This is Chapter Two of a three part short story on a Free Press
(Chapter One can be found here).
“I’ll never eat curry again as long as I live.” Charles whispered to himself as he began to think about Wednesday’s date with destiny, “I wonder if they’ll serve Kobe beef for lunch on Wednesday.” Although it was late, Charles felt a little hungry. He had heard about the weekly cocktail parties that the Enlightened One hosted. Charles was a little envious as he had never been invited. “I am sure to be included this week.” He thought, “I’ll be right there in the house. They will be sure to invite me.”
Charles again drifted off to sleep while visions of champagne and Kobe beef danced in his head. A bit of drool dribbled onto his pillow. Charles was again awakened by a noise, but this time it came from the bathroom. Charles thought that maybe it was his toilet running again. “Those gold plumbing fixtures just aren’t as reliable.” He muttered to himself. “They look great, but they are hard for my maids to keep clean and don’t seem to last as long.” He swung his legs off of the bed to go and jiggle the toilet, but the door opened before he could get there.
“Oh no not again.” Charles gasped as a shadowy figure appeared. But this time he knew this figure, “you’re Walter Cronkite, but wait you are not dead. How can you be a ghost?” To which Walter replied, “There are no rules for this kind of apparition. Consider my specter as metaphor for Pressmas present.” Charles felt some relief as he knew Mr. Cronkite and asked, “Since we sort of know each other, may I call you Walter?” Walter smiled and answered, “No, you can call me sir or Mr. Cronkite and that’s the way it is.”
Charles accepted that as he was Walter Cronkite after all. He was an icon in the news business and at one time widely considered the most trusted man in America. Charles hoped to have that status one day. “So why are you here, Sir?” Charles asked to which Walter (I am allowed to call him Walter) replied, “I am here to help you continue your journey to enlightenment. Ok, we don’t really expect you to become enlightened, but maybe you will see how things are changing.”
Charles expected to be transported again as he rather liked that experience so he was disappointed when a screen was lowered from his bedroom ceiling. The video that they watched included some of the most memorable moments of Mr. Cronkite’s newscasts. The first clip to play was a grainy, black and white image of Mr. Cronkite sitting behind his news desk visibly shaken as he announced that, “President Kennedy has died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time.” Charles looked over at Mr. Cronkite and noticed that he had a tear in his eye.
The video fast-forwarded a few years to show some, now color, images of an Apollo spacecraft landing on the moon for the first time as he heard “The Eagle has landed.” The coverage returns to Mr. Cronkite who seems to be at a loss for words as he announced the lunar landing. He wanted to ask Walter about that moment, but the screen changed again to a more somber broadcast. It was Mr. Cronkite’s famous editorial on the Viet Nam War. “It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” The video screen vanished.
Mr. Cronkite sighed and said, “You know I was later told that President Johnson commented after my broadcast that if he lost me, then he lost Middle America. That is the kind of status that I had at that time.” Walter continued, “I had such power that after my talk many were convinced that the United States could no longer win the war.” Charles protested, “But you were right, the war was a quagmire and was certainly lost.”
“History is written by the victors. Our friends in the media and academia have written the history books, but there is a new media that is challenging our old positions and claims. I have gone from the most trusted man in America to the most debated man in America.” Cronkite lamented, “People now use the internet and have investigated my claims and are showing that I was possibly wrong about our losing the war. They assert that we were winning and our enemies were about to surrender when they heard my broadcast. Many questioned their beliefs and suggest that my words lengthened the war.”
“Maybe I was too powerful?” Cronkite pondered. “Maybe I went too far substituting my beliefs for facts? Charles would hear none of this nonsense and started to protest, but Walter held up his hand as they were transported to a small office in the home of George, a “news correspondent” with Charles’ network.
A telephone rang and George answered, “Hey Rahm, how are things?” Charles felt more like he was eavesdropping on a personal telephone conversation, but soon the call seemed to take a more business-like turn. Charles could tell that there were more than one person involved in the conversation as he heard George ask questions of James and Paul. Charles did not know who the folks were on the line, but assumed that they were network people as they discussed many topics that would surely be broadcast on future newscasts. “What is the big deal about one of our correspondents talking to some colleagues?” Charles asked Walter.
Walter sighed, “This is your Chief Washington Correspondent who used to work for a former administration, and has daily conference calls with other political strategists and the Chief of Staff to the current president and you don’t see any appearance of conflict?” Charles had heard about these calls and protested, “They are all old friends. They have been talking together for years.” Charles felt satisfied with the response. This was not the first time that he had to defend the calls and he felt pretty good about his practiced conviction. The word they taught him was “umbrage.”
“When I was the most trusted man in America, there were not any alternative media, no other game in town. I was “THE MAN.” If people wanted the news, they watched me and I decided what they should see. No one questioned me, at least no one who had a voice or a pulpit. Those were great times.” Walter reminisced, “Times have changed. Americans no longer trust everything that you report. People recognize that even though your reports are factual, you only show the facts that you want seen. You need to recognize that citizens can find the other side and that information makes you look biased. I did not have that problem.”
Charles began to understand and felt that this was not fair. He had worked very hard to learn to read the news and just as he achieved the supreme “anchor” position, he had all of this other stuff to deal with. He knew that their once-great ratings continued to slip since Peter left and many looked to blame him. This just was not fair. He did, however, have an ace up his sleeve and it was tomorrow’s broadcast from the White House. That would be ratings gold and he would look great, except that he had to share the spotlight with Diane. She was good, but he should be the star.
“That is precisely your problem.” Walter interrupted as if reading Charles’ thoughts, “The average American, you know the Middle America that I took from President Johnson, can see that your planned newscasts are a farce. They see behind the bravado of “asking tough questions” and “we still have control of the production.“ Mr. Cronkite continued, “Even I cannot defend your event. Many are wondering how your network will combine your logo with that of this Administration’s logo. Your shows will not present opposing views; you have even refused to allow opposition to purchase commercial time give balance. Is your network for profit or is it for propaganda?”
Charles had heard enough! “Walter, we…” Cronkite interrupted, “Please call me Mr. Cronkite.” Charles continued, “Mr. Cronkite we know what is best for America to see. We will present the news as we see fit. The Administration has not placed any unreasonable demands on us. In fact, they even offered to let us use their Teleprompters. How is that for cooperation?”
Mr. Cronkite disappeared and Charles found himself alone back in his bedroom. He was so flustered that he did not think that he would ever get back to sleep. How dare Walter and other talking heads suggest that his network is kowtowing to this president and treating him like a celebrity. Charles was distracted by the tingle that he felt up his leg as he thought about spending time with POTUS.
Chapter Three can be found here.