Sunday, July 19, 2009

Goodbye, Uncle Walter - and Thanks

How many of you are old enough to remember The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite? When I was a kid, at least early on, the newscast on tv at our house was more often The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. But we were watching CBS for the Apollo space program, and definitely during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. By the Watergate era, Walter Cronkite and the other mainstays of CBS News - Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Charles Kuralt and so on - were part of my daily tv viewing.

Walter Cronkite believed in gathering facts and getting them right as well as quickly, and reporting them objectively. It is largely because of their rarity that the few times he showed any hint of personal belief or emotion during his career as a reporter and news anchor are remembered now, on the occasion of his death. When he reported to the nation that President John F Kennedy was dead, after nearly an hour of bulletins and live coverage, he took his glasses off for a moment, and there was a brief, almost undetectable choke in his voice. When Apollo 11 landed, he smiled, wiped his glasses and said, "Boy!" That was it. That was as far as he went in expressing his personal opinion during his tenure as the CBS news anchor.

Except twice. He went to Vietnam, saw things for himself, and returned home. With a caveat that he was about to express a speculative and subjective opinion, he said,

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. … But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

President Lyndon Baines Johnson reportedly reacted by saying, "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Or words to that effect.

The other time was when police were pushing around and roughing up people at the Democratic Convention, including reporter Dan Rather. "I think we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan," Cronkite said in disgust.

But that's it. In all his years as a reporter and news anchor, from before D-Day to his forced retirement in 1981, that's the sum of the noticeable breaks in his objectivity: a second of suppressed emotion at a President's murder, noticeable but seldom overt enthusiasm for human beings landing on the moon, anger at the manhandling of his colleagues on the convention floor, and his one and only editorial in 19 years as anchor, predicting stalemate. For which, and for the occasional post-retirement expression of personal opinion, right wingers call the former "most trusted man in America" by that all-purpose epithet, "commie." Classy.

Aside from all the moments mentioned above, and his nightly sign-off of "That's the way it is," followed by the date, I have two specific memories of Walter Cronkite, who has long been one of my heroes.

The first of these was when Cronkite interviewed Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, and asked him whether he would go to Israel and negotiate. Sadat said yes. Cronkite pressed him about when he would go, and he agreed to go the following week. If I recall correctly, he did much the same thing with Menachem Begin of Israel, who quickly agreed to meet with Sadat. I remember being amazed: Cronkite had just helped to jumpstart Middle East peace. And yet, all he was doing was asking a reporter's questions.

The other time was when I was a freshman at Syracuse University, majoring in TV-radio. My Communications 101 course, held in a large lecture hall, had a number of interesting media guests, including the producer of the CBS Evening News, Douglas Kenney of National Lampoon, and, by phone, Walter Cronkite. I remember his saying (this may not have been during the phone interview, but in my course materials) that there was more actual news on the front page of a newspaper than in a half-hour news broadcast; and yet clearly he felt that both were important and valuable.

TV news has changed forever since the days of Cronkite's nightly broadcasts. You can watch something that is at least labeled as news, any time of the day or night; but it may just be an old Michael Jackson interview, or people arguing about politics. On some cable news shows, objectivity isn't even attempted. I personally like a few shows hosted by certain unabashed liberals, the ones who make an effort to get the facts straight, and don't rudely interrupt their guests. Too much of the time, objectivity is replaced by theater disguised as "balance," with a designated Republican and a designated Democrat arguing about some current news item for five minutes. That's not news. It is, at best, infotainment. Frankly, I dislike hearing people shouting and interrupting each other, regardless of who they are and what they're ranting about.

Still, the technology and democratization of news is pretty darn cool, and Cronkite himself appreciated this aspect of what has happened since 1981. Imagine what Uncle Walter could have done with easy, near-instantaneous satellite feeds from nearly anywhere in the world. It would not have taken an hour to learn the fate of a President, and images of the first moon landing would have been clear and in color, and not accidentally taped over by NASA. Cronkite didn't get to play with such toys very much, but he was active into his 90s. I remember hearing him on NPR as recently as last year, speaking intelligently and wisely about something or other.

Goodbye, Mr. Cronkite. I miss you already.

And that's the way it is.


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