In a curious way, Michael Jackson's moonwalk and the one by Neil Armstrong 40 years ago on July 20 share a common bond: They became touchstones because of the media's power to aggregate an audience. For all its excess, the coverage of Jackson's death did remind us of how powerful the media are in both setting (for better or worse) and serving our cultural agendas.
Today, of course, “the media” means the long tail of Websites, chat rooms, tweets and blogs ad infinitum. That has changed the equation and transferred much of the agenda-setting power to the consumers rather than the producers of news. This means viewers are in a better position to shape coverage and set the agenda, which also means it is harder to simply blame the traditional media for how big a story gets or what shape it takes.
But back in 1969, it would be hard to overstate the primacy of television in connecting the world to that tiny spacecraft kicking up dust on that distant yet endearingly familiar ball of gray rock. Walter Cronkite, from whom a news nation took its cue on how to react to major events, was briefly at a loss for words on camera only a couple of times in his career, or at least it seemed that way. One was at the death of President Kennedy. The other was when the Eagle landed.
We had been following the space program for years, with simulations and models and animations from TV news divisions that focused on the program as intently as their viewers. We were glued to the TV set for blast-off after blast-off as the government kept updating the space program to the next Greek or Roman deities: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. And the networks threw vast resources into video and audio and expert commentary that became familiar to almost all baby boomers. Think of a dozen Miles O'Briens following every orbit and rocket stage separation, often with a model in hand, tilted to show the orientation and moment when the mother ship separated.
In the 40 years since that July day, space flight has become routine, save for the tragic reminders that it is a difficult and dangerous undertaking made to look simple. But what has not changed is the power of the media to make us witnesses to events that, as Cronkite used to say in another context, “alter and illuminate our times.”
For all of the media's faults and flaws, which we do not hesitate to point out when necessary, “the media” are actually thousands of people endeavoring to do an important job under incredibly tough conditions, both economic and logistical. When they get it right, it can be as awe-inspiring as that moment of lift-off.
Here's to more journalistic small steps and giant leaps.