Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite: That's the Way it Was

I grew up as a child watching Walter Cronkite every evening until 1981. His death, in my eyes, signifies the end of responsible, pure broadcast journalism as we know it. Since his departure from doing the CBS Evening News in 1981 broadcast journalism has declined dramatically, damningly, and, in certain respects, pathetically.

Cronkite was a legitimately Olympian figure—a stature granted to precious few Americans. (There are plenty of public figures we think are Olympian today but in reality they are not). Cronkite breathed rarified air. He, along with the late Edward R. Murrow epitomized broadcast journalism in its most pristine and appropriate form—a form you do not see on TV today.

The real tragedy of Cronkite’s death is that no other TV anchor figure has ever come close to the standard he set for himself and for his profession when he anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981. To be even more blunt: no one will ever come that close again or have such an enormous impact as Cronkite did.

Even more damning in my eyes at least is that if Cronkite were reincarnated and entered broadcast journalism today there is no way in the world he would ever be granted a network anchor position. What I think was one vital source of Cronkite’s magnificent appeal was that Cronkite looked so utterly and magnificently American. There was no glitz or Hollywood freeze-dried processed good looks to him. Has anyone noticed that all the TV anchors appearing on the news since 1981 look nothing like Cronkite? Walter Cronkite looked like the unassuming Middle American reporter that he truly was. Cronkite (unlike his successors) was totally real. Cronkite (unlike some of his successors male and female) was a true journalist. The late Marshall McLuhan once called TV a cool medium. No one other broadcast journalist exemplified that coolness better than Cronkite did. I wouldn’t be surprised if McLuhan developed his insight by watching Cronkite in action. Indeed, no one personified the American image and ethos better than Walter Cronkite.

Even more significantly Cronkite did not curry favor from either side of the political spectrum. John F. Kennedy always expressed suspicion about Walter Cronkite. Privately, Kennedy accused Cronkite of being a Republican because of Cronkite’s long friendship with Dwight Eisenhower and Cronkite’s refusal to be seduced by Kennedy’s charismatic charm. (Kennedy was suspicious of any journalist whom he did not have in his back pocket). Conversely, Richard Nixon considered Cronkite (along with the rest of the CBS News Division) to be a political enemy in league with the Democrats and waged unrelenting war on Cronkite and CBS along with the remainder of the American press until his resignation in 1974. In truth Cronkite was a registered Independent who wisely kept his political views to himself—something most broadcast journalists today do not do.

Indeed since Cronkite’s retirement in 1981 the political propagandization of broadcast journalism (both liberal and conservative) has debased the pure journalistic currency that Cronkite minted every night from his desk at CBS. When America lost Walter Cronkite we lost someone very great indeed. We will never see the likes of him again. And that is sad commentary on the present condition of broadcast journalism today.

Rest in Peace, Walter.

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