Saturday, July 18, 2009

And That's the Way It Wasn't

This seems to be a season for eminentoes of every stripe to leave this mortal coil, from the King of Pop to the “genius” behind the war in Vietnam... and now Uncle Walter. So we are now to be treated to still another orgy of nostalgia and testimonial, following hot on the heels of Michael Jackson... and the word you will hear more than all the others combined is “trust”. The difference between Uncle Walter and the other news sources of his time – or so it is alleged – is that, while they only existed to provide information about current events, Uncle Walter's role was to reassure... and empathize... and give everyone a hug, while nonetheless remaining absolutely faithful to his mission as an objective, non-biased deliverer of “news”. He was, in other words, and for his time, to the news business what Sonia Sotomajor is trying to become for the justice business – all things to all people. But beyond that, he represented a new thing in broadcast journalism – a kind of extended family member, who you don't trust because he's an authority but because he's “family”. He was the kindly uncle who sits you down on his knee and says, “Of _course_ there's a Santa Claus – don't listen to all those horrible people.” The message was – all too common in our Era of Empathy, but rare in the 1950s -- “You mean something to me – I value you – I have your best interests at heart.” And this – lest we forget – was in marked contrast to the modal broadcast journalist. In radio, the mode was the fast-talking, staccato, high-pitched voice with the hysterical edge. “This just in”, etc., with the Teletype machine clattering in the background. In television, it was the somber, sober “talking head” with the authoritative delivery that would have done justice to Big Brother. It was the Era of Big Voices – the likes of John Cameron Swayze... or of the more naturalistic, doom-and-gloom, chain-smoking Edward R. Murrow. Uncle Walter was more than all that – or less, depending on one's point of view. And in that sense, he was unique. His place at CBS was taken by Dan Rather, who has turned out to be, basically, a paranoid nut case. But most of the “anchors” of our time are even less spectacular than the fatally-flawed Rather – they are, basically, “suits”, “faces”, and pretty boys, with about as much grasp of the full significance of current affairs as a goldfish. As least Walter _acted_ as if he knew something, and was not just reading lines fed to him by smarter, but not “TV-enabled” assistants.

But there is a dark side to all of this. The era of “heroic journalism” -- when journalists were marked by skepticism, a sense of irony, and a sense of the absurd – died at some point between World War I and World War II, probably as a result of the triumph of the New Deal, which co-opted the vast bulk of journalists, who were, as a group, markedly liberal, “progressive”, and – in some cases – populist in their thinking. Once the people who were on “their side” took control of the country, they didn't have a whole more to say other than “Amen!” (Compare to the obsequious state of the MSM since Obama's inauguration, e.g.) This was, in other words, the point at which “the press” -- which includes radio and TV, and the Internet as well – became, firmly, the voice of the Regime – and the point at which any sort of true skepticism, or opposition, or contrarian thought, was declared to be beyond the pale.

Go back to a newspaper from the 1800s some time – even a small-town rag. Note the lively commentary, the sense of humor, the “in your face” attitude toward those in authority. That was back when journalism was a trade practiced by – by and large – free thinkers, skeptics, and troublemakers. Contrast this with the gradual selling out of the press, of which the Spanish-American War is such a good example, but which was virtually complete by the time of World War I. The marriage was consummated by the New Deal, and it has remained strong ever since, even with minor squabbles like the war in Vietnam and the Nixon administration. The last time the press even came close to causing a major ruckus was during the “McCarthy Era”, and that was only because most of them were, at that time, taking direct orders from their masters in the Soviet Union. (They weren't all that happy when the Rosenbergs got fried either, for that matter.) But this is not to say that all was sweetness and light.... and that's when Uncle Walter comes back into the picture. The war in Vietnam had been churning on for years, with scant opposition from the press, when – miracle of miracles! -- no less a personage than Uncle Walter turned against it. Which is to say, he expressed a personal opinion – in public! -- which stood in opposition to the party line. That, more than anything else, was the point at which the war was lost – the “beginning of the end”, if you will. (I knew a guy who said it was “that bell” that did it – i.e., a bell set up by some organization that was rung every time another American soldier was killed in Vietnam. I'm sure the bell helped, but it was Uncle Walter's apostasy that really turned the tide.) So in that sense, he deserved a “profile in courage” -- and I guess he got it, although I'm sure many in the MSM felt a bit whiplashed, since the war in Vietnam was, after all, a “liberal war” (lest we forget!), and it would never do to oppose a war started, and perpetuated, by our “friends” in Washington.

And in all of this, another question arises, which is this: Was Uncle Walter the last of the truly free journalists, or was he just another tool of the Regime? In other words, did he really believe in what he was doing, and saying, or was he just another mouthpiece (albeit, the best one around)? The fact that he turned against the war in Vietnam is a significant data point – but it could be argued that, at that point, the Regime had gotten what it wanted out of that war, and it was time to ramp it down, so Uncle Walter was send out as the point man to be the first “establishment” type to declare it a lost cause. But even then, the timing was interesting, since the 1968 campaign was on, and the Republicans were in a good position to take over. So by declaring the war “unwinnable”, Cronkite was helping to set up Richard Nixon for a fall.

But on a deeper level than that of current (or historical) events, what is the function of the press in our time? It is – as I've explained in previous posts – to maintain the optimum level of fear and anxiety in the populace, coupled with reassurance that if they just behave themselves, and believe in the government, everything will be OK. In other words, the MSM are in the manipulation business – not only of information, and of public opinion, but of actual emotions – people's feelings about the country and about themselves. So in that sense, Cronkite can be seen as a pioneer of sorts – he was the first major player in the “feelings game” that is, in our time, played by the media and by the Regime to such an intense degree that we can't imagine things ever having been any other way. Another way of putting it is that he represented the beginning of the de-objectification of the news, and the media... not that blatant media bias had not been seen in abundance up to that time, but now there was a united front – three networks (Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and Tweedledumber) that everyone watched, and everyone trusted, and no one dared dissent from. In the pre-Internet era, it was as if Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report were TV networks – all delivering, basically, the identical spins on the identical stories. But only one network – CBS – had Uncle Walter, which made it the network of choice for the frightened, the insecure... the people who just wanted a hug, even if it had to come out of a video screen.

So was he a “knowing” manipulator? Or did he really believe what he said, and say what he believed? And ultimately, does it even matter, since he was, in any case, a vital part of that solid wall that the media of our time have come to represent – a wall of noise and hysteria when it comes to the things that we're supposed to fear, and a wall of silence when it comes to the things we're not supposed to think about, or question? Perhaps it was his sheer talent to create trust that inspired the operatives of the Regime to make the media a core part of their operation. Or, perhaps it was the American public's willingness – desperation, even! -- to trust, to have someone or something to trust, that encouraged the Regime to turn up the brainwashing dial a few more notches. The question is, was Uncle Walter a part of a smooth continuum on the way to tyranny, or an anomaly? If I were a cynic, I would say that he was, in a sense, a “useful idiot” -- he broadcast the party line, perhaps inadvertently, for many years, and then when the party line changed, he broadcast that – fully believing that he was the one who had changed. Would what has happened since have happened in any case? Yes – but it would have been carried out in a more rough-hewn, obviously crude manner, by less-competent people. As it was, Uncle Walter was the ultimate Kool-Aid salesman... the pusher of the Opiate of the People, modern America-style. The fact that he eventually saw, and publicly identified, a major flaw in the system is to his credit. The fact that he didn't see any other flaws – or, if he did, he never publicly identified them – is to his discredit. And the fact that he aided and abetted the process of turning America – at least the segment that watches “the evening news” -- into brainwashed serfs is most assuredly to his discredit. In this sense, he helped pave the way for even greater abuses, culminating in the twin wars and economic crisis we have today, which a truly informed populace, with a healthy sense of skepticism, might have done something to avoid – but, thanks to Uncle Walter, all was seen as right with the world... this became our faith, and nothing in the way of actual facts would be allowed to disturb it.

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