Whatever your opinion of Walter Cronkite’s credibility as a journalist, the comparison between him and Philip DeFranco has been made. Is there a reason beyond a simple comparison of integrity? Maybe, the answer to that lies deep in the past.
First we must answer why Television news exists at all. In part the answer is obvious. Would you rather live in a world without TV or a world with it? In spite of those who long for a simpler existence, most of us would choose to have this convenience. But, why news on TV? The answer will be more surprising to most of you. Before the age of twenty-four hour a day cable news and the news hay day in the 1980’s, news on TV was never a sure commercial success. In fact some could argue that it still isn’t.
Broadcasting television news is the law, sort of. The Federal Communications Commission, created by Congress with the passing of the Communications Act of 1934, respected the power of broadcasting and the limitations of radio spectrum that would one day exist, as Congress intended. Hearkening back to the will of Thomas Jefferson to better regulate the commons, the FCC regulated public broadcasting in such a way that the term “public broadcasting” stuck around in the lexicon. The air space and bandwidth for TV AM and FM belong to the people of the United States. If you follow all the rules the FCC sets forth they might let you broadcast on these channels, or not.
The understanding that the government held all of the power, seriously affected early broadcasting. Requirements for meeting the needs of the public were relatively significant. Among them over the years were requirements for studio facilities at every broadcast station, maximum number of hours dedicated to a single network, minimum hours of locally produced content, no obscenity or profanity, minimum broadcast hours per day, and so on.
Relevant here though is the so called “Fairness Doctrine.” In 1949 the courts struck down the Mayflower Doctrine. Enforced from 1941 up to that point, it prohibited editorializing on the radio. By the end of 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was in place. It required, instead, that there be adequate coverage of public issues and that it fairly represented opposing views. Including a requirement for issue oriented citizens to be able to reply on air.
Philip DeFranco’s known practice of approaching a story from all perspectives of thought exemplify this style of journalism. This includes “on air” engagement of the public through his Friday show.
Answering the question, “Why the news on TV?”. The Fairness Doctrine does not require the existence a of a regular newscast, per se. However, when enforced along with other regulations, a news team makes the most sense compared to the alternatives.
While the Fairness Doctrine is still part of FCC rules it no longer enforces this rule as a result of a 1987 legal ruling against it, upheld on appeal in 1989.
By 1995 many news programs started to shift away from “hard news” stories. Instead often opting for lighter and happier fair, especially at the end of the newscast. Most abandoning “hard news” or “real news” altogether, within the first decade of this century.
Walter Cronkite was the anchor of Walter Cronkite with the News from April 16, 1962 to the start of the CBS Evening News from September 2, 1963 to March of 1981. With his most memorable coverage likely being that of the Vietnam War and his coverage of The Washington Post’s Pentagon Papers story. Cronkite’s era was well within the window of the Fairness Doctrine’s enforcement. What makes Philip DeFranco like Walter Cronkite, may have nothing to do with Cronkite himself.