Saturday, July 18, 2009

The messenger is the medium

I learned about the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Walter Cronkite from the Internet.

But after reading in one website about the transitions, I automatically surfed the Net for other sites and related stories.

More than curiosity, a need to verify the information fuels my reading.

Despite the power and the glory, the influence they wield over the public and the private, the awards and the accolades, journalists err.

I have to thank growing up during the Martial Law years for this unforgettable insight of media.

But in between reading and then rejecting the crony papers, borrowing and passing around underground papers, Xerox journalism and the alternative press, I also had a class reading assignment on “broadcasting icons,” among them, Walter Cronkite.

This Walt Disney lookalike, a fixture in American households for covering milestones such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Neil Armstrong’s first steps in the moon for mankind, urged everyone who hung on to his words, who trusted him more than any politician, who felt that nothing would shake order and continuity for as long as he would wrap up each day’s happenings, the trivial and the disastrous, with his Zen-like wrap—“And that’s the way it is”— to take to heart the exact opposite message of his TV-conferred image: “'For God's sake don't! Be skeptical. Be careful.'"

Cronkite was quoted as saying this to a fan who exclaimed, after meeting him, that she believed everything he said.

His passing last Friday brings back the memory of that class assignment, specially because now, more than ever, news-mediated realities are our closest approximations of truth.

Technology improves by leaps and bounds. In contrast, public’s trust of media shrinks, sputters, inches forward.

This love-hate relationship must give hope to journalists and the public. For media workers, it’s a challenge to make each article, every newscast matter. For the audience, it’s a call to do more than read, listen and view.

Think, said Cronkite.

Cronkite didn’t reach his peak in this age, jaundiced against journalists, governments, priests, advertisers and all other gods of clay.

He enjoyed a 20-year honeymoon with an American public that was still virginal, starry-eyed and dependent on national TV in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Watching his archived broadcasts on YouTube, I got a glimpse of the iconic shadow cast by the man for whom pundits created the word “news anchor.” Ever the professional, he reported facts, not speculation, and told audiences where the information came from (when fellow CBS reporter Dan Rather filed that Kennedy was dead, Cronkite noted that there was still no official confirmation of the president’s condition).

But such was the man’s credibility and the TV medium’s power to amplify, Cronkite’s handling of his black-rimmed eyeglasses magnified the moments when the news stirred the person beneath that impartial anchor’s demeanor: after he read the flash report citing official confirmation of Kennedy’s death, Cronkite removed his reading glasses, looked down as if avoiding the camera’s intrusion and swallowed convulsively. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience not breaking down then.

Or when Apollo 11 successfully made its lunar landing, Cronkite chortled off-cam, “Man on the moon!” Seconds later, removing his black rims, he muttered “Boy!” and rubbed his hands, like a child just delighted by the magical and the unimaginable.

Yet, what makes Cronkite a giant in my view is that he didn’t believe in the hype his adoring public created around him. He went on field before reporting the news, parachuting in during D-Day and covering the bloody Tet offensive from the ground. Based on his wartime coverage, he spoke out against military solutions, in Vietnam and after 9/11 in particular.

During and after his TV career, he never ran for public office, never endorsed a politician nor any brand of dishwashing liquid.

Until he died at the age of 92, he believed that journalists should take the time to think before opening their mouths, and that the public should think and think again after consuming the news.

Salamat, Mr. Cronkite. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s July 19, 2009 edition of the “Matamata” column

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