Its no use trying to separate Cronkite’s history from America’s history, him being right there with so many of us during the moments we’ve marked our lives by. The glowing eulogies are deserved and they are far more equipped than I to capture the measure of the man. In their remembrances there’s a melancholy that says we think Cronkite’s brand of journalism has forever died with him. Surely, he will not be at peace with that epitaph.
It is odd that Cronkite is still unmatched in our esteem, because since his heyday, we’ve experienced technology’s jaw-dropping explosion that beams images across the globe near instantaneously – surely a leg up for today’s press corps to achieve. We now have 24-hour cable news, which (if nothing else) provides journalists with many, many hours of practicing their trade. Yet in our estimation this man working with near stone-age tools, relatively speaking, beats our current crop of journalists hands-down.
Suppose that says far more about us than it does about Cronkite or journalists? More specifically, maybe it speaks to who we were as a society when we tuned into Walter Cronkite. And boy do we ever miss the old us.
Cronkite’s America found us sitting around one television set, watching one of two newscasts, distinguished from each other more by personal preference than by ideology. Things didn’t change as fast in the days we spent our evenings with Cronkite, so I suppose there really wasn’t as much to disagree about. But back then we still made lots of room in our lives for people who differed from us politically because they were our neighbors, they were in our bowling league or in our garden club. Heck, we even married them.
Today the bowling league is gone and we’ve got little tolerance for just how wrong we think other people are. Our every information wish is our command as we flit around the dial finding our tribe, and then settle into our favorite armchairs with our favorite beverage to sing an alleluia chorus, free from pesky facts that might soften our views. We have so much comfort in our lives; the discomfort inherent in the disagreement of good citizenship that keeps democracy’s marketplace of ideas alive is just so been-there-done-that. It is just so Walter Cronkite.
There’s always been fighting in democracy. But now when we do it, we fight as if we’ll never need each other.
Even as we step inevitably into smaller and smaller hermetically sealed echo chambers of complete agreement, at some intuitive level we know it was our better selves who showed up to sit down in the living room to watch Cronkite together.
Bill Bishop writes about this phenomenon in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” documenting demographic trends that have found us increasingly segregated by ideology since the mid-sixties. “As the nation grows more politically segregated,” writes Bishop, “the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.”
And we are nothing if not self-righteous. A hundred years of social science research confirms that like-minded groups grow more extreme in the direction of the majority.
Witness where we are.
If we’re honest enough with ourselves to realize the mucky stall we’ve found ourselves in, the remedy is oddly simple, requiring only the mildest of human effort to reach out and remember how much we still have in common. While we’re at it, America is plunk in the middle of a world that really needs us to lead in the kind of civil citizenship that is wonderfully and uniquely in our very DNA as a country. One wonders what can be achieved without a single shot fired if we only steadfastly live up to our very own ideals, the kind of ideals that by their nature quietly shine a light into the darkest corners of the globe saying, “this is democracy, this is what free people can do together.”
We will miss Walter Cronkite badly. Maybe the most fitting eulogy to Cronkite might be to simply remember who it is we were when we were last with him.