On The Loss of the Serious

It seems that every summer and every year has its notable obituaries. That of Teddy Kennedy still echoes in my mind, as I’m sure it will for a long time to come. But there’s one passing that I’ve been chewing on a lot lately, and it’s that of Walter Cronkite.

Luckily, I’m old enough to know what people mean when they call him “the most trusted man in America.” As a child growing up in the 70’s, I remember his face telling me and my family all about Nixon and McGovern, Vietnam, and a variety of other things I just didn’t get at the time.

What I did get, though, is that these were matters of consequence. That meant they were to be discussed at the dinner table, at social gatherings, and whenever possible, in school. More than anyone else, Walter Cronkite modeled a way of relating to the important issues of the day, one which hovered beautifully between stuffiness and the silliness that takes place on so many “news” programs today.

How did he do it? As I recall, it’s because he leveled with me (when you’re in grade school, this means the world to you). He seemed to address me with a candor and directness that I’d only heard adults use with each other.

I’ve heard that called “gravitas.” I can’t tell if that’s a compliment anymore.

Nowadays, the “news” on tv and cable it seems almost deliberately mixed together with “talk,” so much so that opinionating becomes confused with reporting. And the more prestigious the individual, the more “seriously” we are supposed to take what they have to say.

There’s one little problem, however, and it’s immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever watched Walter deliver the news. These guys and gals aren’t telling us anything.

Sure, they’re giving us their (often valuable, sometimes priceless) perspective.  But you can’t have a perspective unless and until you know what the relevant facts are.  People without access to a newsfeed, who depend on the commentators to know what’s going on, simply become clones — liberal or conservative.  And they get progressively more set in their beliefs, which only polarizes the country further.

No doubt this suits some people, but it doesn’t have to suit us.  Or democracy.

What Walter and the newspeople of his generation did best was tell you, as best they could, just what happened, and let you decide what to make of it.  Sure they made editorial choices; but at least they knew the difference between commenting on the news (it used to be called “editorializing”), and presenting it.

However, there’s another dimension to the problem, and that’s what I would call the loss of the serious. At the same time we replace news with commentary, we seem bent, as a culture, on trivializing the kinds of things people used to take seriously.

And no, serious never meant dour or stuffy. It just meant sincere.

It’s no accident that shows like “The Daily Show” are among the most highly rated today, because they feed on the cultural need to make a joke of everything. This is not to say that some things and people aren’t to be made fun of (or constitute walking jokes themselves), not at all. What it is to say is that a culture which also substitutes the silly for the serious loses its ability to decide what’s worth talking about in the first place.

When I was a kid, you knew that some things, like race, poverty, Vietnam, and the Constitution, were meant to be taken seriously, and others, like what kind of jeans you wore (anyone remember Jordache or Brittania?) were not.

Nowadays, people seem just as casual about their religious, political, and moral beliefs as they are about what to have for dinner. Or worse, they exude more passion for their dinner choices than they do for their moral, religious, or political ones.

In losing Walter, we’ve lost more than an outstanding journalist. We’ve lost a cherished guide to something that used to be taken for granted, something that every kid knew, and that today’s kids have to fight, tooth and claw, to get for themselves.

That is the ability to distinguish fact from opinion (especially how opinions determine what gets to count as a fact), and the ability to see life choices as slightly more important than consumer ones.

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