When people agreed about facts
I miss Walter Cronkite. Remember when the news was factual and everyone, at least in America, agreed about the facts of the daily news? I still read newspapers. I like the fact that the “opinion” part of the newspaper is segregated on the editorial page. I expect that the items in the news part of the paper are researched and reported factually. When I read the editorial pages, I expect to see opinions with which I will either agree or disagree.
Some of the so-called “news” on television and other media appears to be what Walter Cronkite and his contemporaries would call “fill” or features. “The Nightly News” with Cronkite was primarily just the facts: what, when, where, who and how.
Walter was known as “the most trusted man in America,” but he was not a “personality” or an entertainer. He was trusted by people across political and economic divisions. His commitment to journalism came with a refusal to allow his personal beliefs to affect his journalistic duty, to report accurate and complete news.
Where is the source today for news like Mr. Cronkite gave us? Of course, he worked in the days when we all gathered to either hear the evening news on the radio or, later, watch it on television. Thirty minutes, with commercials, was devoted to the honest, well-researched, common-sense, impartial, level-headed telling of the news of the day.
Each night, he signed off with, “And that’s the way it is.” Today “news” like that is hard to find. So often, newspeople seem to be more interested in entertaining than in informing the public.
Do you ever wonder if you are getting the truth from your favorite news source? How could the story be so different when it is told on two different channels? Why is so much of the coverage of the news couched in opinions? Why is watching news stories like reading the National Enquirer or other tabloids? Why do the journalists sit around and discuss their opinions of the stories they cover?
My father and I often disagreed about issues and politics but we could sit and watch Walter together and know we were getting the factual story with necessary background and detail. Walter wouldn’t tell us what to think or how to feel, although he did get emotional when he had to report that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. I knew he was human and I never doubted that he cared about what was happening, but he trusted his audience to form their own opinions.
Are we educating our young people to discern facts from opinion? During the elementary years, schools concentrate on teaching skills: reading, writing, math. At some point, those skills should be applied to critical thinking.
In that environment, the teacher ceases to be the one with all the answers. Students are encouraged to think through issues for themselves, to investigate, discuss and even disagree with the instructor. Probably prime time for this type of learning is middle school because adolescence is the time when young people begin to question authority.
Mature adults should not seek and find information that is one-sided, narrowly focused and factually inaccurate. The search for truth requires observation, analysis, questioning, open-mindedness and investigation. Self-awareness and understanding our own biases is key to evaluating evidence and questioning authority. Active listening to other people and access to various points of view improves our ability to evaluate whether our reasoning is faulty.
Ask yourself, are you too quick to make judgments about people and issues. What do you do when you learn that you have made a serious mistake about a person or group? Do you tend to have difficulty changing your mind once you form an opinion? Do you seek out news sources that confirm what you already think? Do you surround yourself with people who do not disagree with your views?
We have experienced a drama-filled time, with constant “breaking news” and headline stories, shock and awe, fear and scandal. I, for one, long for humdrum “just the facts ma’am” news coverage; weather forecasts without debate about global warming; health and scientific information without political hyperbole; facts about events more than personalities, and information that seeks to inform rather to cause shock or incitement.
I believe that there are sources for the Cronkite-type news if we seek them out. The internet gives us the opportunity to fact check stories that seem biased. We cannot solve serious problems and continue to live in a democracy without some shared truths. Sure we have personal truths that may not always be the same, but we cannot properly understand, tolerate and compromise with each other unless we hold certain truths in common.
We can take the trouble to discover for ourselves what is valid, observable, confirmable, historic, scientific and factual. We can then differ in our points of view while agreeing on the facts, which will give us room for reasonable debate and sensible compromise. Democracy is not dependent upon either unity or equality. What is essential is striving to live together harmoniously and productively.
Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.