Walter Cronkite in Purgatory (A Fantasia):
It's not that Walter Cronkite necessarily expected to go straight to Heaven after he died. No, he was used to being consigned to a vast, empty, middle space, having thought upon his retirement that, surely, CBS News would rely upon him as a kind of anchor emeritus. Instead, he was abandoned like an incontinent dog whose owners didn't have the time to care for. Done in by the very bastards he had elevated, told he was a fossil against the evolved, snappy shallowness of the news on ABC, he could at least comfort himself that he outlasted David Brinkley. And then, because he still had some things he wanted to say, Walter Cronkite did hour-long documentaries for the wasteland of barely-viewed cable stations, the kinds of things that the decimated network news bureaus used to do and that a public who at least pretended to give a shit watched.
So Cronkite was used to Purgatory. And when his soul stalled in an empty room, he knew he wasn't in Hell. But it wasn't Heaven. He figured he had a few sins to answer for. That time he broke Harry Reasoner's nose with a martini shaker when that son of a bitch stole an interview slot with Kissinger. That evening he spent masturbating in a corner while watching Ed Murrow madly ball Vivian Vance at the Plaza after a network banquet. That time he nude oil wrestled Chet Huntley for the deranged pleasures of Pat Weaver and William Paley. That weekend in Cape Cod with Barbara Walters where they never even saw the ocean. That tormenting thought that if he had opposed the Vietnam War even sooner, in 1967, in 1966, that it could have saved lives. Cronkite's conscience never let him rest while on Earth. Why would it in the afterlife?
The final straw for him was the coverage of the death of Michael Jackson. As he saw everyone who ever considered themselves a real journalist actually spend time, as if a president or civil rights leader had passed, delving into the death of another drug addict whose presence in the world had dwindled to a mere freak show burp in the wind was too much. There was no reason for him to be alive anymore. As he let himself die, he mourned not himself, but his profession. As degraded as it had become, one of the hopes after the September 11, 2001 attacks was that the news found its purpose again, that the brain-numbing concentration on gossip and bullshit like the Chandra Levy death was going to be consigned to the back pages, that the press was going to re-take its place as an unacknowledged check and balance.
But between the corporatization and concentration of the media and the uncritical reporting of the march to the Iraq War, the hyping of American bloodlust, when he had said, so very clearly, that such things were futile, assured the death of his kind of journalism. It's not that glorification of crime, violence, and celebrity, and the luscious mixture of them, didn't exist during his time. But those were blips, not the raison d'etre of the news. They were the occasional indulgences that lasted a day, not the bread and butter that fed the news cycle.
Still, though, Cronkite couldn't understand the purpose in the fact that his room in Purgatory was filled with televisions showing all the talking heads, all O'Reilly, Beck, Maddow, Olbermann, Hannity, Matthews, Grace, Sanchez, and more, every anchor on every 24-hour news network, none of them offering anything without commentary, none of them simply giving us the news, all of them spinning and breaking facts to suit their ideas and agendas, whether alone or with guests. Cronkite wanted to know why he should be forced to see this, these pretenders who would never command the respect he had had, let alone the numbers.
Three years of this, of the undying thrum of editorial masked as news, and he finally got it. He had to admit it: his proudest moment was also the beginning of the death of news. It wasn't just the corporate culture and the merging of commercial and press concerns. He had to say that his declaration of the Vietnam War as "unwinnable" was also his greatest sin. His outrage mainstreamed subjectivity. He had to accept that in order to get out and finally see Betsy again.
But not just that. No, that would be too simple, and God is nothing if not a tricky motherfucker. What Cronkite realized was that to just accept that he is one of the reasons that all television news now wears its biases as badges of honor would be to give in to those who had attacked him for turning on the war. What he also decided was that he had to understand the sin and then say he would do the same thing all over again. That it was both a betrayal of the trust he had built up and his sacred duty because of that very trust. His job was to report the news, yes, but it wasn't to watch idly as the leaders of the nation sent kids to death. So take the good with the bad. If Bill O'Reilly was the result, so be it.
As the room around him began to disappear, as his ascension began, Cronkite was mournful, because he had opened the floodgates. But he didn't make the flood. Johnson did. Nixon did. He merely tried, as best he could, in the only way he knew, to alleviate the damage.