Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

That's the way it was.

The lasting image of Walter Cronkite is probably that of his announcement of John F. Kennedy's death. Never mind that NBC was the news leader of the day, that half the nation was watching the Huntley-Brinkley Report; never mind that Cronkite was on the air only because he was preparing for that night's evening news, and that he was spelled for long stretches by Harry Reasoner and Charles Collingwood. The fact remains that when Kennedy died, it was Cronkite on the air, and that CBS's announcement was by far the most dramatic, the most memorable of the three networks. As JFK passed into history, so did Walter Cronkite, and he remained a dominant figure for the rest of his life.

(Here in Minneapolis, we have an additional memory of Cronkite, for he had been offered the lead newscaster job at CBS' local affiliate. He declined, went to the network, and the rest was history.)

Newsmen in those days were titans: Edward R. Murrow was the gold standard at CBS, Chet and David revolutionized the nightly news at NBC. ABC, always the poor sister, nonetheless could boast John Cameron Swayze, and later John Daly. Cronkite himself was not always the giant we remember, for memories do play tricks on us. In addition to being a poor second to Huntley-Brinkley during the JFK assassination, ratings for CBS' coverage of the Republican convention in 1964 were so dismal that Cronkite was replaced by for the Democratic convention

But all this is to split hairs, for Cronkite had what it took to deliver the news: presence, authority, gravitas. By the late 60s Huntley-Brinkley had started to fade, and Roone Arledge had not yet assumed control of the news at ABC. Cronkite became the number one man, and there he stayed. When we watched man land on the moon, we saw Cronkite and Wally Schirra shed a tear or two. When we saw the resignation of Nixon, the fall of Saigon, the shootings of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, it was Cronkite who told us. Books, audio and video tapes, you name it - the history of those decades was essentially narriated by Walter Cronkite.

Was there ever a more influential newscaster than Cronkite? He was, the polls said, the "most trusted man in America." When he turned against the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was said to have lamented that losing Cronkite meant losing the public. As Watergate eroded public confidence in government, journalists became the new source of public trust, none more so than Walter Cronkite. Whether or not any newscaster should have that kind of influence over popular opinion is a moot point, a discussion for another day. Cronkite had it, and used it, and we remember him for it. He truly was a fixture; anyone who wanted to tell the story of America in those years would turn to Cronkite, and his voice was a familiar feature on documentaries voice was the voice of history for a generation, in documentaries, and his closing line - "And that's the way it is"- was ingrained in the vernacular.

There was talk that he was eased out of the anchor chair by CBS management, who were anxious to hang on to the hotshot young heir apparent, Dan Rather. So Cronkite left, increasingly turning up on news retrospectives and as host of the Vienna New Year's Day concert on PBS, and it truly was the end of an era. I won't pretend that I was Walter Cronkite's biggest fan, but I will say this: Rather's role in that "Memogate" scam against George W. Bush during the waining days of the 2004 campaign made one absolutely pine for Cronkite's dignity. Who knows whether or not he would ever have done such a thing, but you can be sure if he had, it would have been done with style.

And so with Walter Cronkite's death today we can truly say that the giants of television news are gone, replaced by pygmies and pretenders. Those of us who believe a liberal bias exists in the news media will point out that it is not new, that it existed in Cronkite's day, that he would on occasion display it himself. It wasn't the same, though. When Keith Olbermann foams at the mouth, we cheer him or curse him, or simply turn the sound down and ignore him.

Keith Olbermann isn't Walter Cronkite though, and never will be. (And how that must torture him.) But then, neither is Brian Williams, or Charles Gibson, or what's-her-name that now sits in Uncle Walter's chair. The fact is, in an era when there are no shared experiences, when hardly anyone watches network news, when the news is all style and no substance, there probably never will be another Cronkite.

That's just the way it is.

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