Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Shaggy Dog Tale of the Evening News

April 9, 2008

First off, I must write about a dream I had last night. It was the day of the final Democratic Primary, which was being held in my home town, and the whole town turned out for it.

The cast of characters of this dream included every single one of my female friends -- and they were all in strong support of Hillary Clinton. My affection for Barack Obama was on the down-low; in fact, I was something of a spy in enemy camp. Bill Clinton was very present in my dream, very seductive. When I have all my faculties -- that is, when awake -- I have no trouble resisting his charms, but this was a dream, remember, and he was playing me like a damned violin. Bill directed his attentions to me, looking straight into my eyes and saying, “When I made that speech you never even looked at me.”

“That speech was two years ago,” said I. “How could you possibly remember that?”

“I remember,” said the Great Seducer.

“This guy really is good,” I thought.

The wave of hysteria for Hillary was unsurmountable. There were huge crowds, all women, and they were absolutely adamant that she should win. Hillary was in the room, and the mob was almost uncontrollable.

I made my way home, some motel someplace I believe, but my family of origin was there. Suddenly it was the next day and the votes had been counted. I was embarrassed that I had not stayed for the final vote count, but I kept telling everybody that I knew it was going to go the way it did. I couldn’t admit that I didn’t know how it had gone; I didn’t know who won. I kept looking for a newspaper, reading the Internet, everything I could do to find out the answer.

I woke up without knowing the answer. But I was relieved to learn that the contest wasn’t really over. The big news was that Katie Couric might leave her job as CBS news anchor before her contract is out.

This is rather good news in my mind. I have found that particular broadcast unwatchable since she took over; it always seemed the wrong person in the job for the wrong reason. Someone with an upbeat, cheery personality like Couric’s is hard enough to take on a diverse morning show like Today, but on the evening news, no matter how the makeup artists and fashion stylist try to reinvent her, is downright awful watching her try to be what she’s not.

Not that I could watch Dan Rather in the same role, for different reasons. His personality came across as narcissistic and pompous, always getting in the way of the actual news. Bob Shieffer had hit a nice medium range; a certain skeptical point of view with enough seriousness to give him credibility.

The whole phenomenon of the evening news broadcasts as we know them goes back to Walter Cronkite, who offered the perfect formula. I date back to the days of John Cameron Swayze and right on through Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, but Cronkite probably as good as they come – the gold standard for the evening news anchor.

Walker Cronkite was a 20th Century newsman who became an icon without trying for it. He spent his career trying for one goal, and coming in earlier than the others, he may have been the last to seek this. He wanted to be a first-rate journalist.

My late husband, Jim Adshead, was of the same vintage, and was also in the broadcast news business when he returned from World War II. They were a fraternity, those men; seeking professionalism in their chosen career, and security rather than celebrity in their personal lives. That last is what set them apart from the next generation, who saw how famous one can get in the news business, and how much prestige. I would say that had not been the major concern of their elders. (And remember -- I must point this out -- I was 17 years younger than Jim, the exact age of Tom Brokaw.

Jim used to say that in those days there was a certain camaraderie among the early tv guys, and that as an anchorman in Wilmington he was also called on to present the weather forecast, which he did by drawing cartoons on the weather map to illustrate the atmospheric conditions. He would say, "You never knew when you might get picked up by the network and transferred. The way I looked at it, Cronkite was the New York guy and I was the Wilmington guy..."

Jim left the business for a job as a speaker for the Du Pont Company, the major employer of his city. He spent years traveling the country making speeches about Du Pont, "Better Things for Better Living...Through Chemistry," and ended up quite comfortably in the public relations department. But he always looked at Cronkite and his ilk as colleagues. Jim was a journalism major class at Rutgers, in what would be the class of 1944, the class that was awarded its diplomas at the beginning of the school year so that the men could enlist to fight in the war. This is a much-honored class today, but by the time they had their big reunion in 1994, he was too ill to attend.

Walter Cronkite went on to define the job of anchorman and to symbolize the stability of the nation for at least a generation. Brave enough to cover Viet Nam and report it accurately, he became the scourge of the White House for a time, but he conducted himself with dignity no matter what happened to him, and he always embodied the best we could expect from our father figures. He embraced the Space Program wholeheartedly, always seeking something to love about America; America loved him for that. We had watched him almost lose his cool with grief when he realized Jack Kennedy indeed was dead, and almost lose it again with pride when an American astronaut put his foot on the moon. Through all this he was a consummate professional and simply did his job, no grandstanding. There are few if any who live their lives that way any more.

And they won't make 'em like Walter Cronkite again either. He is a figure of the past, a strong, wise writer reporting and illuminating our times. I take that last from the long-gone signoff to You Are There, a fitting signoff for Uncle Walter himself.

What will CBS news come up with this time? The name, probably bestowed by some ad agency, “the Tiffany network,” has been retired once and for all. It will be a new gimmick, probably, a reach for a younger audience (the excuse in the first place for the hiring of Katie Couric). I would think that, if Hillary Clinton wins the Presidency, CBS will find a woman they feel has gravitas. If Barack Obama wins, they will go for a news reader with some African-American heritage (preferably mixed).

If John McCain wins, we may see Walter Cronkite back in that job.


Elmer Gantry said...


Well put discourse.

I can vividly imagine Bill, in that low raspy voice, uttering “When I made that speech you never even looked at me.”

Anonymous said...

Good accounting, ML, and nothing shaggy about it . . . unless . . . well, no, I'll leave William Jefferson to his own destruction. He's far better at it than I could ever be.

Anonymous said...

Amusing, but I think I would have added a conclusion just for the sake of the story. "Hillary won and Bill immediately phoned me and said, 'So how about it? My job's done here. She doesn't need me any more. You ready?'" Something to that effect.

Mary Lois said...

This really was a dream, folks. I know that with a little license I could have changed the story, but it would never have included further connection with the former Pres. Call me picky.