When Walter Cronkite died sixteen months ago, he was rightly lionized for the quality of his work, and the impact he effected on television news. He was praised for his utter objectivity and impartiality, and implicitly – and in some cases explicitly – there was wailing that this objectivity had died with him.
Yet invariably the same few clips were shown with each obituary: There was the night Cronkite devoted fourteen minutes of the thirty-minute long CBS Evening News to a report on Watergate which devastated the Nixon Administration, one so strong that the Administration pressured CBS just to shorten the next night’s follow-up to eight minutes. There was the extraordinary broadcast on Vietnam from four-and-a-half years earlier in which he insisted that nothing better than stalemate was possible and that America should negotiate its way out, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” All that newscast did was convince the 36th President of the United States to not seek reelection. The deserved and heartfelt sadness at the loss of a great journalist and a great man had been turned into a metaphor for the loss of a style of utterly uninvolved, neutral “objective” reporting. Yet most of the highlights of the man’s career had been of those moments when he correctly and fearlessly threw off those shackles and said what was true, and not merely what was factual.
It has been the same with every invocation of Edward R. Murrow:Murrow would never have stood for the editorializing of today in his newscasts! The Murrow radio reports from London rooftops during the Blitz of 1940 are replayed – and forever should be – and their creator is offered as a paragon of “straight” reporting. Yet it is never mentioned, that as they happened, CBS was pressured to stop those searing explosions of truth, because our political leaders believed they would unfairly influence Americans to side with the British when the nation was still officially neutral and the Republican Party was still completely convinced that there was a deal to make with the Nazis. President Roosevelt did not invite Murrow to the White House to congratulate him on his London reports because they were “fair and balanced.”
And I love me some old-school Ted Koppel but Keith’s right in that part of what made the early Nightline stuff so great was its pushing of stories others didn’t want pushed. In our neverending quest for objectivity we have confused passion for bias, and we’ve made upsetting people the worst journalistic crime of all. And then we’ve gone and defined upsetting people as getting them tocare.
We’ve created a generation of journalists (and are in the process of creating another one which, don’t get me started) who think that somebody screaming at you on the phone is cause foractual apology. Worse yet, is cause forthinking twice before making them scream again, and damn right or wrong, damn necessary or not, let’s avoid pissing people off at all costs.
I tell people all the time — I gave a talk to some school kids the other day, for which I apologize to their parents if they learned some new words and about that morgue story if it gave them nightmares — that reporting is a very simple job. What do you see around you? Tell everybody. And yes, how you tell it matters, but the most fundamental acts of journalism of our time — Murrow on the London rooftops, CNN in Baghdad in the first Gulf War, Watergate, Anthony Shadid’s reporting from Iraq, even America Held Hostage — have come from people simply saying, however they could, what they saw, and damn the consequences.
The idea that Murrow and Cronkite were immune to political pressure now faced by journalists is ahistorical and insane. They were pressured plenty, THEY JUST DIDN’T STOP in these instances. They just didn’t knuckle under. It was that easy and that hard, they just said screw you, and went about their days as human beings doing a job.
And I guess we have to pretend that isn’t what it was so that we don’t have to do it and can let ourselves off the hook. So that we can continue to talk about how people don’t want “real” news anymore, about how Fox News has ruined everything, about how the Internet has killed all desire for decency and honor, about how opinions are so much easier blah blah blah fucking BLAH go back to bed don’t work too hard. I mean, Jesus, do we even listen to ourselves anymore? Just do the story you know in your gut is the right one to do. Damn the consequences. DAMN the consequences.
And when somebody’s on the phone screaming at you that your facts have a liberal bias (or a conservative one for that matter) or that you’re on the payroll of somebody or that it’s all a waste of time or that you should be doing more Black Friday coverage or whatever, listen politely, hang up and get the hell back to work. Don’t back down. Don’t back off. Don’t back up.
Not. One. Inch.