A News Junkie Mourns Cronkite

Back in 1981, I was not the news junkie I am today. Let’s face it. There weren’t as many opportunities to get at the news as there are today. After all, CNN had just been launched in June of 1980. But back to 1981. That was the year that Walter Cronkite retired as the long-time anchor of the CBS Evening News. As I recall, I kind of split my time between CBS and NBC in those days. NBC had the Huntley-Brinkley report early on and then John Chancellor for quite a few years after that and finally Tom Brokaw until recently.

In those days, anchors were reporters. That is, they reported the news. They did not comment on it, raise their eyebrow or show a disapproving scowl when they were reading a news report that might have upset them if they were not sitting in their anchor seat. I always felt the sign of a good newsperson was whether I could tell if they leaned left or right. There was no way to know in the “old days.” That was before news was turned over to commentators.

Today we have the Olbermans and the Oreillys purporting to deliver news. What they are really doing is serving up partisan politics and preaching to the choir. What liberal is going to watch Oreilly? What conservative is going to watch Olberman? There is nothing wrong with these shows but they are not news. You are not getting an even-handed presentation of the day’s stories. You are getting a heavily slanted view of that side’s perception of that day’s stories. If that’s what you need to make your own beliefs seem more credible, that go for it. I’m not saying there is not a place for those kinds of shows but in the old days, the “entertainment” division and not the “news” division would have produced those shows.

So what do we have for our evening anchors today? Brian Williams honed his game doing an hour news show on CNBC and MSNBC for eight years prior to being anointed anchor when Tom Brokaw stepped down in 2004. Mr. Williams is a good newsreader and plays well on TV but he has not forgotten from where he came. He still occasionally plays to the camera and makes side comments about stories that would have been sacrilegious back in the day.

After the untimely death of Peter Jennings, a consummate newsman who worked as sole anchor at ABC from 1983 until his death in 2005, Charles Gibson ascended to the ABC throne in 2006. He came from a 19-year stint with Good Morning America, ABC’s entertainment/news morning program. He does a fairly straight presentation and has actually caught NBC in the ratings and the two go head to head. Nevertheless, Gibson came from more of an entertainment background originally than news.

CBS on the other hand has never truly recovered from Cronkite’s retirement. Dan Rather certainly came from a strong news background and earned his stripes as a top-flight reporter during the Vietnam War but Rather was always tagged with the liberal badge and after 24 years (a longer stint than Cronkite), he left under controversy. Interestingly, Bob Schieffer, a true throwback to the Cronkite era, replaced him for a time. Although Schieffer would never be accused of being flashy, he has a strong delivery and a believability that comes with the credibility he had earned as a long-time reporter with CBS. When CBS decided that they needed to “go young” since their demographic was definitely skewing gray (given the age of most of their 60 Minutes reporters and Schieffer), in 2006, they threw the long ball and snagged Katie Couric from NBC. Although Couric had started out as the cute, bubbly morning co-anchor on The Today Show, she was always acknowledged as a tough questioner and a strong reporter. Even though her ratings are far behind NBC and ABC, I have watched all three broadcasts for various periods of time and, after a rocky start, I believe that Katie Couric’s CBS Evening News is by far the best network newscast on the tube. Katie has crafted her newscast to make sure that she did not carry over any morning show smiles and over the top personality. The newscast is even handed and has a number of long form series that explore important topics in ways that they other two broadcasts are not doing. Is she the reincarnation of Walter Cronkite? Hardly. But these days, I will take my real news where I can get it?

Lest I neglect to mention the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,
the presentation is as dry as Melba toast but two sides are always presented on any given topic. Also, kudos to the News Hour for always leading with the top real stories of the day. Example, on the day that Michael Jackson died, the networks led with wall-to-wall coverage as if the president had died. Other news was relegated to a 5 minute wrap up at the end of the show. The News Hour led with the real stories of the day and included a brief segment on Mr. Jackson as their 5th story of the night.

The evening cable battles go on but I think Anderson Cooper does a nice job on CNN with a 2-hour show that allows him to go in-depth on key issues. CNN’s worldwide bureaus allow them to get right in the middle of many foreign stories with their own people.

Finally, a shout out to Rachel Maddow, clearly the most intelligent person addressing the news on TV. A Stanford grad and a Rhodes scholar, Ms Maddow is quick on her feet, extremely well read and can react to a response from an interviewee without checking her notes. She actually educates herself on a topic before engaging in an interview. Nevertheless, I would still put her in the category of commentator.

Well, there it is—the news landscape as seen by this blogger. There are still small islands of real broadcast news out there but watch out for the commentators. They are trying to convince you it’s all about them.

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