The word legendary, like the words hero and friend, has become meaningless in senseless overuse. But the word fit in stories reporting the death of “legendary” newsman Walter Cronkite. He was one of the last trusted newsmen. He was, however, a voice from a less frenetic journalistic time. It is true that there was less competition for readership and viewership, but the level of journalistic ethics and credibility, while never perfect, was significantly higher then than it is now.
Cronkite, who died at 92, was a veteran of ink on paper journalism and even though he became famous as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, he never lost his belief in print journalism. When he was at the height of his career, he once observed that it troubled him that people felt they were properly informed if they watched his evening newscast. He pointed out that if the entire newscast was set in type, it would barely fill one page of a daily newspaper. He understood he was presenting headlines, but to be intelligently informed required much more.
During the Cronkite years — and his career ranged from World War II to the Vietnam War, to the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement and the first man on the moon — there wasn’t the cacophony of information that now exists. The insatiable maw of cable television did not exist, and most importantly, the Internet did not exist.
It is a cliché to say that at this time in history there is more information available at the stroke of a commuter key than was ever dreamed of only 10 years ago. But with all of that potential knowledge, are we actually better informed? More importantly, do we take advantage of it?
I contend the answer to both questions is no. Much of it is only headline news. It was once predicted that television would destroy newspapers. It didn’t. Afternoon newspapers died, but morning newspapers grew and thrived. Now, it is argued, the Internet is pounding a stake into the heart of print journalism. I would argue that it is premature to announce that the newspaper beast is dead.
There is a complicated love/hate relationship, between the press and public relations. Because of that, I think there is a rush to say that twitter, tweet, IPods, Facebook, or whatever is coming will finally show the newspapers and magazines that they are archaic, passé. Maybe that will happen. The Internet is a vastly faster source of information.
When Washingtonian publisher Cathy Merrill spoke at Qorvis Communications recently about her magazine, she pointed out that readers go to the on-line pages because the printed magazine exists. She said the same is true for papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. She doesn’t see print succumbing to the Internet.
A newspaper or print magazine – and many publications, especially the news magazines, will fail over the next few years – is still where journalistic credibility exists. At newspapers there is a vital filtering system of editors who are responsible for factual content, journalistic integrity, and depth of reporting. We look back on Walter Cronkite’s distinguished career as an example of trustworthiness with his admonition, “get it first, but get it right.”
He believed carefully presented facts were more important than opinion. That isn’t true on the opinion-dominated, dizzy, noisy array of Internet web sites from Drudge to Slate to the Daily Beast, to whatever new sites that will be established tomorrow. Until Cronkite’s admonition about getting it right is more the rule than the exception, for now I’ll keep getting my information from sources I trust – print on paper newspapers and magazines.