Walter Cronkite stands in a generic television newsroom and laments the way it is. With monitors glowing in the background, he wonders: "Are our people getting enough information to vote intelligently in this democracy?"
An hour later, he concludes that they are, provided they add reading newspapers to their media diet.
It's a lot to ask of a techno-society up to its glazed eyeballs in video and heavily plugged into frenzied talk radio, but no one said being well-informed while zooming toward the 21st Century would be a snap.
Not that this installment of the Discovery Channel's periodic "Cronkite Report" itself is that informative. For a program whose title alone appears to indict bumper-sticker journalism--"Headlines and Soundbites: Is That the Way It Is?"--it unloads its own choppily edited sound bites on viewers without a conscience, apparently feeling that it can reach and hold them only by speaking their fragmented language.
Even worse, much of the hour's discussion of today's media teeters perilously on the cutting edge of what everyone already knows or is talking about.
It's what Cronkite himself has been talking about for a number of years since settling into his role as the industry's pain-in-the-butt emeritus , often publicly faulting TV coverage from the sidelines after a generation of sainthood as anchorman of "The CBS Evening News."
Local stations, he charges tonight, ignore "the news that directly affects the way people live." The tabloid impact on mainstream media is "insidious," he says.
"Just awful," echoes Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, whose nightly newscast is regularly more tabloidesque and O.J. Simpsonized than its competitors.
To the younger set, Cronkite's probably top dinosaur in the tar pit. To many who are a little older, his grandfatherly admonitions largely make sense, even though his own bronzing at CBS News came less from his performance as an active reporter (he was much more studio-bound as an anchor than that present road warrior, Dan Rather, for example), than for what he symbolized in front of the camera: civility, integrity, judgment, dependability, knowledge, intelligence.
These were the vibes you got from him. In the main, Cronkite was paid the big bucks for being Cronkite, a comforting voice and paternal presence who commanded your attention, trust and respect. When he spoke, he had you sitting on his knee. CBS liked that picture. Clearly, there was as much image worship in TV news then as now.
Yet what a difference a decade or two make.
One of tonight's talking heads suggests that the present rash of journalistic funny business mirrors a redefinition of news. Not exactly. News is merely anything, from the significant to the mundane, that hasn't been widely reported. That hasn't changed.
What's changed is how news is prioritized, the ranking of stories on the shish kebab. Just why this happened, whether in response to competitive pressures or altered public appetites, is somewhat a blur.
Much clearer is that the road to O.J. leads downhill directly through Amy and Joey, Tonya and Nancy, Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Jackson and the Menendez boys. All of their sagas (rumored or otherwise) would also have been news in Cronkite's day, but certainly not to the extent that they have been in the '90s, where large numbers of the so-called respectable media are under the sheets with the tabloids, having journalistic orgasms over things sensational.
Mostly, that means crime.
Crime stories on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts tripled from 1990 to 1994, according to a survey by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. With CBS News leading the way, the center reports, crime accounted for more network stories in 1994 than the economy, health-care reform and the midterm elections combined .
Murder stories increased a whopping ninefold during that period, the center says, and in 1994 alone the murder story rate tripled, largely because of the O.J. Simpson case. If the scary extent of the coverage reflected reality, half the nation would now be dead.
In a somewhat related theme, Cronkite's program cites a January cross-media survey of news coverage conducted by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, which compared the three primary network newscasts with three well-regarded newspapers: the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal & Constitution and the Des Moines Register.
Some of its findings were predictable, such as TV excelling at covering spot news and newspapers being better at tracking stories, especially global ones. After closing most of their foreign bureaus as part of cost cutting, the three major networks these days track most foreign stories (when they acknowledge them at all) long range from London.
Yet here is a surprise: The Freedom Forum survey found that words spoken in the top four stories on network newscasts matched the number of written words in corresponding stories in the Atlanta and Des Moines papers.
Either network newscasts are saying more than many believe or some respected newspapers are saying less. In any case, Freedom Forum executive director Everette Dennis says on tonight's program that newspapers, with some exceptions (the Los Angeles Times surely being one), are saying less than TV about the Simpson case.
"We're all kind of living now in this tabloid culture," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. "What we're really doing," says Jeff Greenfield of ABC News, "is putting a fig leaf over stories we're really covering because they're great gossip."
In other words, grandly labeling the Simpson story a primer on society is a way of justifying continuous bloated coverage. Even if, in reality, that's the way it isn't.
* "Headlines and Soundbites: Is That the Way It Is?" airs at 10 tonight on cable's Discovery Channel.