Thursday, August 06, 2009

That’s The Way It Was

Walter Cronkite died recently.

He was one of my heroes.

I grew up in a world where Walter Cronkite told us what the facts of the happenings of the world were. But I never wanted to grow up to be Walter Cronkite.

When I was in my first stint in University, I was trying desperately to figure out what to be. What to put the focus of my life behind.

I had always heard the common phrase "do what you love to do", but I didn't think being a professional athlete was really in the cards for me.

I was taking business classes, and the normal freshmen courses like biology and computer science, and advanced mathematics, and English literature. None of them interested me in the slightest.

Maybe computer science did a little bit. But punching all those holes in cards and running them through a card reader was really tedious. Am I dating myself here?

But that same semester, I took a political science class and a journalism class.

The year was 1980 and Ronald Reagan was running against incumbent President Jimmy Carter. The hallmark of this election was the great debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan.

What a perfect time to have been lucky enough to have taken both these courses.

The professors of both classes laid out very similar assignments.

The political science prof – a young man of liberal bent (much like most academics of the day) with longish hair and casual attire – assigned us to watch the debate and write an essay about how the debate inspired us to make some sort of conclusion.

The Journalism professor was also a younger man – but he was of a more conservative bent – or maybe I just remember it as so in comparison to the political science professor. But the common theme in his classroom was to be objective. To record and report without opinion. To lay the facts out and let the reader make his own decision. So the assignment was to write such an essay about the events of this debate.

So I found myself watching that debate with two different mindsets. The one objective was to draw a conclusion – the other to record and report without any bias.

Remember, I was eighteen years old at the time. And I fully subscribe to the theory that "if you have any conscious as a young man, you views will be liberal, but if you have any brains as you grow older, your views will be conservative".

I watched this debate in my dorm room. I watched it on the same little black and white portable TV I had bought myself as a kid. There was an illegal cable hookup running through the dormitory and I had hooked my little black and white portable into it in my dorm room. This was the first time I ever had cable TV.

The Iranian hostage crisis had plagued the Carter administration for the last eight months. Walter Cronkite would start every newscast with the number of days that Iran held those hostages. As well, the gasoline crisis had seen long line ups at gas stations and the price of gas reach what were ridiculous prices for the day. Gremlins and Pintos and small Japanese imports were quickly becoming the cars of choice as for the first time Americans started worrying about fuel efficiency – from the standpoint of their own personal budgets.

So while Jimmy Carter – a very fine man to this day – a man of the highest moral character and best sincere intentions to indeed serve his people to the best of his ability, was plagued by these two foreign and domestic crisis. His approval rating at the time of the debate was not great.

The only thing buoying Jimmy Carter at the time was the fact that during the past decade, America had just removed themselves from Vietnam. President Nixon had been caught red handed in the Watergate scandal, and his non-elected successor – Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. Americans were not very high on themselves back then. The hippies of the sixties were starting to influence both politics and business – and the music of the day had little positive to say about American political government. As I remember it, America was scared to return control of the White House to a Republican President.

But Ronald Reagan, although staunchly conservative – was already known to the American people as a movie star. He was a successful Governor of the most liberal state in the Union – California. He was charismatic. He was older than Mr. Carter, and held a presence of distinguished righteousness. He had pulled California out of a bad financial state when the rest of the nation was in a deep recession.

As the debate unfolded, there was a very somber and gentle spoken Jimmy Carter – who I believe had his mind elsewhere – distracted by having to run the embattled nation while running in this presidential election. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was clear and focused. He was upbeat and positive about what America could be, and where America could go.

I watched the exchange of these two men, like boxers in a ring, with Mr. Reagan moving Mr. Carter into the ropes defending his positions as Mr. Reagan criticized Mr. Carters current policies and counterpunched with his own solutions.

The knockout punch came as Mr. Carter explained his position on – yes it's true – a move towards national healthcare reform – measures to cut the cost of services and make the services available to residents who could not afford the high cost of health care benefits. When he ended his statement that "Governor Reagan does not …", Mr. Reagan counterpunched with the fatal blow "There you go again..". He then explained how the private sector pressured by competition would manage the cost of health care much better than any government intervention could, but that some federal regulation would help to ensure a fair and balanced playing field.

"There you go again" became the sound bite of that whole campaign. And essentially Mr. Reagan won that election by a landslide.

But I guess if you're my age, you remember all that.

As a student witnessing such an overwhelming shift in momentum, and taken with Mr. Reagan myself – attending University in Mr. Carters home state of Georgia – I found it easy to answer the task of the political science professors assignment and I wrote what I thought was a great essay on the great debate.

But answering the journalism professors request was much more difficult. To be so inspired and then forced to write about it matter-of-factly, that was much more difficult. To me it was a matter of fact that Mr. Reagan dominated the debate and knocked his opponent out with a single blow.

I turned both papers in. I was certain I would get an A for the political science essay, and if I was lucky, I might get a B for the journalism essay.

A couple of days later, I received both essays back. And I was shocked at the results.

I got an A for the journalism essay. The professor had written in blue pen at the bottom that my even handed understanding of how the direction of the debate was influenced by a personality like Reagan's over the lackluster enthusiasm of the beleaguered President was both accurate and objective.


I got a C- for the political science essay. Most of the students did. Because the professor was clearly a staunch Democrat who did not view Mr. Reagan's arguments to bear merit, and he clearly thought President Carter had finally exposed Mr. Reagan as the fraud riding on the popularity of his celebrity that this professor of academics was convinced he was.


So I rode out the poli-sci course to the end of the semester and took my C grade believing in my heart that it was unfair, but learning quickly that … well … life is unfair.

But I got my only A in that University in Journalism.

This is it, I thought. Journalism is the path I shall take.

After writing that final Journalism final exam, I was asked to come by the professors office. When I arrived he was sitting in a chair at his desk. Walls of books in shelves sitting behind him. He was – no word of a lie – wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches and having a puff on his pipe.

"This is so cool" – I thought to myself. I had just gotten the A and I thought that he was going to help me plot out my future journalism academic objectives.

But I was wrong.

I don't remember his exact words so I will paraphrase it like this:

"You did very well in my class Fred".

"Thank you sir".

"But the world of journalism is changing right now."

"Yes sir."

"Television and radio are taking over."

"Yes sir".

"To be a journalist in this new world – in the modern age of the eighties, you will have to have more to offer than just being able to be an objective writer."

No response, I just stared.

"You will have to be able to hold a presence on television, or the radio, I don't know, perhaps both. But the days of printed journalism are clearly on their way out. There's a new cable news networking growing in Atlanta, more like it will come. People won't read newspapers anymore. They will just watch TV. "


"Quite so. But young man, you do not have what it takes to be authoritative on television. And your voice is far to nasal for anyone to want to listen to."

"I see".

The criticisms of this professor I respected continued about how looks and voice mattered, and how he just didn't see me pursuing a line of work in the new age of broadcast journalism. It was not in the cards for me.

I couldn't disagree. All signs at that time did point to the fact that print was primitive and television was really blossoming by way of Cable TV. I could see it in my own dorm room.

"But surely they will still need people to gather facts, and write copy, and you know … do the hard stuff", I responded.

"The juniors will do all that, I predict", replied the professor. "The juniors who will someday move up to be in front of the microphone or camera".

I took this man's criticisms and direction to heart. I respected him, and was even thankful to him for being so honest with me.

So I gave up on that short-lived dream.

And I gave up on writing as well. I didn't start writing stories like the ones on Head Stuffing until shortly after I met my lovely wife Darlene. And I discovered again, that I really do enjoy writing. And I think now, finally, I am just getting half-way decent at it.

But when Walter Cronkite died shortly back, I really started thinking about that University professor. I wondered if he was still alive. I wondered what he thought of the Internet mediums like blogs and web sites like The Smoking Gun, and Twitter. I wondered what that professor would thought of the Cable News and their biased perspectives like the right wing views of Fox News and the left wing views of MSNBC and CNN. I wondered what he would have thought about the way that wars are covered now and how the media embraced Barack Obama so completely at election time. And what would he have thought about the coverage of Micheal Jackson's death?

But then I realized the times in which that occurred, as society looked forward to the change from the turbulent 1970s into what we thought were the ultra-modern 1980s.

And I realized what Walter Cronkite probably would have said to me- had I known him - about those perceptions held then:

"That's the way it was …".

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