The Power and Responsibility of Television

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Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and former President and Executive Director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, guest blogs for B&C about Walter Cronkite’s media reform role. McGehee also heads McGehee Strategies, a public-interest consulting business.

As the accolades continue to pour in for CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, many tributes focus on Cronkite’s integrity and his commitment to the news. None were faster to embrace him than the networks and their anchors. But watching the old footage of Cronkite in the tributes was a stark contrast and a sad reminder of how far television news coverage has slipped since “Uncle Walter” stepped away from the microphone.

After Cronkite retired, he was in great demand as a spokesperson and had his pick of causes. He chose to lend his name and prestige to the effort to ensure that broadcasters who receive their license to use the publicly owned airwaves fulfilled their public interest obligations.

As honorary Co-Chair of the Alliance for Better Campaigns along with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Cronkite gave generously of his profile and reputation to speak out on the need for broadcast licensees to be held accountable, not only to their shareholders for their profits but also to the public for their coverage of our nation’s political discourse. And he felt strongly that broadcasters — and the government officials that oversee the public trustee system for broadcast licenses — were letting the public down.

Cronkite, perhaps more than anyone else in broadcasting, understood the power of television. And he understood the responsibilities that came with that power. As The Washington Post put it, “he was sensitive about the enormous potential of his broadcasters to mold and influence public opinion.”

Now, in an era where “if it bleeds, it leads” has become the standard for news and coverage of celebrities swamps coverage of critical issues of the day, broadcasters stand ready to fight off any attempt to make them abide by their statutory responsibilities to serve the public interest in exchange for the free use of the public airwaves – airwaves that would bring in tens of billions of dollars if auctioned to the highest bidder.

Since succeeding in the Reagan era in throwing off most government regulation, broadcasters are now using the recession as yet another reason to avoid accountability, saying the difficult economy should justify rebuffing any attempt to hold broadcasters accountable for the public interest obligations. They are fighting in court an effort by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) simply to obtain data on how the public licensees use the airwaves they have received government sanction to monopolize. Broadcasters claim that disclosing to the FCC what they put on the airwaves they use is an unconstitutional government intervention into the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.

Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America because he understood that television plays such a critical role in our nation. He understood that television not only shapes public opinion - as he did during the Vietnam war when President Johnson is said to have told advisors that when he lost Cronkite’s support for the war he lost middle-America’s - but more importantly tells us what to think about. If the nightly lineups on the broadcast networks today are an indication of what news executives believe is most important for Americans to understand in the world, then we have arrived at a very sad juncture in the historic relationship between broadcasters and the public.

Cronkite understood that there needed to be some mental meat and vegetables on the plate for Americans – particularly because of our nation’s place in the world. Today the networks are serving up mostly dessert and still they are losing viewers wholesale. The options for viewers today are infinitely more varied but it is important to remember that for decades almost as many Americans watched Cronkite’s evening news broadcasts as the combined audiences of all the major network newscasts today.

Cronkite understood that, even with the explosion of cable and the internet, broadcast television had a unique voice. Americans turn to their broadcast channels to find out what is important and to hear the objective news. In co-chairing the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which merged in 2005 with the Campaign Legal Center, Cronkite was worried about our nation’s political discourse.

He supported efforts to provide better access to the nation’s airwaves for public officials so that citizens can be informed voters. Cronkite was appalled by the system which required candidates running for office to spend hours and hours raising money from private interests simply to be able to purchase airtime on the publicly owned airwaves to get their message out to the American people. A few years ago when Cronkite was receiving yet another award for his body of work, he asked me to accept the award on his behalf and to use the occasion to promote public interest obligations.

So as the tributes to “Uncle Walter” continue over the coming days, it is important to remember that Cronkite was a man who loved his country deeply and who knew we could do better, especially when it came to the way our politics and our television came together. Now it is up to us. We would all do well to remember his wisdom and follow his example.

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