The World Keeps Turning by Columnist Allen Woods: A look in the funhouse mirror

  • Allen Woods

  • Walter Cronkite, on his 64th birthday, anchors his last CBS election night special while broadcasting in New York City on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980. AP PHOTO

Published: 5/7/2022 1:44:25 PM

When Walter Cronkite signed off from his last news broadcast, he used his familiar tag line: “And that’s the way it is, March 6, 1981.” Surprisingly, compared to our world today, most of us believed him.

At one point during his career, he topped a poll that asked, “Who is the most trusted person in America?” The last time they did a similar poll (it seems pollsters have given up searching for a trust consensus) in 2013, 5 of the top 6, and 13 of the top 20 were actors or entertainers, people who excel at pretending to be someone else rather than providing reliable information.

Cronkite was reassuring on a visceral level. Often described as avuncular (I guess everyone should have an uncle with such a soothing baritone and calm, forthright demeanor), he regularly stated his view that a news broadcaster should report facts rather than express opinions, concentrate on informing viewers rather than entertaining them. One famous quotation placed him in a position vacated by most TV news people for years: “In seeking truth, you need to get both sides of a story.”

He turned down offers to do commentary rather than reporting, explaining that "Our job is only to hold up the mirror —  to tell and show the public what has happened.” In retirement, he noted TV’s news failure, explaining that evening news programs focused on attempting “to entertain as much as to inform in the desperate fight for ratings."

From its earliest days in the 1930s all the way to 1989, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) used guidelines for TV and radio that included a “Fairness Doctrine.” To get or retain a license, stations had to offer opportunities to present opposing viewpoints if a person or group felt theirs hadn’t been fairly represented. For years, I thought that phasing out this rule under President Reagan was a major factor in creating our current, highly-partisan echo chamber (now including the internet) that amplifies and repeats opinions as if they were facts.

But a bit of research showed that even the Fairness Doctrine hadn’t been used fairly. Under a variety of presidents, including FDR, it was a tool for threatening and punishing opponents of the party in power. Fox News mocks the FCC’s original goal by advertising itself as “fair and balanced.” In today’s manipulative news world, it’s hard to know what to believe.

During Cronkite’s career, he reported on the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago which included some of the absurdist guerilla theater of the Yippies. To state their distrust of the political system, they nominated a pig — Pigasus — for president to oppose Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Earlier, they illustrated their belief in the greed of Wall Street traders by dumping baskets of dollar bills onto the trading floor and filming the brokers scrambling to grab as many as possible. They used their pranks to express their own beliefs and allow others (such as the stock traders) to show theirs.

Through the Sunday news program “60 Minutes,” I recently became aware of a group of young adults that uses the slogan “Birds Aren’t Real” on billboards and internet posts to propose the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories: for decades, the U.S. government has killed (“genocided”) all living birds and replaced them with intelligence-gathering robot-birds that spy on our every move with evil intentions.

Luckily, the group doesn’t actually believe the story they’ve concocted, even though they’ve gotten some support all around the country. In their TV interview, they admitted that their fabrication is intended to shine a light on our “post-truth” world as “an experiment in misinformation,” a tactic they’ve seen used in a wide variety of social and political settings. Explaining that they’ve been “raised on the internet” and forced to “straddle multiple realities,” their campaign is designed to allow them to “laugh at the madness rather than be overcome by it.” They are fighting “lunacy with lunacy.” In a reflection of Cronkite’s approach, they see themselves as “holding up a mirror to America in the internet age.”

We can all use some careful consideration of what we see in the mirror these days. Today’s guerilla theater performers may even get us to laugh at the funhouse image that stares back at us.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era crime novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at 




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