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Obama on Cronkite

From NBC's Athena Jones
NEW YORK, N.Y. -- President Obama used his remarks at a memorial service for a legendary newsman to share his thoughts on the current state of the news media and to make the case for improving standards.

The president hailed CBS's Walter Cronkite for the high standards, honesty and objectivity he applied to the pursuit of journalism and said that he had benefited as a citizen from the anchor's "dogged pursuit of the truth."

"He never dared compromise his integrity," Obama said as spoke of the man who came to be known as "the most trusted man in news," a man he said he was sorry he did not know personally.

Obama has often lamented the consequences of an increasingly rapid, profit-driven news business. Today, he said the new model meant that Cronkite's high standard of responsibility was "a little bit harder to find today." Cronkite was a man who saw journalism as a public good vital to American democracy, who "calmly and authoritatively" told the American people what they needed to know, Obama said, adding that his "trusted" title was not given to him by a network or an advertising campaign, it was earned.

"It was earned by year after year and decade after decade of painstaking effort; a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theater or spectacle," Obama said. "He didn't believe in dumbing down. He trusted us."

"Instant commentary and celebrity gossip" and stories about who's up and who's down too often replaced hard news and investigative journalism these days, the president said, cheapening public debate even as the future of American society depends on objective reporting.

He called on journalists and the public to renew their commitment to high journalistic standards.

"The simple values Walter Cronkite set out in pursuit of -- to seek the truth, to keep us honest, to explore our world the best he could -- they are as vital today as they ever were," he said. "If we choose to live up to Walter's example, if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I'm convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one -- and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead."

Tension between the media and any administration is to be expected, but Obama and his aides have made no secret of their disdain for some of the coverage the White House has received; in fact, "cable chatter" is a favorite phrase of White House officials.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has frequently criticized the media's focus on what the administration deems "silly" issues and for covering distortions of policy matters rather than acting responsibly to clarify the record and disprove obvious lies. He repeatedly lambasted broadcasters for coverage of town hall protests during the month of August that he argued blew the events out of proportion and misrepresented what were in the vast majority of cases calm, serious, respectful discussions.

The president has been consistently vocal on the issue as well. At a speech at Georgetown University in April, he spoke of an "impatience that characterizes" Washington and of attention spans shortened by the 24-hour news cycle. At Notre Dame's commencement in May he again criticized cable news.

"Whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before," he told the graduates. "You'll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you'll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they're talking about. Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they're talking about -- by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts."