Walter Cronkite’s NPR essay on Eric Sevareid yesterday (2.12.04) was keeper. The summary: “The press has a long tradition of thoughtful commentators and analysts, reaching back to Henry Adams and Benjamin Franklin. But the tradition hasn’t exactly thrived in television, especially in recent years as attention spans have shrunk and the shouting has increased. But this wasn’t always the case. During the 1960s and 1970s — a time of considerable shouting in society — Eric Sevareid offered elegant nightly commentaries on CBS Evening News that were among the most admired in journalism. His longtime colleague Walter Cronkite reflects on Sevareid’s work, and a time when television took time to think.”
There is some excellent thinking, from both Cronkite and Sevareid, that bears reflection. Here are a few of our favorite quotes:
Rules of an essayist (1:37/12:23)The first rule sounds straight outta Dan Gillmor’s mouth. The second rule is a sensible notion of the journalist’s “democratic” code. It’s the last rule that is almost charming – a belief in the journalist’s need to excercise personal conscience. Yes, the press has self-correcting qualities. But with an enabled, empowered, collaborative audience, we can have a media that is truly self-correcting.
Sevareid speaking in his farewell essay, shared his self-imposed rules of journalism that guided his essays:
1. Not to underestimate the intelligence of the audience, and not to over estimate it’s information.
2. To elucidate when one can, more than to advocate.
3. To retain the courage of one’s doubts, as well as one’s convictions, in this world of dangerously passionate certainties.
4. To comfort oneself in times of error, with the knowledge that the saving grace of the press, print or broadcast is it’s self-correcting nature.
Becoming comfortable with banter (11:05/12:23)Cronkite is right. There’s nothing more intolerable than TV news, especially the banter shows. Enter participatory journalism — not to “save the day” but hopefully it can help put the media ship back on course.
After playing a poignant clip of Sevareid commentary on the Vietnam War, Cronkite says:
“If we don’t hear such words today on televsion, it may be because we’ve become to comfortable with the spontenaeity of banter. And Eric Sevareid always wrote better than he bantered.”
Implications for an informed citizenry (11:51/12:23)
After playing Sevareid’s final broadcast clip, Cronkite says:
“With that broadcast, the art of literate news analysis largely disappeared from nightly televsion. Soon to be replaced by the amusement of rude rant and polarizing diatribe. Eric might agree today with linguist John McQuarter (not sure of this spelling), that when society values the impulsive spoken outburst, over the reasoned elegance of the written word, the implications for an informed citizenry are dire."
On the French (8:20/12:23)We have nothing against the French, but were struck by the pre-Internet sentiment of “misunderstanding each other faster and more deeply than ever before.” Sevareid might see the Internet contributing to lack of understanding. But in many ways, participatory journalism/media — blogs, forums, chat, etc. — seek to correct that. Participants are just trying to make some sense of the world.
In documentary program called “Our Friend the French” (1965), Sevareid said:
“If the unofficial truth has to be told, the French have always had a hidden disdain for Americans, and the Americans have responded in kind to the French. Now with the highly developed arts of mass communication and mass transportation, we can misunderstand each other faster and more deeply than ever before. What seems to astonish the French is that it has taken us so long to rise to high resentment. The French have been waiting there for us all the time."