WWWD?July 27th, 2009

Did you hear that the Mexican chihuahua who appeared in all those restaurant commercials died the other day? If you were listening to NPR Thursday afternoon, you heard the newsreader lead with that story. An item a little further down in the broadcast mentioned Walter Cronkite, whose life we have been celebrating vicariously, by way of obituary, though his journalistic progeny. They never mention how critical Cronkite was of 21st Century broadcasters. What would Walter do with the dead dog story? Bury it, that’s what! Cronkite would almost certainly have been embarassed to air a dog obit, especially one that doubles as a pitch for the pooch’s principal commercial customer.

I may be the only one who remembers a pitch Cronkite made 12 or so years ago in favor of a government reform that would have forced the TV networks to dedicate a small proportion of their broadcast hours to unpaid political messages. If broadcasters remember this campaign, they’re not mentioning in on the air, and no wonder. It would change the world, and it would cost broadcasters a bundle.

Today, with a good-looking candidate and with the judicious use of television advertising and the media focus that comes with it, it’s possible to buy a seat in Congress or almost any other elective office in the USA. Broadcasters rake in money in what’s become an elections industry. The tithe is so heavy that only rich folks can pay it. The result is a stable of office-holders who owe their status to rich people and broadcasters, whose needs and wants must always come before the public interest. This might change if broadcasters were forced to yield broadcast resources, at no cost, to well-funded and poorly-funded political candidates alike. Cronkite was outspoken in his support for such a reform, and the media ignored his appeals and chose to forget them on the occasion of his death.

What would Walter do with the arrest of the Harvard professor, locked out of his house and caught breaking in by Cambridge police? For sure, he wouldn’t have asked a question about it at a presidential press conference. Not with important events taking place and only an hour to inquire. Obama, as timid as he is lean, fell into the trap set for him by the feral reporter, when she asked whether the incident was a case of racism. The professor is Black. I was hoping for something along these lines:

“Uhhh. That’s your question? You waste an opportunity at a presidential press conference on an idiotic question like this? You know as well as I do that cops make mistakes. They’re trained to intimidate people, and they do it all the time. We expect it of them. It’s the way they establish their authority. Unlike you and me, they can cover up their errors with an arrest, and they do that all the time, too. It’s not news, except among whoring gossip-mongers like you folks. Next question!” A little invective goes a long way.

Not only were the gossip-mongers not embarassed by the question, they’re still talking about it, right alongside the contribution of Walter Cronkite, whose name rings hollow in their arch voices. WWWD? What would Walter do? He’d cry. I suspect he cried often over his squandered journalistic legacy.