First Michael Jackson and now this. A little over a week ago, I was captive in a local car repair shop for over two hours as one absurdity after the next dribbled out from the non-stop television coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral. A phalanx of commentators paused to reflect solemnly on Jackson’s manifold contributions to the world of pedophilia–er, I mean, to the world of pop culture.
It is possible, I’m told, for a kind-hearted person to experience pity when contemplating the wreck that was Michael Jackson’s life. But could anyone really take him seriously as an cultural figure? (His place as a cultural symptom raises a different question.) I found nausea competed heartily with irritation as the assembled news casters marshaled superlative after superlative to describe the career of someone whose entire life was a monument to voracious commercial exploitation, on the one hand, and artistic nullity fired by unstopped narcissism, on the other. [UPDATE: But I think there is a lot to be said for this Michael Jackson.]
Now, apparently, we are going to be treated to the same cloacal cataract of sentimentality about Walter Cronkite. One had to have a heart of stone, said Oscar Wilde, and not laugh at Dickens’ account of the death of “Little Nell.” Similarly, one has to have a cast iron stomach to withstand the adulation accumulating around the name of Walter Cronkite in the aftermath of his death at 92 last week. “Hero, role model, friend” ran a typical headline. Almost all of the scores, nay, hundreds of stories about Cronkite that have appeared in the last few days solemnly cite a poll that denominated that homely, mustachioed news reader “The most trusted man in America.” Was he? By whom was he trusted?
According to a story in The Los Angles Times, Cronkite was “was not just a news man.” Quite right. He was also a pop celebrity. Like Michael Jackson, he was so successful because he perfectly incarnated certain popular clichés. His success was not a matter of substance. It was a matter of tone. As that piece in the LA Times acknowledged, “The news that Cronkite reported was barely distinct from the news his colleague-competitors reported.” Indeed. He didn’t research or write the news. He read it. He emitted the same platitudes every other news reader mouthed. He did so, however, with a sort of cardigan authenticity that used car salesmen would climb naked over broken bottles to emulate. When JFK was assassinated, Cronkite wept, almost. He swooned when Neil Armstrong walked upon the moon. He was righteously indignant over the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and the war in Iraq. How he loathed President Bush, how he admired President Carter, the “smartest” president he ever met. He was a partisan news reader whose reputation for impartiality survived only because he espoused the same ideology as those in the media who determine who is awarded points for impartiality. Liberals like Cronkite suppose they are objective because they are secure in the belief that their opinions represent a neutral state of nature. It is (they believe) only those who dissent from those opinions who bring politics into the equation.
Michael Jackson was famous for inventing a dance step called the moonwalk in which the dancer seems to float backwards while walking in place. Walter Cronkite did something similar. He seemed to float above the yapping clamor of common opinion. At bottom, though, he merely reflected it. The adulation that has greeted his demise is as unearned as it is emetic.