02 May 2008

MSM Builds Itself a Shrine

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As the Journalism industry opens a Washington museum dedicated to its own glory, Andrew Ferguson notes the symbolic role played by Walter Cronkite, whose misreporting of the 1968 Tet Offensive did more for the cause of Communism in Southeast Asia than General Giap.

If Walter Cronkite’s mom was going to put together a scrapbook of her son’s career–well, it would be a miracle, because she’d be about 125 years old by now. But if she did, I doubt that it would contain more admiring images of the former CBS newsreader than you’ll find in the Newseum, the new journalism museum that held its boffo grand opening this month in Washington, D.C. Cronkite is everywhere in the Newseum. He hovers over it like a guardian angel, or a patron saint. You can’t turn around without hearing his phlegmy baritone rumbling out from a hidden speaker or see some grainy footage of him announcing President Kennedy’s death or wiping his eyes at the moon landing or definitively pronouncing the Vietnam war a “stalemate.”

And that’s the way it is–at the Newseum, anyway. But why?

I don’t know how the Newseum’s curators would explain Cronkite’s omnipresence (I do know they would use the word “iconic”), but I have an explanation of my own. Cronkite is a kind of synecdoche for American journalism. His career traces the arc of the news business over the last 70 years, from the grubby, slightly disreputable trade of the early 20th century to the highly serious, obsessively self-regarding profession it has become, here in the first decade of the twenty-first. A college drop-out, plucky but unimaginative, Cronkite knocked around a series of newspaper jobs in the 1930s, followed the troops into Normandy, worked for a wire service after the war, and filed workmanlike copy all the while that was notable for nothing in particular. Then came television, and celebrity, which he acquired thanks to the unprecedented reach of mass media rather than through any peculiar merit of his own. From the 1960s onward Cronkite was transformed by some mysterious process into a figure implausibly larger than a newspaper hack, a spiritual force as imposing and weightless as a dirigible. He was an oracle, a teller of truths, the conscience of a nation, “the most trusted man in America.”

American journalism followed the same trajectory into self-importance, borne aloft on the same draft of hot air and vanity. Our terrific country offers lots of ways to make a living, but with the possible exceptions of movie acting and architecture, only modern journalism would have the nerve to celebrate itself with something as gaudy and improbable as the Newseum. The Freedom Forum, a nonprofit foundation seeded with money from the Gannett newspaper chain, conceived and underwrote the museum for $450 million, and a half dozen newspaper and media companies kicked in another $122 million to pay for exhibits and other trimmings. That’s $572 million–a lavish sum by any measure. It’s especially impressive from an industry that is, according to its own incessant complaints, going broke.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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