In the Internet Era, Does Anyone Still Have Gravitas?
A few months ago, my wife challenged me to name three people in public life today who really have gravitas. Practically the only person we could agree on was Nelson Mandela…who promptly died.
Barack Obama’s recent turn on Zach Galifianakis’ comedy webcast reminded me of our “Who Has Gravitas?” game. The presidential “Between Two Ferns” segment racked up millions of views—and some divided opinions.
To me, the video crystallized one of the quieter subplots of the new-media era: the slow death of gravitas—and what’s replaced it.
First let’s clarify what “gravitas” refers to. It’s “a very serious quality or manner,” according to Merriam-Webster. I’d expand on that to say it implies a widespread acceptance of that seriousness as legitimate, earned, and valuable—a person whose concerns and views transcend ephemeral triviality and who thus possesses a degree of wisdom that eludes the rest of us.
But gravitas is also “the weight, the authority, the soup bone in the stew of television news,” according to Stephen Colbert: “If you have sufficient gravitas, what you say doesn’t have to mean anything at all.”
The latter (and vital) definition emerged in a landmark moment in the history of gravitas’ demise, Colbert’s 2005 “Gravitas-Off” with news anchor Stone Phillips.
Colbert was shrewd to link gravitas to the news media; surely the late broadcaster Walter “That’s The Way It Is” Cronkite once exemplified it. The lingering memory of Cronkite’s gravitas causes pundits and historians to point (over and over) to his announcement that President Kennedy was dead as the moment that a “shocked nation” confronted grim reality. Removing his glasses and betraying just a hint of human emotion had definitive impact precisely because they revealed tiny cracks in a mighty wall of gravitas.
The general idea (mythical or not) that, when Cronkite soured on the Vietnam War, the nation followed suit similarly turns on the broadcaster’s gravitas.
But by then gravitas had already been under prolonged assault throughout the authority-questioning 1960s, and probably began its death throes when President Nixon capitulated to being a punch line on the TV program Laugh-In:
Later leaders of the free world more skillfully channeled cultural skepticism of gravitas. Think Ronald Reagan’s amiable jokester persona, or Bill Clinton’s saxophone theatrics (among other, um, shenanigans). Meanwhile the vaguely outsider irreverence of entertainment like Laugh-In evolved into the mainstream skewer-everything ethos of South Park.
So the Internet didn’t kill gravitas—but there’s no question that it continues to stomp it down. Since the 1990s, we’ve gotten more skilled every year at using our digital tools to make and distribute gravitas-destroying essays, blog posts, and memes about…well, everything. Nothing, and no one, is sacred.
Gradually, public figures who might once have strived for gravitas have learned to keep it at a distance. Consider Brian Williams, the definitive modern prime-time anchor—not because he’s pretty good at acting serious when he reads the news, but because he’s also a talented comic actor and goof-off.