That's the Way Walter Was
pblackwell, Sat, July 18th, 2009
Our generation is spoiled in many ways on the information front. Anything we need to know about, just type up a web page or, if we see something, Tweet for all the world to hear - even if what you say doesn't make any earthly sense.
Still, we missed out.
We missed a time where our news sources were outlets a majority of people believed in. We mostly missed a world where journalists, even the TV brethren, cared as much about the quality of what they put out as they did ad sales or Nielsen points.
Put simply, we missed Walter Cronkite. And that was true, in spirit, decades before his physical life on this planet ended Friday at 92.
Cronkite had a corner on integrity early. A writer first, a journalist second, and then a broadcaster, he never forgot those first two traits. Combined that with an authentic, deep, authoritative voice made for the airwaves, and you have an anchor. No, make that THE anchor. For all time.
Everyone else in the early days of television, from Swayze to Sevareid to Smith, merely offered examples on how to do it. Huntley/Brinkley came close to perfection, but only one can be an anchor, not two.
By pledging allegiance to truth and getting the facts straight in his days as a cub reporter and war correspondent, Cronkite didn't have to change his values system for TV. And once he got hold of that CBS anchor desk in 1962, and the nightly news went from 15 to 30 minutes, the man and the medium had met, in perfect harmony.
It helped, too, that the events Cronkite covered in the 1960s and '70s were so earth-shaking. In lesser hands, they might have turned sensational. In our modern all-media world, we would have found a million different ways to screw it up, leaving the public mad at us, and for good reason.
But Cronkite told it straight, and did it so well, so consistently, without fail, that he became what that 1972 poll confirmed - The Most Trusted Man In America. When he said "That's the way it is" at the end of newscast, well, we figured it was.
And thus, when Cronkite did step out of that objective character, it was so profound. Nearly losing it Nov. 22, 1963 upon telling America of an assassination in Dallas. Proclaiming Vietnam a standstill, driving LBJ out of his presidency. Bristling at the "thugs" shoving Dan Rather at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in that same chaotic 1968, then displaying his boyish delight 11 months later when the Eagle landed on Tranquility base.
He left that anchor desk too soon, by his own reckoning, forced out in 1981 when he reached 65 by order of William S. Paley at CBS. Much as it has tried in the years since, neither CBS, nor the whole of network news, ever really recovered.
Yes, Rather, Brokaw and Jennings were timeless, and the newer ones try hard. But corporations took over the networks, cut back on sending correspondnts around the world, making us more insular. And the expansion of the media landscape led to more voices and a lot more noise, but not more integrity, something Cronkite lamented to his dying day.
It should not take the passing of a legend like Walter Cronkite to remind us of how much we have lost. Actually, it makes our current media dissonance that much more shameful, for it's difficult to address and educate people on the problems of the world when you're obsessing over Michael Jackson and getting most of your ad revenue from pharmaceutical companies.
Cronkite knew what really mattered. Find the news, then report it. Then do it again, over and over. For him, that's just the way it was....