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Some Tarnish On The "Golden Age?"

Voicing dissent from many remembrances of the "glory days" of mainstream media, New York Times' TV critic Alessandra Stanley writes: "Never again will there be an anchor like Walter Cronkite. And thank heaven for that." Keying off tonight's PBS special on the former CBS News anchor, "Walter Cronkite: Witness to History," Stanley takes issue with the idea that yesterday's bread-and-butter news was superior to today's information smorgasbord. Here's Stanley:
Television news hasn't changed as much as people say. But viewers have. Few have much appetite these days for the godlike anchor who boldly intervenes in the events of the day. Nobody wants to watch Brian Williams declare that the war in Iraq is not winnable. Or see Katie Couric coax the leader of Hezbollah to visit Israel in an on-air telephone interview. When shocking tragedy happens, be it an assassination or Sept. 11, there is more than one trusted face to turn to.
In fact, Stanley turns to a rather unlikely source to make her point about the quality of TV news – reality shows. Not some talent contest reality program but "30 Days," a show on the FX network. The premise of the show is to put people in a different situation for 30 days – a sort of walk-in-their-shoes experiment.

The show kicks off a new season tonight and focuses on illegal immigration. The program takes legal Cuban immigrant Frank George (a member of the Minutemen citizen border-patrol group), and pairs him with an family of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles. Stanley:

It's the kind of fish-out-of-water conceit that fuels reality shows like "Wife Swap," only this one is not done for laughs. Mr. George, passionately opposed to any legislation that would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, has to defend his position while sharing a one-bedroom apartment with Rigoberto and Patricia and their five children. (The youngest two, born in the United States, are citizens, but the rest are not.) He grows fond of the parents but bristles at what he views as the presumption of their eldest daughter, an A student who plays golf and dreams of going to Princeton.
Stanley sees this as an "unusually close-up and engrossing look" at the newsy issue of illegal immigration. It certainly is, but does it qualify as "news?" It certainly can be seen as a documentary and ostensibly helps viewers to a more intimate understanding of a big, complicated and emotional issue. But do we get more than familiarity with a small number of characters? She closes with this: 'Television news is not regarded the way it was in the golden days of CBS, but that doesn't mean it has gotten worse. A lot of it is better."

Stanley has an interesting point: people today have different ways to absorb information, not just different "platforms" but different "forms" to help shape their understanding of the world around us. I'm not at all sure that I agree any of it is "better." What do you think?

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