanted to shake people and ask: And you’re just realizing this NOW?
People’s memories can’t be that hazy. You may recall the weekend after Iran’s Presidential election, there were loud complaints in the blogosphere about the lack of coverage of the events on the streets of Tehran.
Remember? That’s when we learned of the so-called “Twitter revolution”. Why Twitter? Because those in the U.S. who were fascinated by the events regarding the race between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi, and had to rely on social media sites like Twitter and for reports from sites like the Huffington Post for the news, because the cable networks were taking the weekend off.
But how much information did you get regarding the coup in Honduras? Or the murder of a human rights activist in Chechnya? Immediately after 9/11, the networks bulked up as a craving developed among the American populace that they NEEDED to know what was going on overseas.
But that costs money. And though MSNBC and FOX were never beacons of such coverage, it is CNN that has become our biggest letdown of resources.
And if the coverage of Jackson was too soft for some, what are we to make of the six-day post-death coronation of the late Ronald Reagan back in 2004?
The late President was no doubt a giant figure of American history. However, he was also a controversial leader who many thought might be impeached in 1986 after news of the Iran/Contra scandal erupted. Nary a negative word was said between the time the Gipper died on a Saturday night, and when he was buried in the twilight of a Southern California summer evening six days later.
No, MJ’s coverage was akin more to the culture of celebritydom that was captured in the death of Princess Diana back in 1997, the first time that all three of “the cables” could go nonstop (including the live coverage of her funeral in the middle of the night in the U.S.).
And I’m not even talking about the disturbing trend the networks displayed in recent years showing nonstop coverage of missing attractive white women, which climaxed in the coverage of Natalee Holloway (and what led one academic to blame on the demise of the Fairness Doctrine).
At least Michael Jackson left something behind that people could identify with. But what to make of the coverage of the deaths of Chaundry Levy, Laci Peterson, and Anna Nicole-Smith?
So is there any positive source of television news 28 years after Walter Cronkite was forced out at CBS in 1981? Well, I can’t answer for what Katie, Brian and Charlie are doing at 6:30 PM (I’m doing my newscast at that time), but I can tell you that except for the breaking news conference, I’m not going to the cables for news. What about commentary, to make sense of it all? As the soon to be departed Governor of Alaska said recently, hell yes. But for day to day coverage, if you can’t get BBC America on your cable or satellite package, you’re better off sticking to the many other great sources of information still in existence in the summer of 2009. You know, like newspapers, certain web sites, or yeah, even public/community radio stations.