I loved watching Rachel Maddow helming MSNBC's coverage of Walter Cronkite's death Friday night. She was there with Dan Rather, and we could see how far we've all come – Maddow a trusted voice for truth, and Rather the same, though battered by an unfair right-wing scandal that ended his CBS career. But there they were, telling the truth. And yes, we could see how far we have and haven't progressed.
How funny that Rather called Cronkite "Uncle Walter" when Maddow and others – including me – at MSNBC call the racially befuddled Pat Buchanan "Uncle Pat." Man, we need a new term of endearment or diminishment, whatever it may turn out to be. "Uncle Walter" was someone you could rely on; "Uncle Pat" is someone you cut some slack because he's been left behind by history. They are different things.
But I digress, uneasily, because it's incredibly hard to switch from now, with all its craziness, to then, Cronkite's "then," with all its legendary certainty. Still, all I can say with certainty, as someone who was mostly just a child in Cronkite's heyday, is that he led us through changes as bewildering as the ones we're trying to pace ourselves through now. So I believe we shall overcome, but certainly not with the sort of news leadership we had then.
My family, for what it's worth, was a Huntley-Brinkley family. I'm politically smart, but even after Googling I can't tell you what that meant, politically or economically, about our news-consuming household. I do know that we knew, even back then, that Cronkite's sadness at JFK's assassination was era-defining, his souring on Vietnam even more so. (Though we didn't know then that LBJ said, "If I've lost Walter Cronkite I've lost middle America.") When Huntley-Brinkley went away, we all became Cronkite watchers in the 1970s, and his dignified, head-shaking Watergate coverage made us understand how awful that political set of crimes was -- and also that we would survive it.
I owe my own minor TV career to Walter Cronkite; when Dan Rather retired, after the faux-scandal about Bush's Texas Air National Guard Records, I was asked on several shows to talk about it -- and strangely, what everyone wanted to talk about was whether there would ever again be someone who equaled Cronkite: a journalist with the gravitas to be able to say "And that's the way it is."
I had to say no, while pointing out that media consumers now have Web sites and news organizations they have come to trust, maybe almost as much as Cronkite. But even now I wonder: If anyone had the courage, today, to match Cronkite's strength in bucking the government on Vietnam (on torture investigations, perhaps?) would s/he break through and become a nationally trusted figure?
I can't answer. That's probably sentimental and nostalgic; the fracture of our media world means there will probably never be anyone with Cronkite's authority. On some level I believe that. On another I wonder whether, should someone become known for telling the truth, in a world where that's rare, would they rise to where Cronkite did?
Frankly, I assume they wouldn't, but I would love to dream differently. I'd love to surface someone with a national news conscience and authority that could focus us on what matters. I'm not sure we completely had that back in Cronkite's day, but I am utterly certain we don't have it right now. What would it take to have the 2009 version of it? Leave your thoughts in letters!