Obama Delivers Tribute, Media Criticism at Cronkite Memorial


President Obama spoke at the Cronkite service, and engaged in a little media criticism while he was at it.

The President said, “I have benefitted as a citizen from his dogged pursuit of the truth,” which he called “a public good vital to a democracy.” He stressed that Cronkite wanted to get the story first, but “he understood the importance of getting it right.” and used the example of an allegedly massive blaze at a city hall early in his career, which his boss demanded he get on the air immediately. Cronkite wanted to confirm the extent of the fire with the fire department. “You don’t need to confirm it,” yelled the station manager, “my wife’s watching the whole thing,” and went on the air himself. Cronkite found it was a small fire, not a big one. “He lost his job,” said Obama, “but he got the story right.”

The title “Most Trusted Man in America,” said Obama, “was not bestowed upon him by an advertising campaign — he earned it” with his conviction that “people were hungry for the truth” unaccompanied by “theater or spectacle” or “dumbing down”…

The words “integirty” and “responsibility” came up a lot, and Obama suggested these were harder to find in journalism these days. He also noticed that the news business is in financial trouble. “Too often we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained,” said Obama, “rather than the hard news he championed.” The story now is “not ‘What happened today?’ but ‘Who won today?'” This attitude, Obama said, has “real consequences” for the nation. “This democracy, Walter said, cannot function without a reasonably informed electorate.”

Cronkite was not an “idealist,” and knew the importance of profit, but he wanted some of that profit plowed back into news-gathering, the President said. He wondered: If Cronkite knew that fire story would spread with internet speed via the “murky noise of the blogs and the tweets,” would he still “shine the bright light on substance?… somehow we know that the answer is yes.” Real journalism, said the President, will “not somehow rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle,” but must be demanded by the public and by reporters.

(Obama also mentioned that LBJ sometimes called Cronkite to complain about his coverage, and all the journalists in the room sprouted thought balloons, imagining themselves getting chewed out by President Obama.)