Walter Cronkite died Friday at the ripe old age of 92, but the kind of journalism that he represented -- tough, spare, serious -- has been dying for a long time, with the circus surrounding Michael Jackson making its lifeline that much fainter.
As anchor of "The CBS Evening News," Cronkite was often referred to as "the most trusted man in America." When he spoke out against the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
Today, the leading news anchors have been seriously diminished -- not just by the thudding drumbeat of "liberal bias" charges, though that's a factor, but by the excess in which they coexist. Sure, Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson still preside over nightly broadcasts that resemble the template that Cronkite used, but they are a shadow of what they once represented in terms of journalistic ambitions, and less important to their corporate hierarchies than soft morning programs that fill more hours of the day. Moreover, it's hard to imagine Cronkite jetting out to Los Angeles to preside over CBS' wall-to-wall Jackson memorial coverage, as Couric recently did.
Cronkite operated in a different era, but as Fox News' Brit Hume noted in the marathon of instant analysis that followed the announcement, his style reflected a certain modesty that appears to have been largely lost in television news. Instead, the most bombastic voices, not surprisingly, frequently garner the most attention.
"The seepage of opinion into journalism slowly broke his heart over the years," NBC anchor Brian Williams said on MSNBC.
Dan Rather -- who replaced Cronkite at CBS -- also popped up at MSNBC. Cronkite was "an extremely strong ad-libber," he said, and "had that ability to get through the glass ... to connect with people." Rather added that Cronkite was a reporter first and fiercely protective of correspondents and producers -- a mind-set that permeated the news division during his tenure.
Personally, Cronkite is indelibly connected to the major news events of my lifetime. I was too young to remember seeing his reporting on President Kennedy's death first-hand (though I've seen the video countless times since), but the other tragic assassinations of the 1960s, the moon landing, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Nixon's resignation -- in every instance, he was there.
Cronkite "really became a model for what anchoring an evening newscast would be," Gibson said in an interview with CNN, adding that his wire-service background was invaluable in shaping the way Cronkite approached presenting the news. Gibson conceded that TV news is a balance between what people want to know and what they need to know, "because it's a business, and you need ratings."
Cronkite fell squarely into the "need to know" camp, and in terms of the ideals he embodied, we need those more than ever. He wasn't a robot -- I can still remember his almost giddy response to the moon missions -- but he exemplified an attitude that's become anachronistic in a world where even print journalism is driven by its own clicks-and-traffic version of instant ratings.
And that, indeed, is the way it is.
Update: CBS will air a one-hour tribute Cronkite on Sunday. Here are the details as well as a number of testimonials included in the press release:
CBS NEWS PAYS TRIBUTE TO WALTER CRONKITE IN THE PRIMETIME SPECIAL “THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS: REMEMBERING WALTER CRONKITE,”
ON SUNDAY, JULY 19
AT 7:00PM ET ON THE CBS TELEVISION
INVITED US TO BELIEVE IN HIM, AND HE NEVER LET US DOWN,” SAYS PRESIDENT BARACK
Legendary Newsman Is Also Honored With Remembrances From Such Luminaries As, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Katie Couric,
Ted Koppel, , Brian Williams, George Clooney, Robin
Williams, Spike Lee and Many More
CBS News will honor the legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite who passed away on Friday, July 17, 2009 at the age of 92 with the primetime special THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS: REMEMBERING WALTER CRONKITE to be broadcast on Sunday, July 19 at 7:00PM ET on the CBS Television Network.
Considered by so many in this country to be the “most trusted man in America ,” Cronkite was the biggest name in television news through whom generations of Americans witnessed history. This sentiment is echoed by some of the biggest names in politics, news and entertainment – including President Barack Obama, CBS News colleagues Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Don Hewitt, Katie Couric, George Clooney, Robin Williams and Spike Lee - who each share their own memories of the industry’s elder statesman as part of THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS.
“Walter Cronkite represents the best of CBS News and the journalism profession as a whole,” says Sean McManus, President CBS News and Sports. “With a rare combination of confidence and familiarity, Walter left a personal mark on the most powerful stories of the 20th century – from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to space launches and the Vietnam War. His presence on screen was incomparable.”
The luminaries featured in THAT’S THE WAY IT WAS are a testament to Walter Cronkite’s personal and professional integrity. Among the sentiments shared are:
“He brought us all those stories large and small which would come to define the 20th century. That's why we love Walter, because in an era before blogs and e/mail cell phones and cable, he was the news. Walter invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down.”
Don Hewitt, Executive Producer of CBS News, Creator of 60 MINUTES:“
America had a love affair with Walter Cronkite.”
Katie Couric, Anchor, THE :
“There is something that is so quintessentially American about Walter Cronkite…his honesty and candor in difficult times…if someone has integrity, to me, that is the finest attribute they can have. That means honor at a time when so many people are dishonorable. I think Walter Cronkite was and will always be the personification of those qualities.”
Mickey Hart, Drummer of the Grateful Dead:
“He was a freedom fighter and he was an honest, truthful guy that used his power while he was here on earth well, he was for the good… It just so happens that everybody’s trust was put in the right place. That’s the lucky part of all this.”
President Bill Clinton:
“The passing of the years did not diminish as nearly as I could tell, one iota, his interest in, and love for his country and his desire to see the world get better.”
George Clooney, Actor/Director:
“His legacy will be one of the great legacies of great Americans. It sounds overstated, but it isn’t. He’s that important to us. Not just to generations before him but to generations coming up… That’s probably good that there will never be a most trusted man in America again because if we’re not lucky enough to get Walter Cronkite, then we might be in a lot of trouble.”
Brian Williams, Anchor and Managing Editor, “: ”
“Walter got early on that this job is part hand holding, so that all of us in this line of work – who on days like 9/11 have been forced into any kind of explanatory role – Walter is with you whether you see him in the studio or not!”
Rooney, Correspondent, 60 MINUTES:
“He was the best newsman, he was just dedicated to news, he really cared about what the news was and he thought it was important to tell it to the American people, it’s that simple.”
, Anchor, ABC “World News”:
“Walter’s early lessons would be well kept in mind by all of us who have followed him. And that is to keep it on the news. Tell people what happened that day, keep it short, keep it direct, and keep it accurate.”