Saturday, July 18, 2009

R.I.P. Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite, who defined the role of TV news anchor in the 1960s, died Friday. See post below.

That's the Way It Was

Cable news is eulogizing Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at the age of 92. Cable news is seldom anything Cronkite would have recognized as news, and in hearing Dan Rather and others talk about him as "an honest broker of information," a surrogate for the public who felt his responsibility was to educate the audience, I realize how many of my ideas about journalism came as much from Cronkite (and Huntley-Brinkley) as any newspaper or certainly any class in school.

Show biz was always the temptation of TV, and even in his early heyday, while Cronkite was doing hard news series like See It Now, he was also hosting the supremely silly You Are There, where he pretended to interview historical figures like Joan of Arc on her way to the stake. (Although, to be truthful, I was thrilled by those shows as a child. With this strange medium of television, it seemed possible he was actually there.) But Cronkite resisted the incursion of tabloid journalism and infotainment that dominates television now. He set a standard of fact and knowledge. His background in print reporting was typical for his era, and sadly missing now.

Yes, Cronkite was so influential partly because there were only three networks then, and news came on a couple of times a day at the same time every day, so one anchor could command the simultaneous attention of 25 million viewers. But the standards were the same across major journalism, and and many others could have upheld them no matter how many competitors. The current state of news is as much a failure of intelligence and character as any of the excuses, legitimate or not.

For my set of early boomers, Cronkite was a little late in concluding the Vietnam War was a waste, or in exposing Watergate, but as an establishment figure, he shook the establishment when he did so. He did steer small town, working class, Middle America and his own generation through the tumultuous 60s and 70s, as well as providing some parental or grandparental solidity to my generation.
I didn't see the celebrated moment when he announced that President Kennedy was dead--I was in school at the time--but I do remember that his presence and those of other trusted news figures were essential in getting through that weekend, when the news seemed literally unbelievable, and news that we did not want to accept.

Cronkite was himself one year older than JFK. He didn't quite live to see the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, with which he remained identified as the most enthusiastic and apparently knowledgeable reporter covering it. I remember when he was more or less forced out of his anchor chair at CBS, which marked for me as the end of legitimate television news. Not that it was always truthful, but it was always serious, and it always paid attention to important matters in detail. I suppose some of my sadness at his passing, which I would not have expected, is that with his death, that era and that kind of news is definitely and definitively over.