Cronkite on the Changing Media

The seasoned newscaster speaks of his concern for journalism's direction

AS the longtime anchor of CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite earned a reputation for telling it straight. His meticulous and avuncular style made him one of the most trusted newscasters in television history, and an influential force on the news business.

While visiting Boston recently, Mr. Cronkite spent an hour over tea at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, talking about the state of American journalism 13 years after he stepped down as CBS frontman.

What are the major forces at work in television news today?

I think in general there's been a deterioration of journalistic standards in all areas, print as well as broadcasting, in the sense that we now indulge in covering stories that in the past would have been ignored by the more serious journalistic organs. The tabloidization, if you please, of journalism generally is rather evident.

Serious journalists have always known that you can increase circulation or ratings by coverage of the prurient: of sex and violence, because it affects everybody and it certainly evokes the lowest common denominator of a mass audience. The New York Daily News always had a larger circulation than the New York Times, but by the same token today in television, tabloid syndicated shows have gained enough of a rating to impress the previously more serious organizations; most particularly the networks.

ABC anchor Peter Jennings, asked about showing graphic images of the war in Bosnia, says that sometimes it is important that people understand the full level of violence and that it not be sanitized.

I'd agree with that completely. If the graphic presentation of the facts enhances the understanding of the story, and the story itself is one of great importance to the people, our social structure, and civilization, then it should be shown, no question. I think that when you get into the prurient, as in the haphazard violence on the highway or some domestic shooting episodes, things of that kind, then you've gone too far.

It seems that the pictures of the market massacre in Sarajevo helped provoke a NATO response. Yet some critics warn that there are pitfalls inherent in that response. Can images on TV exert undue influence on policy?

I think if it were a false image, if it were a singular event that was played up in order to tilt the balance of public opinion, that would apply. But if it's an event of a greater proportion than the norm, and the norm is itself violent and horrible, then it doesn't seem to me there's anything wrong with that, that is part of telling the story. One of the problems is that our attention span is so short these days and we're provided with so much material that we lose touch, and it takes some spectacular episode to bring our attention back to the central theme.

Do you feel that your popularity as a newscaster had any negative effects?

The Roper poll said I was one of the most trusted Americans. People used to ask ``well, what do you do when you're the most trusted?'' Well, you don't do anything you didn't do before. As a journalist, that's what you're trying to do, you can't augment that performance.

All journalists are trying, I think, to tell the truth, to be as objective as they possibly can and adhere to the facts as closely as they can. Once you do that, you can't improve that performance.

What do you think about the personality aspect of TV news?

It's unavoidable. It would be nice if it weren't there, it would be much better to have anonymous people ... somehow gathering and presenting the news. It gets in the way, to a degree, but it's absolutely, completely, and totally unavoidable.

If you're going to have someone on the air five nights a week, their personality is going to be a factor in their popularity, and popularity is part of the game of ratings. It's an inextricable mess.

If a person asked you where they should go to be well-informed, what would you say?

I think it's clear today that anybody who wants to be well-informed has got to be multimedia; you can't ignore any part of the media. You've got to watch television, clearly, you can't ignore it.

As for the daily newspaper, I'd like to think that people choose papers of a serious vein if [they're] lucky enough to have access to one of the major ones.

A lot of local newspapers today are pretty sketchy in the amount of material they provide. They're trying to come into television's backyard by trying to meet the public's short attention span with these one-line headline items, and today's news all in one little box, so you need something more than that for your background information. You're not going to get lot of background from television, but unfortunately a lot of newspapers today don't give you a lot of background either, so it's necessary to go to good opinion journals and to books.

There is so much information coming at us these days. Have we been saturated?

I think there's a superficiality in both the media and the public. They're feeding each other's touch-and-go outlook on the world. There's a lot of information but not a lot of understanding. We're almost being over-communicated at, not com- municated with.

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