Robert Feder, Walter Cronkite and a defense of journalism

 
Updated 5/16/2021 7:03 AM
Daily Herald Media Columnist Robert Feder provided the keynote speech on May 7 to the annual Illinois Associated Press Media Editors awards ceremony. In it, he gave a nostalgic tour of his career and issued a call to defend journalism. We found it so delightful and so inspiring that we thought the edited transcript would make for a special Sunday Opinion page. You can watch a recording of that speech on dailyherald.com.

By Robert Feder

Daily Herald Media Columnist

 

rfeder@dailyherald.com

As we head into Mother's Day weekend, I'm reminded of the tenet of our business from Chicago's City News Bureau: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Well, I'm happy to report I did check it out and my mother, who will turn 100 later this year, does in fact still love me.

But lately I've been thinking about why the rest of the world doesn't love us anymore. None of us got into journalism to get rich, but the least we could have hoped for was for the public to understand and appreciate the vital work we do.

A 2016 Gallup poll found only 32 percent of Americans trust newspapers, television and radio to report the news "fully, accurately and fairly." While that number has inched up a bit since then, at least six in 10 Americans have been brainwashed to believe we're making it all up. I'm exposed to the vitriol and slander every day in the comments that come into my blog and in emails from readers. Many just don't love us anymore. And that really hurts.

In spite of all that, I wouldn't trade the last 40 years for anything. Following the ups and downs of the media business in my hometown has been an amazing ride. Along the way, I've had a front-row seat to some of the biggest stories and biggest stars in Chicago -- many of which gained national prominence.

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Probably the most consequential once-in-a-lifetime story I covered was the rise of Oprah Winfrey. I was just a rookie media reporter when Chicago's ABC station hired a 29-year-old woman from Baltimore to host its half-hour morning talk show "A.M. Chicago," that was getting clobbered in the ratings by Phil Donahue. Everything was free and open in those early days. (My memories from then include her) padding around the office in her stocking feet and getting together for lunch once or twice a year to talk about plans for the show and catch up on gossip.

I had the privilege of following two dyed-in-the-wool Chicago newspapermen, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who started out despising each other and went on to become the most powerful and influential film critics in the world. Among the saddest assignments of my life was writing the obits for my dear friends.

I followed the rise and fall of shock radio -- from Steve Dahl to Mancow Muller. FCC couldn't push them off radio, but the marketplace and changing ratings technology did.

I had an all-access pass as Chicago became the talk show epicenter of the world -- Donahue, Oprah, Jerry Springer, Steve Harvey and many others. Springer in particular made a great story, hauled before the (Chicago) City Council by Alderman Ed Burke, sparking a revolt at Chicago's NBC station when he showed up to do commentary on the news and prompted Carol Marin and Ron Magers to quit. Steve Harvey wasn't quite as controversial until he left and blasted his colleagues on the way out with a memo I obtained.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I covered a cavalcade of unsavory characters who owned the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times over the years, including the likes of Conrad Black, David Radler, Michael Ferro and Sam Zell. During the Zell era, I obtained photos of a poker and cigar party in the palatial office of Colonel McCormick at Tribune Tower. Those photos from my blog wound up on the front page of The New York Times in a story that bought down CEO Randy Michaels and effectively ended the Sam Zell era.

And I had lot of fun along the way too. Deborah Norville was a 31-year-old local news anchor at NBC Chicago when she was tapped to join "The Today Show" in New York. I made a bit out of her send-off by declaring her final week on the air here "Deborah Norville Week in Chicago" with a series of columns that parodied the hype of TV sweeps. Lo and behold, I get a call from Alton Miller, Mayor Harold Washington's press secretary. He issued an official proclamation for Deborah Norville Week.

Through it all, my North Star was Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS News anchorman. He took me under his wing after I wrote him a fan letter when I was 14 and became my lifelong role model and mentor. I recently came across a letter from him around the time of my graduation in which he advised me to stick with newspapers rather than go into broadcast journalism. For the man who created the job of television anchorman, it was an extraordinary piece of advice.

Even though he has been gone for more than a decade, I've been thinking a lot about Walter lately and what a beacon he was for our profession.

At a time when many Americans believe that we are "fake news" and "enemies of the people," I'm reminded of how he stood up for us the last time attacks on journalists and freedom of the press rained down on us from Washington.

Some of us still recall that the Nixon Administration launched a concerted effort to undermine public confidence in the media. Nixon himself told his aides: "The press is the enemy." Sound familiar?

Together with Vice President Spiro Agnew, the Nixon White House kicked off the campaign against the press, going after the big three TV networks, The New York Times and The Washington Post in particular. The goal was to have a chilling effect on newsrooms across the country by tamping down aggressive reporting and criticism of the president's handling of the war in Vietnam and domestic protests.

Into which stepped Walter Cronkite, "The Most Trusted Man in America," who mounted a full-throated defense of the press. Underscoring his roots as a Middle American, he traveled to his hometown of Saint Joseph, Missouri, and addressed the Chamber of Commerce in a speech carried by "60 Minutes." In that appearance as well as in other speeches, letters to the editor and testimony before Congress, Cronkite accused the Nixon and Agnew cabal of perpetrating "a grand conspiracy to destroy the credibility of the press."

Here's a small part of what he said:

"What we're defending is the people's right to know, and we have to be at the front-line of that battle at all times. As long as the attacks, overt and subtle, continue, we must even at the risk of appearing to be self-serving, rise to defend ourselves against the charges by which the enemies of freedom seek to influence a divided and confused population."

It was as courageous as Edward R. Murrow's response to Joe McCarthy nearly two decades earlier. And it makes me wonder: Where's our Walter Cronkite now?

It's also worth remembering that what followed was actually a golden era for journalism in the post-Vietnam post-Watergate years.

Investigative reporting was considered glamorous and reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post were rock stars. Enrollments in journalism schools skyrocketed. That's the generation I was part of when I entered the Medill School of Journalism in the fall 1974. Journalists were widely admired, jobs and opportunities were plentiful, and coverage was expanding all over. Such heady times.

Remember that Gallup poll of public trust in the news media? The one about newspapers, television and radio reporting the news "fully, accurately and fairly?" In 1976, it was at 72 percent. Let that sink in.

Little did we know that golden age wouldn't last long. With the internet, cable news and social media turning everything upside, and political forces aligned against us, we no longer had "The Most Trusted Man in America" or anyone of his stature and gravitas to rally public support. And this time around, the forces against us were aided and abetted from within our own ranks.

Of those who did the most to undermine public trust in our profession, the two names at the top of my list are Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. I'd like to share a few personal impressions about both.

I still remember that day in late 1983 when they called a all-staff meeting at the Sun-Times to announce that Marshall Field was putting the paper up for sale and was seeking a suitable buyer. Lynn Sweet, a fellow reporter who now is the Washington bureau reporter, asked the publisher, Jim Hoge, whether the company would consider Rupert Murdoch a suitable buyer. Hoge responded with an immediate and unequivocal "no."

The prospect of Murdoch owning the Sun-Times was as loathsome to us as Alden Global Capital taking over the Tribune today.

So imagine our shock and disappointment a few weeks later when in walked Rupert Murdoch with $90 million. It triggered a stampede led by the great columnist Mike Royko, who famously said "no self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper." The stain of Murdoch's ownership would haunt the Sun-Times for the next 20 years.

I have to admit that working under Murdoch had its benefits. He struck me as a smart, committed newspaperman who understood how to appeal to the masses and who put his money where he mouth was. Compared with some of the crooks and scoundrels who came after him as our publishers, he wasn't all that bad.

The real trouble started when he hit on the idea of forming a fourth network and buying local television stations to form the nucleus of what he would call the Fox Network. In order to do that, he had to become an American citizen and he had to divest newspapers to comply with cross ownership restrictions. So after barely two years in Chicago, he dumped the Sun-Times and picked up WFLD -- now Fox 32.

Once Murdoch had his Fox Network in place, the next step was to create a cable news channel to compete with CNN. So he hired a former Republican media consultant and Nixon campaign TV producer named Roger Ailes. As far back as 1970, Ailes had been working on creating a partisan, pro-Republican news operation aimed at bypassing the liberal mainstream media and delivering prepackaged pro-Nixon news to local television stations.

As one historian noted: "The intellectual forerunner for Fox News was a nakedly partisan plot by Ailes and other Nixon aides to circumvent the "prejudices of network news" and deliver "pro-administration" stories to television viewers in the heartland.

Much of that ground already had been fertilized by Rush Limbaugh, whom I got to know very early on when he began in syndication. And at least in person, he struck me as fairly shy and quite surprised by the early success he had begun to achieve. He was nothing like the blustery windbag he would become. That early humility reminded me of a young Oprah Winfrey.

At that time, Rush Limbaugh would have been the first person to admit he was just an entertainer.

He was a former Top 40 DJ who called himself Jeff Christie and he patterned his delivery on Chicago radio legend Larry Lujack, who pretended to embrace pomposity while actually satirizing it. The rustling papers. The pregnant pauses. The grandiose character of "Superjock." In other words, it was all an act.

Hour after hour and day after day, Limbaugh indoctrinated his audience of millions that the media could not be trusted. Never mind that he and Fox News had bigger audiences and more powerful media platforms than any of their competitors. He systematically turned his audience against us, mocking us as "drive by media" and effectively eroding public confidence and support.

He spawned scores of imitators and transformed talk radio from coast to coast. Attacks on the "liberal media" became standard fare for all of them. It is our cross to bear.

By the time another entertainer reached the White House, we had allowed ourselves to become defined by our critics -- including those from within our own ranks.

So what can we do about it now?

We need to educate the public about what we do and how we do it. We need to do a better job of helping them distinguish between reporting and opinion. Between truth and propaganda. We need to teach media literacy to Americans of all ages.

I'm proud to say my own paper, The Daily Herald, is in the forefront with an ongoing public-service and editorial campaign called "Facts Matter." Bob Oswald writes a weekly column carefully debunking misinformation on the internet and in the media. Daily Herald editors hold frequent seminars in the community explaining what we do and how we do it. Reporters often take readers behind the scenes to explain how they cover big stories.

A number of suburban state representatives are sponsoring a bill to require public high schools in Illinois to teach media literacy. We're told the goal is for teens to learn the skills to evaluate the trustworthiness of media organizations and the objectives of the stories they read. It's a great start.

In spite of what any of our critics say, it remains a noble and honorable profession. And one that's so vital to our democracy, it's enshrined in our Constitution.

So if our readers and viewers and listeners don't love us anymore, we just have to live with it. But at least we should do all we can to stand up for ourselves and let the world know why we're needed more than ever.

As dear Uncle Walter would say: "And that's the way it is."

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