Commentary

Sun Sets On Pioneers Of Television Journalism

You have to be of a certain age for the passing this week of journalists Cokie Roberts and Sander Vanocur to mean something to you. To many, names like David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and even Edward R. Murrow are just that: names from the past. But to those of that certain age, it is the sunset of what rightfully could be called the greatest generation of television journalists.

It was entirely possible to grow up when I did and not be familiar with major print journalists (although most newspaper readers were), but it was nearly impossible not to have known the major network news anchors and reporters, because it was an era when most Americans religiously tuned into the evening news. This was before cable TV evolved, offering alternatives to the big three networks that beamed though the air free to anyone who had an antenna on the roof (or rabbit ears on top of the set.)   

News broadcasts were not as graphically “exciting” as today’s network news. In fact, there was often just a guy (almost always a guy) sitting at a desk talking in serious tones with great respect for things like truth, civility, balance and accuracy. Often, there was no video to illustrate or advance a story other than a correspondent’s talking head describing as best he could (again, usually a he) what had just happened and why it was important for you to know about it.

Network news became so powerful, with such vast audiences, that critics often complained that it set the agenda of what Americans should pay attention to — and since all the shows emanated from New York, the agenda was probably crafted in collaboration with dark forces seeking to shape public opinion. Yet at the same time, some newscasters became the “most trusted man in the nation.”

While one might argue that having a near monopoly on the distribution of broadcast news, the notion of “most trusted” was thrust upon an unassuming nation with limited alternatives, my take is that the title was well earned.

Journalism in this country (like nearly every other business or institution you can think of) was never perfect. Yet it was (and I think remains) the best in the world. The standards were set many years ago by those whose names are fast fading into memory. They fought to protect their independence and at that time established a nearly impenetrable wall between church and state.

Since then, the wall has crumbled noticeably — especially with the incursion of sponsored content and promoted stories at the bottom of nearly every webpage.

It has been argued that network and major print journalists’ only measure of success was either beating or being credited by their competitors, and they regarded their viewing audience as the great unwashed masses without the ability to understand complex breaking news.

There’s no question that many editors and reporters were arrogant to a fault, but by and large they worked diligently to get stories right and be as far and balanced as humans and collaborative institutions are capable of being.

I miss those days when the guy on the tube kept his opinions to himself, viewed himself and his network as stewards of the truth as best it could be deduced, and was less worried about his own cult of personality and more about how to best inform the nation. The greatest generation indeed.

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