Look to Cronkite's Kennedy coverage as example of ethical reporting.
Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, was such a slow news day that producers at CBS Evening News in New York started thumbing through evergreen files, searching for stories in the can that could fill up that evening's half-hour telecast. Several reporters and writers took off for obligatory T-G-I-F lunches.
Anchorman and managing editor Walter Cronkite, then 47, was trying to diet, so he sat at his desk unhappily munching the cottage cheese and pineapple that his wife, Betsy, had packed that morning. Cronkite was glancing at international dispatches when a five-bell alarm suddenly erupted on the Teletype machine.
"THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S MOTORCADE TODAY IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS," shouted the bulletin from United Press International. Cronkite had spent more than a decade as a UPI reporter. He had devoted his career to the credo of wire service journalism: Get it fast but get it right; ask tough questions; take nothing for granted; stay ahead of the competition.
Amid the pandemonium, Cronkite swung his team into action, demanding to go on the air live as quickly as possible. With information flooding into the newsroom, Cronkite made it categorically clear that he would not broadcast rumor or conjecture. Everything said on the air had to be doubly and triply confirmed by credible sources. Cronkite and CBS were hellbent on outhustling NBC and ABC — but not at the expense of messing up a momentous story.
Grace under pressure
As captured in JFK: One PM Central Standard Time, the documentary narrated by George Clooney that airs Wednesday on PBS, the events that transpired in the CBS newsroom that afternoon and weekend 50 years ago would come to define journalistic grace under pressure. They would also indelibly define Cronkite, transforming him into a national icon, the rock on which Americans could rely in moments of crisis.
One PM Central Standard Time ought to be required viewing in all newsrooms. Much of the news media's coverage of such recent tragedies as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Washington Navy Yard shooting has been execrable. Modern news organizations have technological resources to cover, in real time, unfolding crises in ways that Cronkite and his 1963 cohorts could only have imagined. Yet today's journalists routinely desecrate Cronkite's creed.
They get it fast, but too frequently, they don't get it right. They air rank speculation, announcing "scoops" that prove to be demonstrably and, in certain cases, maliciously false. Two networks covering the Navy Yard shooting erroneously identified the name of the assailant. The wronged man was later compelled to say, "Verify before you vilify." Various outlets compounded the hysteria by inflating the number of shooters and misidentifying the weapons involved. In the Boston bombing, multiple organizations reported phantom arrests and mischaracterized an unrelated fire as a "third explosion."
Social media hearsay
Too often in today's tragedies, stories are triggered by social media hearsay and unconfirmed chatter on police scanners. Cronkite knew that breaking stories always take confusing turns; reporters are not infallible. Before endless and instantaneous news cycles, conscientious journalists waited until facts were confirmed before reporting them. Now, for too many outlets, the modus operandi is simply "get it first — and worry about correcting it later."
Crisis coverage has gotten so gruesome, viewers don't have to wait for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to skewer it. It parodies itself.
At one point in the Navy Yard saga, a broadcast reporter stood at an intersection, pointing out random objects that had nothing to do with helping viewers understand the tragedy. Had it been possible a half-century ago for CBS to go live from Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital, its managing editor would have insisted his reporter impart news, not blather on about whatever happened to be in the sight of the camera.
The famous tear that Cronkite brushed away as, removing his glasses, he announced President Kennedy's death could serve as a commentary on modern reportage. Technology has made journalism so intrusive and "in the moment" that it has erased the boundaries of ethics and good taste. Today's journalists need to renew their vow to get it right — from the first.
Contemporary reporters don't have to eat cottage cheese to emulate Cronkite. But they would do well to exercise his judgment and restraint.
Timothy M. Gay is the author of Assignment to Hell, about Cronkite and four other World War II correspondents. Susan Bennett is the co-author of President Kennedy Has Been Shot. Both were interviewed for One PM Central Standard Time.
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