Farewell to America’s Uncle

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the future of journalism. My pal Gil Asakawa’s been on a few panels discussing it. Newspapers are dropping like flies, slimming down like The NY Times, going online more and trying to reinvent themselves in an era of declining readership and plummeting revenue. We’re told that “new media,” citizen-journalists (what is that anyway?), bloggers and tweaters are the future of information delivery. The professional, trained journalist is out of fashion; old-fashioned legwork and reporting won’t cut it in this era of 24-hour “news” outlets and an unrelenting news cycle.
Walter Cronkite

For anyone alive at the time John F. Kennedy was shot (or the millions who have seen the famous video clip since), the image of Walter Cronkite announcing that the nation’s young President was dead is forever engraved in our brains. Cronkite seldom showed emotions on air, but after reading the annoucement he paused, removed his glasses and seemed to stare into space for an eternity, before slowly replacing his glasses. He communicated not only the facts of the story, but seemed to sum up the feeling of the country.

Cronkite’s famous sign off was “…and that’s the way it is,” and it was the kind of journalism he practiced. He had noted that his tenure as a reporter for The United Press, where he said he learned to write accurately and fast, both talents that would serve him well. Hired by the legendary Edward R. Murrow, he helped to mold the fledgling CBS-TV network news operation into the famed “Tiffany network.” He gained the trust of America at a time when three networks dominated network news, with Cronkites CBS Evening News being the most dominant of the three. Even after he left his anchor position (with some prodding from a network eager to keep Cronkite’s heir Dan Rather in the fold), Cronkite was consistently voted among America’s most trusted leaders, frequently holding the top spot.

Walter Cronkite insisted on the both the title an job of Managing Editor for the CBS Evening News. He was very much the “anchor” that held things together, but he continued to be a working newsman, frequently writing his own copy, rather than just reading someone else’s off the teleprompter. (After assuming the post, Dan Rather continued the practice during his tenure).

After the Tet offensive in Viet Nam, Cronkite made one of his few editorial expressions on the air. PBS’s Bill Moyers recalled Lyndon Johnson watching the broadcast and observing that if he’d lost Cronkite, he’d lost the support of the country for the war.

One of the things I remember most about “Uncle Walter” was his coverage of the various space shots and flights. This was back in the time when going into space was a big deal; when the teacher would wheel a TV into the classroom so we grade-school kids could watch the launches. This was one area where Cronkite’s professional demeanor would give way to sheer amazement — a feeling shared by most of us. Covering the live, first steps on the moon, he momentarily was speechless. Again, pretty much conveying what most of the world was thinking at that moment. I knew something was wrong with Cronkite when he was conspicously absent from all the coverage surrounding the 40th anniversary of that event.

It seems the last few months were hard on him, as cerebral vascular disease causes the blood vessels in that formidable brain to melt way. One can only imagine the damage the disease did. Walter Cronkite was, however, active and productive up until almost the very end. He contributions to journalism, to television, and to our collective consciousness will live on.

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