Media Fragmentation and the End of Shared Experiences

Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS news anchor, died a couple weeks ago. In the widespread coverage of his death, the clip that was used in virtually every story was the one below of Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy.

What’s interesting to me, though, isn’t how this media personality became intrinsically linked to a historic event that he reported but, rather, the flip side: it’s how a historical event became intrinsically linked in the popular consciousness to a specific media personality.

The Kennedy assassiantion was almost 20 years before I was born. I didn’t experience it live. Nor did I ever see Walter Cronkite ever broadcast a live newscast. But the idea, the concept, of that day in Novemeber, as it exists in my mind, is completely inseparable from that Cronkite broadcast. If you were to simply mention the assassination, the image that would go to my mind wouln’t even be the grainy Zapruder film of the actual assassination. It would be that image of Cronkite announcing his death – the way he takes his glasses off, the way his voice breaks slightly. It was a moment that entered into and continues to exist in the popular consciousness through a media report. Not only that, but a very specific media report. I couldn’t tell you how the moment was covered on NBC or ABC. This was long before the days of CNN or Fox News or live straming broadcasts on the web or on video monitors on the subway. People experienced through that specific filter and, because of that, the memory is a shared one. everyone saw that clip. Everyone knew Cronkite. He brought that moment to them so they all experienced it the same way. Having seen that particular broadcast is something that connected everyone somehow through a shared experience.

The Kennedy Assassination was my parents’ generation’s “Where were you when…?” moment.  For my generation, it was September 11th. Eight years later, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news and exactly where and how I watched the coverage. But my experience that day was not a “shared experience” in the same way that the Kennedy assassination was for my parents back in 1963. And this because we did not experience it through the same unifying filter. There was no “Cronkite moment” that brought it home.

I can’t tell you what TV channel I watched it on. Probably because, like most people nowadays in the age of remote controls and hundreds of channels, I was flipping back and forth between all of the different networks seeing if tehre was anything new to report, any information one network had that the others didn’t yet have.

Some people watched September 11th unfold on NCB or ABC or CNN. Others were watching online or checking their BlackBerrys (did those even exist yet? If not, the next “Where were you?” moment will have even more mediums through which to experience it.)

We all saw the same images and we all probably experienced the same feelings but 40 years from now if I’m ever having the “where were you when…?” conversation with someone who saw those same things, we won’t be able to point to some sort of unifying witnessing of how it unfolded.

And I wonder how many media-covered events really qualify as unifying experiences anymore. I’m reading a book right now about the Brooklyn Dodgers. And anyone who really knows baseball history knows that the all-time-greatest baseball moment was the pennant game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in 1951, where Bobby Thompson won the game with the “shot heard ’round the world” and the moment was forever immortalized as announcer Russ Hodges started repeatedly screaming “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Virtually every person who lived in New York back then remembers that game. It was another “Where were you when…?” moment. The entire city stopped that day. Kids skipped school. Adults skipped work. People gathered around radios on street corners, leaning in to hear the broadcast and be a part of the experience. This was before they knew how it would end. The game could have been boring and broadcast mundane but everyone jsut has this innate sense that there was something special about that game, something meaningful that elevated the moment beyond a mere ball game into some grand unifying, shared event that they knew they’d one day tell their grandkids event.

And in our current society with a thousand channels and a billion websites and everyone self-segregating by narrow interest and forming exclusive social groups, I just wonder whether those big, meaningful shared experiences will ever happen again.

Just a thought as I leave work on a Wednesday afternoon.

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