Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Have I told you about the time I made a bit of a fool of myself on a Walter Cronkite news broadcast? Recalling the incident, after all the deserving praise for Mr. Cronkite, affords me an opportunity to vent on the state of television news since he and his contemporaries left the news broadcast business.
On August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon left office to escape an impeachment trial, Mr. Cronkite expanded his evening news telecast to stay on the air far into the night, to report on and explore the meaning of this wild, unprecedented day. And I was one of his guests.
My colleague, Bill Vance, and I had been covering the investigation and hearings that led to an impeachment resolution passed by the House Judiciary Committee. I covered that by day for the then Knight Newspapers. But on weekends, I traveled with then vice president Gerald Ford, who I knew well because I covered him for one of the Knight Newspapers, the
I had become convinced from my reporting that Nixon was on his way out as president and Ford would replace him. Few of the New York literati believed it would happen. But Lewis Lapham at Harper’s agreed to let me write a profile of Ford. It became a cover piece that hit the newsstands when Nixon quit, just as the nation, and Mr. Cronkite, wanted to know who the new president was.
I was invited on his broadcast that night to report what I knew about the new president, Jerry Ford. I was invited only because luck and my news sense enabled me to become one of the few reporters who knew about Ford. Good journalism is often a matter of good timing.
My family, who watched from home, told me later that I did a good job with my 15 minutes of fame but for one slip. During our conversation, Mr. Cronkite called me “Mr. Friedman.” Without thinking, I called him “Walter.” That was because everyone called him “Walter,” but even now it seems disrespectful because he was not merely avuncular, but oracular. He was the bringer of the world they way it was, as he said. And I felt honored to be recognized by him.
Here’s the point: I was invited on his broadcast not as some cockamamie “analyst,” but as a reporter who knew his subject and had the credentials to report on that subject. I told him and the nation what I had learned during eight years of covering Ford. And during that historic day (and others before and since) Mr. Cronkite and his contemporaries were credible because they were first of all reporters who knew what the heck they were talking about. And it came across.
That’s what made him and them (Roger Mudd, Eric Sevareid, Daniel Schorr, among others) the best in the news business, television and otherwise. I grew up with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, on NBC, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith, on ABC, all of whom were former reporters. And that background in honest-to-God basic reporting, I believe, is what is lacking now.
Let me interject: I have been a reporter for most of my career; I used to say that a journalist is a reporter who owns his/her own typewriter. Journalist is the generic; he or she could be an essayist (Didion), a philosopher (Camus) or crusader (Upton Sinclair; Ida Tarbell). A reporter more specifically, investigates, examines, analyzes and conveys the facts and truth of the matter as honestly, accurately and fairly as possibly.
I once worked with Dan Rather when he was reporting on drive-time radio from the city room of my paper, The Houston Chronicle, which owned the station. He asked us to type so that listeners would hear that in the background. He won his initial television fame covering and reporting on a hurricane and like Mr. Cronkite and the others I mentioned, Rather wrote his own stuff.
Rather’s contemporaries, like Peter Jennings, was a former reporter. Barbara Walters, became a good reporter as I discovered when we reported on Jimmy Carter’s transition to the presidency. There is no shortage of fine reporters who have done great work on television: Lesley Stahl, Morley Safer, the late Ed Bradley, Harry Reasoner and Andy Rooney, among those who have made 60 Minutes work since 1979, were reporters all.
Now, one of Rather’s successors, Katie Couric, who always wanted to be a serious reporter, is improving all the time as she demonstrated when she eviscerated Sarah Palin. Tom Brokaw did reporting before he became a thoughtful anchor and Brian Williams can do just fine, despite his good looks, if he’ll just sit still.
They do best, not by walking around glitzy sets with multimedia graphics and screens split ten times over with crawls and sub-crawls. What’s wrong with a knowledgeable person sitting at a desk explaining what he/she believes we ought to know? Why do I have to enter the gimmick called, The Situation Room?
Anderson Cooper, who demonstrated his reporter’s instincts during Katrina, comes closest to the model I prefer, although why does cable go on ad nauseam with the most insignificant trivia? Is Michael Jackson still dead? Why does one program call on participants to take off their ties? Why do so many cable anchors have such perfect hair?
Call me a chauvinist, but I don’t think anyone with life experience takes seriously some of the cute blondes who were born the day before yesterday and are reading from a teleprompter what someone else has written.
This shikse-syndrome, has kept ace reporters such as Andrea Mitchell from an anchor desk along with Candy Crowley who I knew first as a fine, aggressive radio reporter for the AP. Candy has been one of the best political reporters on CNN. Margaret Warner, who worked for years reporting foreign affairs for a news magazine, and Judy Woodruff, who covered the White House during my time there, are outstanding on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They have in common their reporting experience.
Finally, I admire (and know) David Gergen, who speaks rationally, quietly and with authority and knowledge from varied White House experiences and has become one of the best and less predictable analysts on CNN.
But why do we have a parade of “analysts,” some of whom are surreptitiously paid and many of whom are predictably grinding their own axe? I fault more liberal types like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow for bringing guest analysts most of whom serve as agreeing echo chambers. Even worse and unforgivable are programs that gives a platform for the insane antisemitic, anti-black rants of a Nazi sympathizer like a Pat Buchanan (whom Ronald Reagan considered too far-out).
If newspapers survive (and I believe they will), it will be because thinking people can no longer stomach the likes of Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly or Karl Rove.
When Mr. Cronkite died, many who praised his singular work mourned that he was part of another era that can never be again. Why not? That’s like singing the praises of the reporter you’ve forced to retire and replace with one less qualified.
What may be refreshing is a return to Mr. Cronkite’s strength and style in someone with gravitas and life experience, giving us professional, careful, accurate reporting and even commenting on the news with the help of reporters on the ground who know what they’re talking about. He or she does not have to be handsome or beautiful or entertaining, just real. It could work.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmerman: The Kid