By Marian Salzman, Sunday, September 20, 2009, at 2:46 pm.
Back in August, it seemed the only thing hotter than New York City was the news. All summer, hard news and pop culture blurred—what was a hotter global story lately than the death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop? Our culture has even turned journalists into pop personalities, speculating on their love lives and political leanings, questioning their fashion choices, even flagrantly invading their privacy (think of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, poor girl).
And that’s the old-school news anchors and reporters, folks who for the most part are just trying to go about their jobs as they were taught in J-school or while working their way up the ranks. Celebrity bloggers, on the other hand, may lack the journalistic process and ethical guidelines of traditional media, but readers don’t seem to mind. Perez Hilton may be imperfect, but people forgive him for it daily, lapping up his celebrity access and catty humor. His numbers can’t be denied. And don’t forget that it was gossip website TMZ that broke the news of Jackson’s death.
Yes, times have changed. News is the new shopping—we crave it and consume it and share it like candy. We read it all day long, wherever we are. We no longer need a familiar face on our TV at 6 p.m., telling us the day’s news. We got the story hours ago, via mobile news feed over lunch, or between meetings, or on Twitter while sitting in traffic (a no-no!). If we waited until 6 p.m., we’d be riddled with impatience and unable to focus…right?
As we mourn the loss of Walter Cronkite, we recognize the monumental impact the Father of TV News made on today’s media. While we feel lucky to have incredible access to people and news across the globe at any moment, we miss the faith we were able to put in stories we heard. Unlike in the days of Cronkite, we can no longer just assume that what we read is the truth.
His memorial service on September 9 demonstrated the profound impact he had on American—not just pop—culture. Tom Brokaw remembered Cronkite as the “godfather” of television news, “a seminal force in the transformation of this country.” Bill Clinton recalled that after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, his family “lived with Walter Cronkite.” And President Obama praised “his dogged pursuit of truth” and “his passionate defense of objective reporting.” Can you imagine hearing those words at Perez Hilton’s memorial service?
And yet, the American media—in all its fragmented, unorthodox glory—rose to the occasion to cover the last major news story of summer 2009. Just as I was worrying about the increasingly overheated tone of “news,” and wondering if the explosion of celebrity-stalker blogs and tabloid websites meant we were dumbing down our culture to an extent that no one cares about hard news anymore, a milestone event took place. I’m talking about the death of Senator Edward Kennedy on August 25.
We may have first heard the news online or on Twitter, but in most cases, we heard it told with seriousness. Instead of hotheaded gossip, the media delivered dignified accounts of the man, his career and his struggle with a brain tumor, and treated his widow, Vicki Kennedy, with respect. Americans paid attention. The story landed, and stayed, on the front page of major newspapers. Millions watched the funeral on television, and you can still watch parts of it on YouTube. (Nearly 200,000 people have watched President Obama’s eulogy on the site.)
I’m still not sure a thorough investigation or a political think piece can find an audience in this market—or if one can even be written or produced if our news organizations continue to fail. But as the heat of summer is giving way to the cooler days of fall, I’ve been pleased to see the news moving back from the boiling point.