Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite died today. He was 92.
Nothing in this post comes from today's obituaries - it is all from my own memory. Cronkite's is the first of the many recent celebrity deaths that I truly mourn. I don't say that to impress you, but to make this important point: Only a great man can retire from journalism and almost three decades later have some 22 year old punk know this stuff about him.
Cronkite was the anchor of the CBS Evening News from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, a span of nearly 20 years that included three major assassinations, the Civil Rights Era the Vietnam War, the Great Society, Watergate, the beginning of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the 1970s oil shocks. He was the first, and dare I say the last, heir to the legendary Edward R. Murrow. Many journalists today may try to claim that legacy but Cronkite was the only man to succeed. A poll once named him "the most trusted man in America," a title no reporter could ever attain in today’s era of niche and partisan news. Unlike today's television journalists, Cronkite took his job seriously. Part of the reason Elvis' death did not receive the same attention as Michael Jackson's, that pretty missing white girls are a recent news phenom, and that war was analyzed rather than thrown to the partisan wolves was that serious people were in charge of the national discourse. Cronkite did not see the news as a profit center, he did not sensationalize it, and he did not make his broadcasts about himself. He told you about the important things that were happening in the world, he told you why they were important, and he treated them with dignity and respect. He did his job; nothing more and nothing less, because that was what the country needed done.
Cronkite will be remembered for:
- His anchoring of the JFK assassination, removing his glasses to wipe away a tear. "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
- Anchoring the Apollo 11 moon landing 40 years ago this very week, again removing his glasses, this time in shock and pride, the only time in 20 years of anchoring that he was left speechless.
- Breaking down the complexities of the many layers and bureaucracy of the Watergate scandal with a graph his viewers could understand, turning a distant DC scandal into something relevant to the people of America.
- His one Olbermann-style “special comment,” in which he told American citizens from Vietnam that we were losing the war in Vietnam. When Lyndon Johnson saw this, he said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Johnson would not run for re-election.
No current television journalist can claim this importance, this gravitas, or this relevance, nor can any current television journalist claim they deserve it. So why do I, a child of cable news, write this paean to Walter Cronkite? Because not only am I a political and news junkie and history buff fortunate enough to have watched many of his old tapes in class, I am also a boy who wishes he could walk in Cronkite and Murrow’s footsteps. I want to make a difference in this world, but believe that it is must be easier for a politician to be elected President than it for a journalist to become a Cronkite, Murrow, or Woodward. It is hard to do more than just pass along the facts, especially in this profit-obsessed age of corporate news. I choose to go into ministry and policy because I think that is where I can leave my mark on this world—but if I thought it were possible to be a Cronkite, if I thought I had half a chance of carrying on his legacy, than I would choose journalism over other professions in a heartbeat.
And that's the way it is.