There was a day when Walter Cronkite was the master journalist of all of American television news. We knew the serious side of him; the one that told us of John F. Kennedy’s semi-remarkable electoral victory in 1960, the one who carried us through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo journeys with a tinge of excitement, and the one who told us all it was okay to cry when John F. Kennedy was slain in Dallas.
We didn’t know much about Walter Cronkite beyond what we saw on television or previously heard as a World War II correspondent for CBS Radio. There were references to him having been born in Western Missouri, not far from another plain-spoken man, Harry Truman. We knew that as he rose to the position of managing editor and anchor of CBS News, he became wealthier and loved to sail off the coasts of Massachusetts.
Cronkite lived in an era when the media did not ask President Kennedy about his dalliances. The probing that the media did into other public figures was tame as was the inquiry that looked into the lives of journalists. But that changed. Political figures were disrobed, most poignantly on June 13, 2011 when CNN political correspondent John King came just short of asking Republican candidates in a debate whether they wore boxers or briefs.
Twenty-three years earlier, in 1988, many in the press stalked Democratic Candidate Gary Hart about his supposed relationship with Donna Rice. Some of the photos were quite revealing. But through it all, mainstream journalists worked to protect their own integrity. A reporter for NBC, CBS, ABC, or CNN did not want to be confused with one for the National Enquirer.
In 1980, CNN took on the arduous task of providing real news around the clock. This was a most difficult task; news did not seem to move fast enough to fill each hour in a 24-hour loop. However, CNN adapted and replayed many of their earlier stories throughout the day. They also broadened their scope beyond “hard news” to the three big money-makers: weather, sports, and entertainment.
As peripheral news crept more and more into what the network projected as “real news,” the network was able to maintain the credibility of some of their top anchors and reporters including Bernard Shaw, Don Harrison, Christiane Amanpour and Nick Robertson. As time went on, CNN indulged in the production decision that somewhat doomed NBC’s Brian Williams.They sent their anchors to the scenes of so-called “breaking news.” In some cases it worked well; Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta were outstanding reporting from Gulf Coast in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and later in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
But more recently CNN began to slide. Anchor/reporter Don Lemon was reporting from the streets of Manhattan on that January night in early 2015 when the Armageddon of all blizzards was to hit the east coast. If you were in Boston, indeed you got hit with such a storm. But in New York, the fury was mainly in the hype; not the snow and wind. All the same, Don Lemon and his crew were driving on the streets of Manhattan in their “Blizzardmobile” even though the city had banned all traffic that was not essential. Lemon wasn’t quite sure what to report; was it really a blizzard or was it a false alarm? He couldn’t make up his mind and neither could his producers. But the reporting reached a new form of absurdity when the Blizzardmobile stopped in the middle of the road; Lemon got out, all the while reporting live, thanks to the dash-cam and wireless mike, and tried to show us how the fallout on the street was good for making solid snowballs. Unfortunately for him, he could not find any good snow in the ice and water, and instead he tried to make a slushball, which simply dripped between his fingers.
If Don Lemon was chagrined, he did a good job of hiding it. However, it was clear that he had taken a hit, not from a snowball but in the form of lost respect from many in his viewing public. Lemon is game, and he has done an admirable job going back to news.
But then, CNN had a not so brilliant idea that truly sandbagged six of its anchors. On President’s Day, they wanted to have the anchors be contestants in a daytime-like game show, answering questions about U.S. presidents. Actually, the questions and answers were quite reasonable, but in order to entertain the audience, the anchors had to do just that, entertain.
Thus we saw John Burnham, Erin Burnett, Alisyn Camerota, Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon, and Jake Tapper acting t like hyperactive teenagers as they battled one another for points to give a pittance of money to their favorite charities. I don’t particularly blame the anchors for their behavior; they were put up to it by management. This event was an equal opportunity misfortune.The anchors lost credibility and so did the CNN brand.
Comedian Jon Stewart has led a host of progressives to make fun of CNN. For the most part, I think that it’s fair. But with Fox being a simple propaganda machine for the right. and MSNBC allowing it arrogance to distort any real message that it may be trying to convey, CNN has the mainstream to itself. Yes, it has the problems associated with corporate ownership and providing poll-driven news, but it still is in a position to do a real public service for citizens around the world.CNN seems to be weakening its brand at the moment. It’s not too late to come back from the movement towards absurdity, but CNN had better reverse its direction in a hurry.