Monday, July 20, 2009

On Cronkite and Escape From the Internet

So I spent the past ten days in the Pacific Northwest, drinking potent Canadian beer, attempting to sound intelligent while tasting Willamette-Valley based fermented grape concoctions, consuming insanely excellent meats and freshly caught sea creatures, purchasing tactile incarnations of old Bowie CDs and miscellaneous/other indie/back catalogue material at excellent independent music stores, and generally ignoring the idle chatter of the Interwebs. At times, I read an actual newspaper, which was such a surprising and enriching experience that I wondered why I don't do it more often (all my news, in one package, sans eye strain? Written by professionals and delivered to my doorstep? What an excellent innovation this is! Somebody alert Steve Jobs!)

And in the meantime, I missed a bizarre/sick scandal involving an ESPN on-air personality, and I missed what I'm sure was an inevitable amount of Tom Watson snark, and I missed plenty of other ridiculous events that may have seemed vaguely important if I had been encased in the Internet bubble, and yet because I wasn't, they now seem utterly ridiculous. (For that matter, so does the entire concept of Twitter.) And the fact that, as I write this, said ESPN personality is, in fact, the No. 1 search on Google (and a misspelling of said personality's name is at No. 3) just seems like further validation that a large percentage of what occurs on the Internets is essentially a giant, self-important, all-consuming time-suck.*

And then last Friday night, I was watching television in a Portland hotel room, and I heard that Walter Cronkite died. And this made me especially sad, and not just because of the man's death--he was 92 years old, and he had lived, by all accounts, an excellent and undeniably important life--but because in the 28 years since he signed off from network television, Cronkite's profile had somehow dimmed to the point that his death would probably have little/no impact on an entire generation of Americans. Put it this way: If Cronkite had died in 1985, I have to imagine his death would have been as big as Michael Jackons's, and here's why: He was exactly the type of figure that could not exist in this modern age--he was a figure that everyone in America trusted.

Q: Who could possibly fill that role now?
A: No one.

Not even Cronkite could; no doubt, the right-wing bloggers would have criticized his "impartial reporting" on the day of JFK's death; no doubt, moon-landing conspiracist message boards would have scoffed at his enthusiasm over the Apollo 11 mission. This is not to say that Cronkite didn 't have contemporary critics, but he silenced them by reporting the news in a tone that was both fair-minded and modest** and imperturbable; he gave us immediacy without hyperbole, and if you don't believe me, then watch the video above, in which Cronkite somehow manages to elegantly report the news while speaking on the phone. He was the last great singular voice in American media, and he gave way to an era of fragmentation, an era in which millions of voices all compete to broadcast their own frantic and ego-driven versions of truth, in which we all wrap ourselves in a cocoon of relativity.

And just so I don't come across as a complete curmudgeon upon my return, let me assure you that there are great things about the stunningly rapid advancement of modern technology, like the IPhone app that enabled me to find the nearest public restroom in Portland. But it is not until you escape it, if only briefly, that you realize how crippling it can be to our perspectives--to the way we see our own little world, as opposed to the way it is.

*And yes, I realize that I am writing this on a blog. It is very possible that I am part of the problem. To which I say, Welcome!
**There is some kind of beautiful irony to the fact that Cronkite died on a Friday night, during the quietest portion of the news cycle. As if even in death, he was somehow declining to make himself the center of the story.

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