Walter Cronkite unnerved a nation 56 years ago, by taking off his glasses.
The video has been seen by countless millions over the decades: Cronkite announcing on live television in 1963 the death of President Kennedy. He stops for a moment, removes his glasses, composes himself and moves on. That gesture rattled Americans because they expected journalists to convey a calm sense of authority, a reassuring stoicism in the face of Cold War standoffs, civil unrest and even the assassination of a president.
Things have changed. Emotion now blankets the media landscape like an infant’s crib at bedtime. Google “Shepard Smith emotional,” and up come nearly 3 million results, many of them focused on the Fox anchor’s recent visceral response to immigrant suffering. A search of “Rachel Maddow crying” delivers more than 1 million offerings, many for the MSNBC host’s reaction to border detentions and the Mueller report. “Brooke Baldwin tears” uncovers nearly 2 million entries for the CNN reporter’s reaction to a variety of news events.
They are not alone. Contemporary culture trusts feelings over facts, rewards heated emotion — tears or anger — and rejects medium cool. The effect on journalism is unmistakable. And a lot of the blame can be placed on those all-too-common twin devils: television and the internet.
From the earliest days of television, journalists understood the power of an image to overwhelm objectivity. That’s why Cronkite and others worked hard to present the news without emotional cues: no raised eyebrows, head-shaking, or wide-eyed incredulity. They presented the news simply, expecting this would counteract that gut-level response all humans have to striking images.
It didn’t work for long. As television began to overtake newspapers, images trumped words, viewing overpowered reading. In the 1980s TV news actually became profitable, which increased pressure on electronic journalism to highlight emotional images that delivered viewers.
Then, in this century, the internet blew everything up. Now photos and video are available all the time, in any quantity. News organizations feel pressed to do whatever they can to grab viewers’ attention in the midst of this staggering clutter of emotional imagery.