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stumbling in the footsteps of giants
the way it is...is not the way it was
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)

It's been an astounding week.

Last Friday brought news of the death of Walter Cronkite, aka "Uncle Walter," aka "the most trusted man in America"; the iconic journalist broadcast his last breath at age 92. Though others had succeeded him behind the desk at the CBS Evening News since his retirement in 1981, Cronkite remained inseparably linked to the anchorman's role. He was, for several generations of Americans, the warm, solemn voice that guided the nation through some of its greatest tumults and grandest triumphs.

Of those triumphs, perhaps none was greater than the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 40th anniversary of which was this past Monday. Astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and even the media-reticent Neil Armstrong appeared for photo-ops with President Obama, while TV ran clips of white-suited spacemen bouncing on the moon and some clever geeks at NASA recreated the entire mission as a series of tweets between Mission Control (@CAPCOM) and the spacecraft (@Columbia, @Eagle).

Cronkite covered America's space program with a barely-tempered excitement that softened the edges of his stalwart objectivity. The momentary break in his professional facade -- a gleeful "Oh boy! Whew!" (~7:40) -- was something all viewers could relate to, just as they had six years earlier, when a visibly shaken Cronkite confirmed that President Kennedy had been killed (~5:00).

Monumental times, monumental men. Cronkite, ever unassuming, at least in his public face, probably would have demurred at being associated with brave pioneers like the Apollo 11 crew, but looking back across these 40 years, I see more similarities than differences.

Consider these two anecdotes.

The first concerns Buzz Aldrin, who for years now has been the most media-friendly of the Apollo 11 crew. However, his approachable nature and amiable personality have never diminished his professionalism, or the dedication he put into his career; as a fighter pilot during the Korean War, and then an astronaut, he routinely faced life-or-death circumstances during the course of his duties.

So when a would-be documentarian, working on a film project that sought to disprove the moon landings, got in Dr. Aldrin's face -- cameras rolling -- and accused him of being "a coward, a liar, and a thief," Aldrin decked him with a right hook. (Aldrin was 72 at the time; we should all be so fit when we're his age.)

The second story concerns Cronkite's coverage of the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant back in 1979. But the incident in question didn't take place on the air, but in the hallways of CBS' news division.

Sanford Socolow, a producer at CBS since the 1960s, was struck by the similarity of events developing at Three Mile Island to the plot of "The China Syndrome," a movie released just a few days before. Socolow even arranged a private screening for the news division; Cronkite didn't attend. But the next day Socolow approached him, suggesting that the parallels between the movie and real life were deserving of a story. Cronkite yelled at him, "I'm not in the goddamn business of selling movie tickets."

Remember that the next time you're watching the news, and a "story" comes on about the latest Hollywood blockbuster... or about some self-styled celebrity who's wrapped her car around some paparazzi. Once upon a time, the news was...the news. If you happen to watch the Three Mile Island clip that's linked above, you'll see an astonishing 15 minutes -- not including the single commercial break -- out of a 30 minute news show devoted to in-depth coverage of the event. When was the last time you saw that kind of coverage on a network? (Navel-gazing retrospectives on Michael Jackson don't count.)

I think that broadcast news changed substantially on March 9, 1981 -- the first night of the first news cycle without Walter Cronkite sitting at his desk. According to Socolow, Cronkite went out on his terms, at the top of his game; the 27 to 29 million viewers that Cronkite regularly pulled in is more than all three network news shows combined can manage, today.

But if Cronkite were still around to ask, I think he might instead point to September 2, 1970, as the beginning of the end. That was the day that NASA bean counters canceled the planned Apollo 18 and 19 missions; Apollo 20 had already been scrapped back in January. And though man would continue to walk on the moon for two more years, until Apollo 17 in December 1972, the future of manned space travel was sealed. It's bitterly ironic, that less than 14 months after Neil Armstrong walked unfettered on a distant world, Congressional budget cuts would tether the space program to a short leash -- one that couldn't stretch beyond low Earth orbit -- and we've remained there ever since.

And so I'm left wondering if Walter Cronkite saw the writing on the wall. We would not go back to the moon. We would not go on to Mars. We send robots out instead. They're somehow cheaper, and more expendable. In case they're not keeping score on Capitol Hill, though:

Killed in American spaceflight/NASA operations, 1972-2009: 17
Killed in American combat/peacekeeping missions, 1972-2009: ~6,104

I won't even waste time comparing NASA's budget with that of the Department of Defense. But just as some fast perspective, NASA's entire projected budget for 2009 was around $17 billion dollars. The bailout to AIG alone was $170 billion: ten times NASA's budget.

Forty years ago, men from the planet Earth set foot upon the moon. Forty years ago, a dedicated journalist rubbed his hands, speechless at the wonder of it all. What have we done since then? Killed and spent and gluttoned our way into a morass of moral and ethical quandries, environmental and economic crises, all spoon-fed back to us with requisite polish and spin.

We have lost our capacity to conceive big dreams, to accomplish big things. And until we find that capacity, then the best we can do is to trot out three proud old men, and mourn a fourth, and wish for the days when small steps became giant leaps.

And that, sadly, is the way it is.


If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

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