Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Latter-Day Cronkite

As everyone probably already knows, television news icon Walter Cronkite died recently. He'd already been out of the public eye for quite some time, but death always adds the ultimate finality to someone's departure from events. So even though it's been a subject of comment from time to time for quite a while now, Cronkite's death really brought home to a lot of people the thought that there's nobody in news today who is as trusted (and as trustworthy) as Walter Cronkite. To a lot of people, his death brought an end even more final than his retirement to the idea that there's a person out there who can be trusted to tell the truth and not just his version of events.

But I was thinking about it (because, as I say, I heard it a lot for about a week or so...) And I'm just not sure it's true. I think there is someone out there who I trust implicitly to tell the truth to power, to give the facts free of bias and show the world as it really is, even when that truth makes us uncomfortable about ourselves. Someone who is, in short, the successor to Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America.

Jon Stewart.

I'm fully aware that it's a sad commentary on the state of modern journalism that the most trusted journalist in the field is a self-professed comedian who continually insists that he's not running a news show, but it's true. "The Daily Show" relies, for its comedy, on having an audience who knows what the real facts are so that they can laugh at the jokes about those real facts. Over the years, Stewart has gradually come to understand that if "The Daily Show" doesn't tell its viewers those facts, a lot of the time, nobody else will. This, in turn, has given him a strong sense of outrage at the sheer amount of misinformation, spin, and bias in modern news...and that honesty and outrage combine to be exactly what journalism needs right now. Someone who will act as their mirror and say, "No, this is the truth. What you're saying, right now? That's so wrong it's actually funny."

I think the turning point was his appearance on "Crossfire". That, I think, was when he came into his own as someone who was willing to turn to the self-inflated "experts" who were really just a couple of blowhards and say, "Does this even mean anything to you anymore? Is this just some sort of abstract game, Right vs. Left, that's kind of fun to bicker over? Do you even remember that real people have to live, suffer and sometimes die with the consequences of these decisions?" He literally shamed that show off the air. I think that was when he realized that while he was still a comedian, he had a higher calling than just telling jokes. The best comedians change us, and I think that was when he realized he could do that.

I think there are still things he can improve on. I think his interviews still tend to be a bit too deferential at times (although when he does go for the jugular, he can be absolutely mesmerizing.) But he is someone that I do trust, implicitly, not to bullshit me, even when he's saying things that are obviously jokes. He's someone I trust to tell the truth. That's what Cronkite was always known for.


Unknown said...

I couldn't agree more. It's sad, but over the years, I've come to trust the Daily Show as my best source for real news - it may be presented humorously, but at least when they're not telling the truth, it's in the form of an obvious gag. Sadly, some of the most honest things on the show make even better gags. No writer could come up with a more outrageous and hilarious thing than the "reality" American politicians seem to create for themselves.

Anonymous said...

John Stewart is the ONLY United States news source I trust any more.

Even NPR has been taken over by the politicos.

For any real news I can't get from John, I turn to the BBC. While they may lie about what's going on in Britain, they tend to be honest about what's going on in the U.S. (less censorship, I assume).