Bob Simon had it. David Carr had it. Brian Williams lost it. And Jon Stewart mocked it.
“It” is personal integrity—the fundamental asset of that particularly American type, the “newsman.” Simon, of CBS, and Carr, of the New York Times, are being mourned this week by colleagues as epitomes of it. Simon, a tireless globetrotter and war reporter, was a classic newsman, while Carr, a recovered crack cocaine addict who wound up as more of a public face for the New York Times than even its editors-in-chief, was a more unlikely one. But both seemed to embody the idealized toughness, kindness, empathy, and dogged loyalty to the truth that Americans, going back to the Walter Cronkite era, have expected their newspeople to have.
Of course, eulogies tend to amplify this kind of idealization. Even in Cronkite’s time, that trust was probably over-rated; today, it’s collapsed. Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was this week suspended for embellishing stories about his Iraq war coverage, did a good pseudo-Cronkite, but the ground has shifted, and he suffered at the slightest dent in that façade.
The comedian Jon Stewart, who ended an era this week by announcing his departure from the Daily Show, had something to do with that. He made a career of pricking the awful pomposity of American TV news, especially CNN’s. But the rise of internet media has played its part too. Phoniness on TV has given way to almost too-raw honesty in web video. A big force behind that shift has been Vice News, of which Carr started out a critic and later became a grudging admirer (paywall).
If journalism, in whatever form, is to be worth anything, the values of people like Carr and Simon must underpin it. To say, as CNN did, that “the media world has lost four of its titans” is to make precisely the kind of vacuous generalization that gives journalism a bad name. Carr would have had fun ridiculing it; Stewart may yet get the chance.