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Same As It Never Was

Walter Cronkite’s recent death was a boon for the news industry (well, not so much the New York Times), an opportunity to gaze mistily back into the recent past when all was better than now. The news wasn’t a profit center for major multi-nationals, and journalists were allowed to tell stories of greater length and detail. C-SPAN, that bastion of olde-timey news, where viewers are shown the facts and allowed – hallelujah, we’re allowed – to draw our own conclusions, showed a great conversation between Brian Lamb and Frank Mankiewicz last night. Mankiewicz was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary and Sen. George McGovern’s presidential campaign manager. Lots of laughs there, of course, but Mankiewicz has some riveting recollections about Kennedy and Uncle Walter. Seems the esteemed newsman took off his impartiality more than the one time he really let the architects of the Vietnam war have it. He also secretly called on Bobby Kennedy in 1967 to entreat him to run for the presidency. That, to me, is more shocking than Cronkite’s later life admission that he would have agreed to run as McGovern’s vice president.

The fact that an authentically august anchor (placed in a powerful position…) would insert himself into the democratic process in such a manner just shows how difficult it is to achieve an impartial press. However much it did or didn’t matter to RFK, the fact that it happened is amazing. Would Brian or Katie or whoever ABC’s anchor is care enough to do something like that today? Would any politician care if they did? The power of the network news anchor is but a sad memory now, a relic from a more trusting time. The idea that a lavishly compensated talking head would be moved to beg a politician to do something for his or her country, rather than for a viewership spike, seems equally quaint. In today’s hell for ratings television journalism, TV news people don’t even tell us the news. They tell us, “The Right said this…, while the Left came back with…” They haven’t bothered to call out birthers or death panelers as liars, which they are, they just breathlessly report each claim as though it had merit. The contest is the story and endless analysis is their game. Why not start with “Sen. Charles Grassley repeated a lie today”? That’s the truth and it is the way it is.

Cronkite’s Kennedy wooing shows us both that we never had it as good as we believed and that we have worse today than we bother to realize. Our vaunted anchors of yesteryear were powerful enough to urge certain outcomes, which is decidedly not the point of the Fourth Estate. However, most journalists today are neither independent – they’re cogs in giant corporate machines – nor even reporters of the truth. They’re bound to make money for their bosses and, in doing so, to stick with the framing that brings ratings. So, how far have we fallen? Is there farther still to go? Discuss amongst yourselves, I need to convince North Carolina’s most trusted journo to convince North Carolina’s most popular Democrat to run against a certain senator.

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