“That’s the Way It Is”

One of my earliest childhood television memories is of Walter Cronkite sitting at the CBS News anchor desk, reading and assimilating the day’s events.  In fact, my parents have frequently told an anecdote in which I told a family friend that my two favorite shows were “Sesame Street and ‘Walter Cronkite.'”  I was six years old at the time.  While I was, no doubt, a precocious kid, such was the power of “Uncle Walter” to provide a better understanding of the day’s events.  For the most part, I was too young to truly understand Cronkite’s contribution to journalism when he was a nightly anchor–he retired when I was twelve–but I think I intuitively understood the seriousness, integrity, and curiosity that earned him the title, “the most trusted man in America.” 

As I reflect on the life and career of Walter Cronkite, I can do little to match the heartfelt tributes and historical analyses that others have offered.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s transcript of her introduction of Cronkite before a commencemnt address he delivered at Pomona College captures much of what he contributed not only to the field of journalism but also to American politics through his analysis of the Vietnam War. A.J. Schnack reminds us that Cronkite’s contributions extended well beyond the nightly news to long-form television documentary as well.  Keith Olbermann observes that Cronkite often brought his own perspective to the news he covered, whether that was his enthusiasm for the space race or his opposition to the Vietnam War, emphasizing the journalist’s skills as an honest analyst of the news, not merely someone who was a “dispassionate statue” reading a series of loosely-related facts.  

All of these accounts capture something about the man, who by all accounts was just as gracious away from the cameras as he was trusted throughout his career both behind the news desk and on location.  But as I was watching the tributes last night, flipping between CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox News, I found myself thinking that part of what was being mourned was a certain kind of journalism and a certain moment in television history, namely the three-network model in which Cronkite operated, a point that Howard Kurtz addresses in his thoughtful tribute.  A number of Cronkite’s producers have referred to the changes in how TV news is manufactured: the switch from film to tape, the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, the movement to niche broadcasting.  Without diminishing Cronkite’s accomplishments, these changes have made it difficult to imagine a single broadcaster having the same kind of reach that he did for over two decades.  As Brian Williams observes in his thoughtful tribute, “no one before or since has had just a mystical hold on the American people.”

Cronkite is important not only because he managed to inspire such trust in the Amercian audiences who consumed his broadcasts over their evening meals.  He is crucial because he was such a key figure in shaping the news, in figuring out and fulfilling the public service role of television news, in demonstrating through example the research and exactitude necessary to the best forms of journalism.  Even though he had been out of the public eye for some time, his contributions have not been forgotten. He will be missed.

Update: David Kurtz of TPM also has a nice tribute and reports that he also named “Walter Cronkite” as one of his favorite TV shows as a child.

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