Probably few people now living will remember this, because few people are as elderly as I am, but I recall a time when most people got their news from one or both of two sources: their daily newspaper and Walter Cronkite. We’d read the paper in the morning and watch Walter in the evening on CBS. Sure, there was also NBC, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and ABC, with somebody or other, but it was Walter Cronkite (for whom the word “avuncular” was surely coined) that I remember as the authoritative voice from the anchor desk in New York.
There were only three networks then, and most people watched one of them, so we all went to work or school the next morning with the same basic package of information in our noggins about what was happening in the nation and the world; about what was important.
Mr. Cronkite was always calm and collected, the consummate professional newsman, betraying only the slightest hint of enthusiasm when there was a space flight, because he was a big fan of NASA’s early efforts to beat the Russians during those Cold War days.
Otherwise, the only time I saw him show any emotion at all — and it came as something of a shock — was on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. And when he told us that President Kennedy was dead, we knew that’s the way it was.
Because Mr. Cronkite’s signature closing line — “And that’s the way it is” — aptly illustrates how things were back then. With no internet, no social media, no cable TV and no nattering nabobs on radio spouting way-out political views, there were no other sources of information, really, unless you were erudite enough to subscribe to Time or Newsweek or something.
Imagine having only three networks for news, and those channels didn’t even run all night, so there was sign-off time not much past midnight, with jets and patriotic music and stuff, and test patterns early in the morning before any actual shows came on.
Nowadays, we have at least eleventeen cable news and/or talk channels, from left to right, and most of them are on 24/7; and an unknown number of internet and social-media sites, some of them sporting ideas that are clearly deranged; and plenty of radio shock jocks, mainly coming in from the far right.
Nowadays, otherwise sensible people will see something online — no matter how far-fetched or even flat-out crazy — or hear it on the radio, and just swallow it, hook, line and sinker, without questioning the source. As Abraham Lincoln once said, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.
And every time you click on one of those things, you guarantee that some algorithm will send you more of the same, until your Twitter or Facebook account is teeming with wild-eyed conspiracy theories and/or out-and-out lies that will eventually squeeze out material from more credible sources that’s actually sane and believable by those of sound mind. Worst case: Once the crazy stuff takes over you may not miss, or even remember, the credible info you used to read.
More is more, I guess, but here we are, each of us in his own information silo, unable — and increasingly unwilling — to consider any contrary information that manages to sneak through, or to talk to anyone with a different base of beliefs.
And that’s the way it is. Heaven help us.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.