Half Past the Month: Info by Persona

December 8, 2018

President Trump is expected to announce he will nominate State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, a Fox News presenter until two years ago, to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. — Associated Press, Dec. 7, 2018

WHAT FATE AWAITS a nation that grades its information on the physical appearance of the source rather than on experience, strength of character and intelligence? We’re going to find out because that’s where America is headed.

It began when Walter Cronkite retired as anchor of CBS News. He had kicked around as an undistinguished night editor for Associated Press until he found day work as a news presenter (we don’t call them journalists here) in a start-up industry called television.

Walter was a presentable presenter compared with the typical slobs in a newsroom. He was a definite improvement on NBC’s John Cameron Swayze, a balding old Kansan who had dreamed of a career under the Broadway lights but ended up selling watches.

Cronkite’s new job at CBS was to sit near the clattering wire-service machine and read what came out of it, all news gathered here and there by actual journalists, most of them decidedly unpresentable and only a few of them sober. But again, television was a novel medium and people watched regardless of programming. Walter’s otherwise inexplicable popularity allowed him to think of himself as . . . well, as a thinker.

It should be a matter of historical amazement that only six years later his “thinking” would be given credit for bringing down two United States presidents, upending both his nation’s foreign and social policy and eventually forcing its surrender in a war it had all but won — this, seemingly, on the basis of what he had been able to learn as the celebrity guest at Manhattan dinner parties.

When Cronkite retired as a national icon, CBS took the extraordinary step of subjecting the candidates for his replacement to screen tests. Those of you who think television news is anything more than entertainment are given a moment to ponder that last. And yes, it makes as much sense as screen-testing a shot-putter for the Olympics. Journalism functions on prescience, not photogeny.

Nonetheless, the winner was an ex-radio reporter from Dallas, what they called a disaster specialist sent to the site of tornadoes and hurricanes to stand knee-deep in rubble or water exclaiming and emoting. Even so, Dan Rather had been a minor contributor to the coverage of the JFK assassination and Watergate. And on the strength of his screen test, young Rather was able to demand total and unprecedented editorial control of CBS News.

When his blockbuster “The Camera Never Blinks” hit the shelves a few months later, Rather was proclaimed the nation’s newsman and television the news medium of the future. There he was on the cover, perfectly pressed shirt, artfully unbuttoned to reveal a hint of chest hair, with the tie carefully loosened (all a reflection, one supposes, of how the promotion department on the 38th floor of Black Rock imagines a reporter to be).

What did Rather know about journalism? Not a lot, as it turned out; he was as phony as they come. But this was broadcast news where phoniness is unremarkable, a mere change of wardrobe. So it took 24 years for his inability to judge sources, question facts or apply historic perspective to cost him his job. Ditto (but quicker) for Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Matt Lauer, Brian Williams and a still-growing and utterly bipartisan list of pseudo-intellectual journo impersonators.

And yet, haven’t we come a long way from that frumpy bore John Cameron Swayze? What were the odds back then that in a generation every political analyst and policy expert in the nation would be comely, engaging and under age 30?

America, is this a great place or what?

— Craig Ladwig


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