Walter Cronkite – Before the Age of Information Overload

The passing of Walter Cronkite, a man so closely associated with television news that the word for news anchor in several countries is a variation of Cronkiter, serves as a demarcation between an information age and the age of information overload.

For much of the 20th century, news was delivered once a day, first for 15 minutes and later for 30. That concept is foreign to generations that have grown up in an age of CNN and, later, the Internet.   Even when Cronkite retired as managing editor of the CBS Evening News in 1981, the 24-hour news cycle was virtually unknown (CNN, the first 24-hour news network, was founded in 1980 but was virtually unheard of at the time).

Most people in America expected to get their news, including the good and the bad, from one person, Walter Cronkite (with the help of correspondents, of course).  Given the tremendous fragmentation in the media today, with dozens of 24-hour news stations competing not only against one another but also against Internet-based sources, the phenomenon of a single news source is unlikely to happen again and that also means that the world may never again see someone with the presence and stature that Cronkite had during his tenure.

Today people are used to a battery of news and information, generally from people far less informed and insightful than Cronkite, which really is a shame.  News programs today tend towards sensationalism, entertainment, and opinion – a far cry from the traditional values of in-depth reporting, verification, relevance, and context.  Today, bloggers who masquerade as journalists post stories online which they are almost certain are not true, for the sole purpose of getting more hits on their site.

Information can be a wonderful thing but too much information can have a toxic effect.  Regardless of the medium and technology, the solution to information overload is almost always better filtering systems.  For 19 years, Walter Cronkite was the filter for America’s news.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a better filter.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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