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Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite

It was a defining moment, not only in broadcast history, but, as it turned out, American history as well. It happened in the middle of the afternoon on November 22, 1963, in a New York City television studio. The newsman read the written statement that President John F. Kennedy had been declared dead at 1:00p Central Time. Then, that newsman, Walter Cronkite, removed his glasses to glance up at a clock on the wall to confirm the elapsed time since the president’s death. His eyes didn’t show any visible signs of grief at that moment, but they nevertheless displayed a weariness that had probably not been seen on a television news broadcast before.

Up to this point, the news was delivered somewhat cold with little or no emotion. Now, just by removing his glasses, Cronkite showed the entire world that broadcasters were also human, subject to the same emotions and opinions as the average man in the street.

Cronkite lived a good full life of 92 years before he passed away on the evening of July 17, 2009. In that life, he rose through the ranks of broadcast journalism from reporting sports scores on radio to coverage of wars and political conventions, and finally to revered news anchor. He became more than just respected by his fellow broadcasters, politicians, and world leaders. He earned our trust.

He was the first news anchorman in the early years of television; indeed, a producer at CBS coined the term to describe Cronkite’s duties in front of the camera. In that role, he conveyed the image of a man older than his actual age, and with it all of the wisdom usually associated with an older person. It was this image that defined the term news anchor, and television viewers were comfortable with this image.

The image proved problematic for female television journalists who smacked their heads into the glass ceiling of the broadcasting industry which tried to compete with Cronkite’s grandfatherly style of imparting information. For some reason, the industry decided that a grandfather type could be more trustworthy than a grandmother type. A few age discrimination suits later and the influence of journalists like Barbara Walters in more recent years has hopefully put this thinking to bed once and for all.

The news cycles were much simpler when Cronkite took the reins of the CBS Evening News in 1962. People got their news from newspapers in the morning, their weather and traffic reports on radio and early morning news shows. There might be a mid-day news show, but most often than not, the most coveted spot for television journalists was the early evening, just as most Americans returned home for the their suppers.

This was where Cronkite not only grew and flourished, but he created and defined the job of the news anchor for years to come. The words he used to report the stories, combined with his commanding baritone delivery, and the inflection of that voice could determine the public’s opinion about any given issue. He would be modest about his contribution to public opinion. After all, he was just doing what journalists are supposed to do: tell a story.

Now the news cycles don’t take morning and afternoon breaks. They’re ongoing, omnipresent, 24/7, one part information to give us the story and 99 parts entertainment to fill the rest of the time. The television news industry has grown away from the early days of information only please to a multi-headed monstrosity, where television news executives obsess over the rating points won or lost because their news anchor is wearing his cardigan sweater a certain way.

This was not the television journalism of Walter Cronkite, whom we trusted like a member of our own family. We believed his view of the story, and we never questioned if it was influenced by the slant of the network that owned the show. We truly believed him at the end of every broadcast when he told us good night with the words, “And that’s the way it is.”

And that’s the way it always should be. Rest in Peace, Uncle Walter.

(Thank you for reading. Good day and good luck!)


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