July 20, 2009
All the broadcast tributes about the life and times of Walter Cronkite bring back long-forgotten memories for us baby boomers. For young people today who have grown up with the image-obsessed, celebrity-oriented 24/7 news cycle, anything that happened more than a couple hours ago is "old news." For those people, history is what happened a few years ago, and anything that took place before they were born is irrelevant. For them, it's hard to fathom the virtues of reporting serious news events from around the country and around the world. ("Indonesia? Where's that?") But I digress. Walter Cronkite had some faults and biases, but he excelled at what he did. He was the epitome of everything that was good about the "old news."
If you think about it, it's hard to imagine the second half of the twentieth century without Walter Cronkite. He got his start covering the Allied landings during World War II. He served as CBS anchorman from 1962 to 1981, a period spanning six presidents. Here are some of the key historical events he reported on, and with which he is closely associated:
As for the competition, NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley could never match Cronkite's popularity, probably for stylistic reasons more than anything else. Chet was too dour, and David was too wry. In the 1960s, ABC was struggling just to maintain a news operation. Among the many ABC news anchors back then, Frank Reynolds was the one I recall most strongly.
Although he followed in the footsteps of TV newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Douglas Edwards (the latter of whom I vaguely remember), Cronkite was a trailblazing pioneer, setting standards and establishing customs in television news where none had existed before. In those early years, there was as yet no standard news program format, and different networks were trying different formats. Cronkite was so comfortable in his role that his natural sincerity shown through, hence his reputation as "the most trusted man in America." I enjoyed the replay of his cameo appearance on the Mary Tyler Moor show, which was one of our family's favorites. The way he curtly dismissed the sycophantic "Ted Baxter" was hilarious! Speaking of which, one of my favorite movies is Broadcast News (1987, see imdb.com), starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter. It was a semi-serious drama that satirized pompous TV news buffoons such as the "Ted Baxter" character or Dan Rather. Back in the good old days, as Rather himself acknowledged, TV anchormen were reporters first and foremost.
Cronkite's commanding presence and his resonant voice calmed the nerves of Americans during the high-anxiety years of the 1960s and 1970s. After retiring, he freely admitted that he was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, as were most people in that profession of his generation. Even so, he rarely let his personal biases show when he was reporting the news. Some TV anchormen (and women) have done a creditable job of living up to Cronkite's standards, including NBC's Tom Brokaw, CBS's Bob Schieffer, and PBS's Jim Lehrer. I think NBC's Brian Williams is very good as well, as is ABC's Charles Gibson, and in her own way, CBS's Katie Couric. (In terms of journalistic excellence, I would also include Tim Russert, who died in June 2008, but he was never an anchorman.)
For an "insider" perspective on the life and times of "Uncle Walter," what better place to look than cbsnews.com? It quotes Cronkite's successor, Dan Rather, saying, "Walter Cronkite didn't just play a reporter on TV. He was a reporter." Indeed he was. Rather was the CBS anchor from 1981 until March 2005, when he resigned in the aftermath of the infamous Rathergate scandal in September 2004.
And that's the way it was: 1916-2009!