Robert Fulford's column about geezer- thinking

(Globe and Mail, April 1, 1998)

For more than four seasons in the 1950s, Walter Cronkite narrated a CBS television show, You Are There, which treated events from history as current news stories. An on-the-spot report from ancient Athens, for instance, might involve interviewing the young, toga-wearing Paul Newman about the death of Socrates. The words Cronkite solemnly intoned at the beginning and end of each program became part of the language, and recently I discovered I could still find them in some distant tunnel of memory: "What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with the events that alter and illuminate our time. Everything is as it was, except...You are there."

What made me recall You Are There was a New York Times column in which Frank Rich said the late 1990s are "an era in which the boundaries between reality and entertainment have disappeared," blurring "reality and fantasy." That wasn't strikingly original, to say the least. Many others say the same, always with the implication that in the past such matters were better ordered, journalism was more honest, and everybody knew what was reality and what was fantasy.

This is geezer-thinking. A geezer is someone who unconsciously rewrites history so that his generation looks better than the generations following, particularly the latest. You can recognize a geezer by his language--"In my day" (followed by gaseous braggadocio) or "Kids today" (followed by dire observations on the downfall of thought and morality). Geezers have recently found a new term, "dumbing down." They're always finding another example of the dumbing down of TV, newspapers, schools, etc. In their day, apparently, people were smarter, and so were the newspapers, television, and schools. I don't remember it that way (all to the contrary, in fact), but geezers are entitled to their opinion. What annoys me is that they seem not to realize that they've remembered the good stuff and forgotten the rest; nor do they understand that they've developed a vested interest in finding the present appalling. (For some perverse reason, it makes them feel good.) Geezers are usually men: in my experience, women don't take this approach. Often they are men of advanced years, but a geezer doesn't need to be old--I've known geezers of 30. It's as much a state of mind as a stage in life. Frank Rich, who is not old, has been nattering on like a geezer for years.

If blurring fact and fiction worries him, he should get out some old kinescopes of You Are There. Cronkite and his colleagues shamelessly played fictionalized versions of themselves, the way Larry King now plays himself in an apparently endless series of movies. (Actually, he's done it in only 14 movies and six TV sitcoms--it just seems like hundreds.)

You Are There turned the best reporters on American TV into bad actors, covering the fall of Troy, the Salem witchcraft trials, the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, and even the shoot-out at the OK Coral (reporter in hushed, golf-tournament tones: "From where I'm standing I can see Wyatt Earp moving toward...."). It was history turned into romantic fiction every Sunday evening, brought to us by the same reporters who, on weekdays, told us about President Eisenhower, the UN and the atomic bomb. At the time, nobody said anything about eroding credibility or blurring lines. Cronkite later became (according to polls published in the 1960s) the most trusted man in America.

Rich's views are shared by a much older geezer, Don Hewitt. He produces the most successful journalistic TV show, Sixty Minutes, which employs the prince of geezers, Andy Rooney. Interviewed on the completion of his 50th year in TV, Hewitt expressed his concern about blurring: "For the old news giants, the motto was, 'News is news and entertainment is entertainment, and never the twain shall meet.' Well, the twain have met. And it's not good." He also deplored the lowering of standards on prime-time news shows: "You end up doing these consumer-oriented 'news you can use' stories, and celebrity interviews."

Did he say celebrity interviews? When someone like Hewitt says "the old news giants," we know whom he means, above all--Edward R. Murrow (1908-65), who organized the CBS News department and set its standards. Just about everyone who writes about Murrow elevates him to sainthood, but it shouldn't be forgotten that he was also a pioneer in celebrity stroking and one of the most sycophantic interviewers in history. Every Friday night for six years he interviewed two famous people on Person to Person, demonstrating each time his mastery of the carefully rehearsed question and answer ("That painting behind you on the wall--is that a family portrait" or "Is that a golf trophy?").

Murrow should be remembered for his excellent reporting, his brilliant documentaries, and his genius-level talent-spotting. But when geezers talk about him it should also be noted that his program was the first show that treated Zsa Zsa Gabor and John Steinbeck in precisely the same way, thereby helping establish the now-dominant view that being well-known is more important than accomplishment and one celebrity is much like another. In other words, that great journalistic hero of the past did as much as anyone to create the celebrity culture of today.

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