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Cronkite and the voice of authority gone

Barely a generation has passed since Walter Cronkite disappeared from our evenings. But the notion of one man — a single, authoritative, empathetic man, morally reassuring and mild of temper — wrapping up the world after dinner now seems incalculably quaint.
/ Source: The Associated Press

"And that's the way it is," he'd say.

It wasn't, but we wanted that reassurance. The idea that someone could wrangle the world each night and boil it down to a sensible, digestible half hour was so comforting.

Barely a generation has passed since Walter Cronkite disappeared from our evenings. But the notion of one man — a single, authoritative, empathetic man, morally reassuring and mild of temper — wrapping up the world after dinner for America seems incalculably quaint in the technological coliseum that is 21st-century communications.

Many of the network farewells to the CBS anchorman, who died Friday at 92, seemed built around the notion of the father figure. Anchors and reporters who are part of another age — a still-unfolding era of community feedback, viewer outreach and social-media interaction — struggled to summon the idea of anchor as monolith.

"We'd all let him watch our kids when we went out to the supermarket if we had the chance," NBC anchorman Brian Williams said. Hard to imagine Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann, vigorous though they are, as national baby sitters.

"Uncle Walter," we called him. But on the Internet, there's not much use for uncles.

We are now confronted with a rushing, 24-hour river of information, much of it chaotic and raw, with no one to shepherd us through it.

Though network TV news remains popular, its demographic is older and it has struggled, losing about 1 million viewers a year in the years since Cronkite retired as anchor in 1981.

At the end of last year, according to Gallup, 31 percent of Americans considered the Internet to be a daily news source, a 50 percent gain since 2006. That's almost 100 million people actively reaching out to get their news rather than flipping on the TV and waiting for it to come to them.

At the same time, people now want a stake in their news and direct attention from the people who deliver it. They're demanding it, and they're getting it.

NBC's Williams, for example, does a daily blog. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez has built his midafternoon show around feedback from followers on Twitter and Facebook. News has become a two-way street, something to create community around.

That can be at once productive and perilous.

Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

Slideshow  12 photos

Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

The “most trusted man in America” made his mark on the news industry and the world.

It gives an exhilarating voice to the voiceless. Yet it also can encourage consensus reality. If enough of us say it loudly enough, it must be true. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cronkite was accepted as the everyday incarnation of empirical truth — "a voice of certainty in an uncertain world," as President Barack Obama put it Friday night.

Cronkite's legendary assessment of Vietnam's quagmire — the one that led Lyndon Johnson to lament, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America" — is often cast as a barometer of the anchor's power at the time. What shouldn't be ignored is that, even then, the waning of that kind of power had begun.

"Middle America" then generally meant white and over 30, the very people that the young, energetic game-changers of the late 1960s were insisting shouldn't be trusted. Power to the people was upending the national hierarchy, and the Age of Many Voices was approaching.

Four decades later, cacophony reigns. What room is there for the conscience of a nation, for history's anchorman, for the father we all wanted?

In 2009, even trust, at least in the public realm, seems an uneasy notion. It's something we continue to desire, But in an age of wholesale, instantaneous, unprecedented lying, trust is something that may not be that wise when it comes to evaluating our sources of information.

That's what has changed since Cronkite's heyday.

Today's model works more like this: Everyone vies to get his personalized, customized, agenda-driven version of "that's the way it is" enshrined in the cultural canon. We shout, cajole, maneuver, horse-trade. We demonize the opposition. We brand ideas as products and send them on their way, ready to do battle in the marketplace.

Our anchors follow suit, riding the rising crest of expectation and anticipation and, sometimes, misusing it. "It's not the old voice of reassuring honesty that they cultivate, but one of perpetual anxiety," Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd wrote in his Cronkite eulogy.

The coliseum is always open for business. If you've got a TV or a laptop, you're plugged in to the whole planet and can have your say. No one person can speak for us all — we don't even pretend that's the case anymore — and those who tried would be put in their places as fast as you can say Edward R. Murrow.

That can be a glorious expression of democracy, or it can lead, as it did Saturday morning, to the most e-mailed story on Yahoo! News being the one about the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile crashing into a house in Wisconsin. Democracy has a way of being quite democratic.

Nightly American comfort, Cronkite style, is a thing of the past, if it ever really existed at all. Perhaps, in the Age of Many Voices, comfort and reassurance is not meant to be our lot. Maybe that's just the way it is.