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That's The Way It Is

Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott

    I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks time because of poor ratings.  Since this show is the only thing I had going for me in my life, I've decided to kill myself.  I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today. So, tune in next Tuesday.  That should give the public relations people a week to promote the show.  You ought to get a hell of a rating out of that.  Fifty share, easy.  (Howard Beale – Network)

Amid the cacophony of fake news, loudmouth pundits, so called "news" sites that lean left or lean right, I heard a voice of clarity. That soothing, calm, steady voice had been stuck inside my head for many years.  It was the voice of Walter Cronkite who signed off for the last time as anchorman for the CBS Evening News 40 years ago in his own inimitable way with the signature catch phrase "that's the way it is".

It was a different time during the era of Cronkite. There wasn't the fractured, discombobulated, disorienting and often dizzying need to publish and broadcast stories that weren't responsibly sourced, vetted, and verified.  Facts mattered, responsible journalism mattered, getting the story right mattered.  Now, there's a race to see who can be the first to "break" a story with the truth often a casualty. But it's not a race to the top but rather a race to the bottom. I grew up with Cronkite during an age when CBS News dominated the airwaves. There were the equally serious dedicated newsmen Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC. ABC was less settled at the anchor position utilizing Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Frank Reynolds, and Max Robinson just to name a few. But at the time, where we lived in central Texas the local CBS affiliate had the strongest signal, so it fell to Uncle Walter to tell it like it was. He commanded an audience of 29 million viewers at a time when the U.S. population was 200 million. To put things in perspective, that's more than the current viewers of the three major networks combined. During his tenure at CBS, Cronkite was often cited as the most trusted man in America.

There is hazard in looking back through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.  After all nostalgia was once considered a disease.  Newsrooms back then were male dominated and not as racially diverse as they are today. Personal indiscretions by those in power were often ignored or overlooked.  And while CBS may have dominated, the other two networks seldom deviated from Cronkite's nightly narrative.  And then…the catalyst that changed network news forever – the 1976 film Network. Little did we know that Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's clever satire of network newswould eventually become reality.  Howard Beale (Peter Finch) would become the anti-Cronkite.  Instead of accepting the day's events as they were, Beale to save his job with a ratings ploy exhorted his audience to say, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore".  And it wasn't long before real life anger persuaded others like Ted Turner, and Rupert Murdock to form their own networks – to get out their version of the news.  Cable news proliferated – more options, more opinions for the mad as hell crowd.  Your selection of a new source wasn't based on unbiased reporting, but your political leanings.  Advocacy for policy positions or protest was often incorporated into news stories.

Cronkite only once offered an opinion during a newscast.  In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War when the battle tested WWII reporter announced that the war had become a stalemate and no amount of troop increases or escalation would result in American and South Vietnamese victory.  Because Cronkite was that trusted, President Johnson was purported to say that "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America". 

So why did Cronkite retire?  Well, he had to, due to the mandatory age 65 retirement policy they had back then.  But one suspects the network was looking toward the future when they tapped Dan Rather as his replacement.  Rather would go on to serve as CBS Evening News anchorman for 24 years until sloppy journalism during the 2004 presidential campaign led to his departure.

And while Howard Beale prescribed anger as the antidote to all that was ill with the country, he admitted that "we'll figure it out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis".  But it was never the job of a network anchorman or woman to figure "it out".  Just unbiased dissemination of the facts would do.  Beale would become so cynical, he summed up Chayefsky's belief that television is not truth but an amusement park.

And now the internet has further chipped away and eroded network news division dominance.  Anyone can become an instant journalist these days.  Write a blog, take a photo, or post a video to any number of social media platforms. Or in the case of the Drudge Report, frame your narrative by posting headlines.   We'll figure out the context without any filters.  But the problem is that when everyone's a journalist, no one's a journalist. Credentials?  No one needs a stinking badge these days.  That's the way it is.  Chayefsky and Lumet created a prophet in Howard Beale.

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Les Marcott | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.  For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2021 Les Marcott
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

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April 2021

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