When I was first hired as CBS News technology analyst in 1999, I remember thinking what an honor it is to be working for the news organization that Walter Cronkite helped build. CBS, and indeed, the entire media landscape, have gone through big changes since Cronkite retired in 1981, but the basic principals he brought to news coverage remain intact. Journalists–and I include bloggers as well–need to be honest and accurate and–whenever possible–serve as an eye witness to unfolding events. New media journalists have a lot to learn from Cronkite.
I’ve heard it said over and over that today’s journalists and bloggers are working in a more tightly compressed time environment thanks to modern technology. But the Internet and cable TV didn’t invent the need for the immediate recitation of the news.
Cronkite was on the air live during many of our most important events. He certainly didn’t have time to sit back and analyze the significance of the JFK assassination as he brought the tragic news of the president’s death–as it unfolded–into America’s living rooms. His ring-side coverage of the space program was often real-time. When former President Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, Cronkite was on the phone and on the air at the same time, reporting the news as it was being told to him by Johnson’s press secretary. It can’t get more real time than that.
Point of view
Cronkite was first a reporter who, for the most part, didn’t opine about the news. But that doesn’t mean that he had no point of view. During World War II, he was a staunch supporter of the Allied cause. As NASA officials and former astronauts have reported, he didn’t just cover the space program, he was its champion. The day Neil Armstrong stepped on moon, his exclamation, “oh boy” summed up his pride and excitement. And there was deep–and appropriate–emotion as he told the nation of President Kennedy’s death.
In almost all situations, Cronkite reported the news without expressing his opinion, but he wasn’t afraid to interpret what he learned from his 1968 reporting trip to Vietnam. After he returned to New York, he proclaimed the war unwinnable, telling the nation–and the president–“it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then 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.” As Bob Schieffer pointed out on Face the Nation, one difference between Cronkite’s 1968 proclamation and much of today’s opinion journalism is that Cronkite witnessed the war first hand, “he took the time to go and find out for himself before he took that position.”
Lessons for creators and consumers of online news
So, what does Cronkite’s career mean for new media journalists? It means that we still have the responsibility to base what we say on facts. And even those of us who are expected to give opinions and analysis have something to learn from “the most trusted man in America.” It’s OK for commentators, bloggers and talk-show hosts to express an opinion, but it’s not OK to base it on speculation and innuendo or to be unfair or demeaning of those you cover, even if you disagree with them. Cronkite might have practiced his career in the 20th century, but what he stood for as a journalist still stands.
Today’s media environment also puts more responsibility on those who consume the news. In an era when the media goes way beyond those three trusted networks and local papers, it’s up to everyone to be just a bit more critical of what they read, hear and see. Consider the source and weigh the facts. We no longer have Walter to assure us, “That’s the way it is.”