Friday, July 17, 2009

Media: Where to Turn in Times of Crisis

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It seems like I should be writing about Walter Cronkite this evening. Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981 and the authoritative newsman of that era, died today at the age of 92. However, it's not really possible for me to write anything of meaning about Cronkite; I was still in grade school when he did his last broadcast on the Evening News. The closest I can come are some comments on authoritative news sources which partially reflect Cronkite's legacy at CBS.

Back in the era when there were three choices for the evening news in the United States--my family didn't get cable until well into the 1980's and we somehow ignored the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS--my family almost always watched the CBS Evening News, anchored at the time by Dan Rather. The reason was simple--my parents remembered Cronkite and the quality of news on CBS in the 1960's and 1970's, and turned to CBS rather than ABC or NBC for that reason.

The decline in the CBS news organization became apparent in 1986, however. When the United States chose to bomb Libya that year as punishment for Libyan support of terrorism, only NBC had a correspondent in Tripoli to report the news. Steve Delaney reported by phone on what he was observing in what would become the seminal reports on the bombing from the United States perspective. Not long after, NBC's Tom Brokaw surpassed the evening news ratings of CBS' Dan Rather, who in short order would also fall below ABC's Peter Jennings. CBS' perennial number one status achieved under Cronkite would not return to this day, and the competition would be between ABC and NBC for the rest of the 1980's and 1990's. My family continued to watch the CBS Evening News on a daily basis throughout this era, but if we heard about breaking news on the radio, we didn't tune in CBS anymore, but instead first tuned to NBC.

The war with Iraq in 1991 symbolically changed the media landscape forever. By then, all of the major networks had cut back on foreign correspondents. CNN, the Cable News Network, rose to prominence by having the last US correspondents in Baghdad, amongst other things. NBC may have had the best-known reporter of the conflict, "Scud Stud" (and Canadian) Arthur Kent, but CNN was always there with the latest coverage, no matter the hour of the day. The authoritative place to turn in times of crisis moved from broadcast networks to cable, from NBC to CNN. (Arguably, it was the success of CNN during the 1991 conflict that led to launch of NBC's own cable news channel, MSNBC, in 1996.)

Personally, though, I've never preferred to turn to television for breaking news, instead favoring radio. When the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 came, I did not run for CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, or any other television source, but instead for the BBC World Service internet stream. Too many other people around the world had the same idea and I could not connect to the server. Instead, I found I could connect to the CBC Radio One stream out of Toronto. Sunday Edition host Michael Enright, a familiar voice, was hosting special coverage that cemented in my mind that a Canadian perspective was valuable and trustworthy in a time of crisis. Enright later revealed that part of the apparent awe and disbelief he exuded during that broadcast had been because he had misplaced his glasses that morning and thus was unable to view many of the images being broadcast, making it all the more important for him to ask reporters on the air to describe what they are observing. However it happened, it was compelling and appropriate radio.

Now, with the Internet a primary news source for many, tuning in an Internet radio feed seems passe. Instead, many people now just go to their favorite news web site. Much as I didn't watch CNN regularly but did tune it in during a crisis, I rarely go to, but when crisis hits, that's usually my first stop--unless it's a Canadian story, when I would be more likely to turn to,, or some other Canadian site.

Walter Cronkite lived to see these transitions away from CBS, then away from broadcast television to cable, and finally to the Internet. I wonder where he turned for breaking news in the final years of his life.

No comments: