Charles Kuralt died on the Fourth of July, a couple of days after Jimmy Stewart, and between the two of them, they left a standard of personal honesty and professional clarity that’s hard to replace and impossible to duplicate. Today, it is painfully obvious that “media” is the plural of “mediocre” and the majority of movies are not much more than brainless cartoons.
Kuralt and Stewart thrived, in part, because they stuck to basics. They almost always appeared with a story in hand - one that had a beginning, a middle and an end.
At a time when too many people in each business operate on the premise that meanness is synonymous with success, Kuralt and Stewart were nice guys. Neither screen - TV or Silver - can lie for long; each is a type of X-Ray where, eventually, viewers can spot traces of hypocrisy or sham.
It was pretty clear that Kuralt liked people and loved the country. He was unashamed to show us stuff that younger correspondents today, raised on a hearty breakfast of cynicism, would certainly consider corny.
But Kuralt’s road was not paved in negativism - and for a very simple reason, one that can easily elude those gathered at the roundtables and in the glass offices where journalism and entertainment are produced: America is a positive place filled with individual goals and a belief that good is still possible.
Of course, you wouldn’t know that from reading a daily newspaper, watching the evening news, or making the conscious decision to leave your living room to pay to see a movie. But, it’s true: The landscape is not nearly as dark and dangerous, not nearly as filled with gloom and doom as our most popular and prevalent forms of media lead us to believe.
Plus, Americans still love a good story. That used to be what drove the movies as well as the print media - the commitment to telling a tale.
It probably changed for the news industry the day Nixon resigned. Then, newspapers suddenly became glamorous. A news story became a bestseller and a hit movie - a simple detective tale called “All the President’s Men” - and unwittingly lured thousands of newcomers into journalism, some for the wrong reasons.
We don’t think enough about reputation. We don’t pause long enough to weigh the impact of words and pictures. We are often so afraid of being beaten or so consumed with greed that we defeat ourselves by a series of cheap lunges rather than a thoughtful attempt at educating, informing, or entertaining customers.
Along the way, the news media and movies allowed themselves to be hijacked by marketing morons who convince people at the top of both industries that profit and success can be easily predicted by focus groups. As a result, instinct and judgment are imperiled by 22 people assembled in a room by some consultant with a business degree who is clueless about what constitutes something people would read or pay to see.
Kuralt and Stewart never needed any such crutch. They had a self-confidence that translated naturally into a rewarding product. They never tried to convince us something simple was actually complex. Each man knew who he was and, more important, knew who we were and trusted the country with their talent.
Funny thing is, if you’d asked Kuralt why he did what he did, his response probably would have been, “Because it’s fun.” And I’d bet Jimmy Stewart might have given the same answer.
Odds are, most of those employed in the movie or news business today sure aren’t in it for fun. Prizes, riches, fame or perverted pleasure derived from killing reputations or producing visual junk mail. But fun? No way.
Charles Kuralt and James Stewart. They brought a consistent dignity and decency to their craft and art. The country enjoyed both fellows and it’s not difficult to figure out why.
They weren’t killers or pessimists and never drowned the rest of us in a sea of unearned cynicism. They were simply honest enough to admit they liked who they were and what they did for work.
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