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On Walter Cronkite's signoff, what it takes to be a good citizen, and the demise of Headline News
When Walter Cronkite signed off the CBS Evening News with the declaration, "And that's the way it is", he wasn't telling the whole truth. Cronkite's phrase, depending on your point of view, was somewhere between highly aspirational and cripplingly hubristic. When, seated in the same anchor's chair, Dan Rather signed off instead with "And that's part of our world tonight", he was being far more modest and precise with his words.
■ Nothing about an evening news broadcast could reasonably capture the entirety of "the way it is" for a world teeming with 8 billion souls. Even the best-managed news organization could only ever hope to document a trivial fraction of the whole, much less decide how much weight to give to each of the constituent stories.
■ And yet it is a good thing that the nightly television news still tries to achieve something close to "the way it is", even if nobody really says it out loud. The world is vast and complicated, but good citizenship entails trying to have an informed opinion about the important questions. With so many outlets dedicated more to framing "the way we think it ought to be" than "the way it is", a good-faith attempt to tell the latter story remains a public service.
■ For decades, CNN Headline News tried to be just such a courier of events. Much like legendary all-news radio stations like WINS in New York or WBBM in Chicago, CNN Headline News offered the premise "Give us 30 minutes and we'll give you the world". It's an impossible bargain to fulfill, no matter the medium, but the aspiration counts for something. So does the periodicity: Every new half-hour or hour of coverage was an opportunity to correct an oversight or improve upon an editorial judgment from the prior one.
■ But there is no home-grown news on Headline News anymore, and scarcely any news at all. It's now branded just "HLN", and it's mostly devoted to "true crime" shows. The only news content is retransmitted from CNN proper.
■ Like so many other changes in news, the demise of Headline News as a format can be explained away rationally, but that doesn't make it any less of a social loss. There are lots of alternative sources for non-stop television coverage of real news, of course -- the major networks have each nudged their way into all-news streaming with "ABC News Live", "CBS News Streaming Network", and "NBC News Now" -- but part of the allure of the original Headline News was that it refreshed frequently without actually changing materially from one hour to the next.
■ Thus, the viewer could hypothetically leave Headline News playing in the background all day without devoting full attention to it -- but a viewer could also feel perfectly free to shut it off and walk away. Part of "Give us 30 minutes" is an implicit "only": You aren't being asked to make your television news coverage a lifestyle statement. It's merely an outlet to sample before turning away to live a balanced life. Given the truly astonishing blocks of time that some Americans devote to non-stop media consumption, the demise of outlets that created a permission structure to just walk away is a bigger loss than one might think.