During a public memorial event in tribute to the life and career of the late CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who passed away in July, President Obama spoke in an almost candid fashion about the evolution of news media in the age of the Internet. Specifically, he wondered aloud — and with surprisingly stark honesty that might have even raised Cronkite’s celebrated bushy eyebrows — about whether the legendary news anchor would be able to perform the same job, in the same manner — managing editor of a globally respected news service — with the challenges posed by the nature of today’s media.
“He was excited about all the stories that a high-tech world of journalism would be able to tell,” the President said, “and all the newly emerging means with which to tell it. Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that City Hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites, to shine the bright light on substance? Could he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?
“Somehow we know that the answer is yes,” Mr. Obama continued. “The simple values Walter Cronkite set out in pursuit of — to seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world the best he could — they are as vital today as they ever were.”
The President’s not-so-rhetorical questions followed an historical anecdote about the man Mr. Obama admitted to never having gotten to know personally. In that anecdote, upon his return from a wartime stint for the UP, Cronkite briefly held a job at a radio news department in Kansas City. As the story goes, he held up a report about a fire at City Hall, which failed to go out on the air on time. The holdup was during the fact-checking process, during which he learned that the fire was in a waste paper basket and that there were no injuries. Having lost an opportunity to do a story about a “raging blaze,” fact or fiction, Cronkite’s program manager fired him on the spot. For which he and the rest of us are forever grateful.
In a comment earlier in his speech that had less to do with Cronkite specifically, and that was clearly directed toward the many journalists in the crowd, the President compared the Cronkite standard of journalism to that practiced in the nation’s newsrooms today — “a standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility to which so many of you have committed your careers,” he said. “It’s a standard that’s a little bit harder to find today. We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line.”