Walter Cronkite, the legendary broadcaster affectionately known as the ‘most trusted name in news’ passed way on July 17, 2009 at the age of 92. In our June 3, 1996 issue Cronkite contributed to a forum on the state of national media. This is that piece.
Nearly every important publishing and broadcasting company today is caught up in the plague of the nineties that has swept the business world-the stockholder demand to increase profits.
Adequate profits are clearly necessary for survival, but stockholders in too many cases demand superprofits. Compliant managements play the game that stock value is the only criterion of success. In the news business, that isn’t good enough. The lack of a sense of public service begins today with the ownership of too many newspapers and broadcasting companies–that is, the stockholders. Stewardship of our free press is a public service and a heavy responsibility. It should not be treated the same as the manufacture of bobby pins, or of automobiles.
But to play today’s downsizing game, the boards and their executives deny to their news managers enough funding to pay for the minimum coverage necessary to serve their communities adequately. Good reporters, writers and editors are spread too thin to spend the time developing the stories that the public needs. A more responsible press can come only if the owners re-dedicate themselves to sound journalistic principles instead of attempting to satisfy an insatiable stock market. That’s the real bottom line. We all know that journalism can require all sorts of courage. The working journalist faces those challenges every day.
It seems to me that we have the right to demand a little courage on the part of those in the seats of power–the presidents and publishers and CEOs–courage to face their stockholders and impress upon them the responsibility that goes with their stewardship of our free press, the basic foundation of our democracy.