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Walter Cronkite 1916-2009

July 18, 2009

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Ninety-two years.   

That’s a tremendous lifespan for anyone; it’s especially long for a journalist.   My people aren’t known for their healthy lifestyles.

Walter was born in Missouri, but his family moved to Houston where he wascronkite raised.  He had the good sense to attend the University of Texas where he persued a Journalism degree.  He’d gotten a job at a small Austin radio station as a sports anchor.   He was fired by a boss who told him he’d never make it in the biz.    So very often, this declarative by a station manager precedes some of the most successful careers and Walter Cronkite had one for the record books.

Upon hearing news of Cronkite’s death Friday night, I was asked if  he had had any influence on my decision to venture into the crazy world of broadcasting.   I didn’t know the answer to that question, but later realized there was no way he could have not  influenced me.

I was raised with Walter Cronkite.  From him,  I learned about the latest anti-war protests on some college campus.    He informed me about the number of B-52’s that were downed in Vietnam that day; he told me about the latest firefight on some jungle hilltop and I knew the number of body bags that would soon be returning to the States.

My earliest memory of  this iconic figure was at four years of age.   Few believe  I can remember anything about the Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963  but I’ve recited  certain facts of the day that my mother verifies.   Cronkite is part of that memory.  

My mother was rocking me after lunch in an attempt to get me to take my nap and she was doing so while watching her favorite soap opera, “As The World Turns”.   I remember the screen went black and suddenly Cronkite’s voice  broke the silence and announced that JKF had been shot while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.   He came back a few minutes later to announce that Kennedy had died.    My mother, then a card carrying Democrat, started to cry and  so did Cronkite.

That day he did something no other network newsman had ever done before.   He let his emotions show.

He didn’t sob; he didn’t wail, there was no gnashing of teeth.  It was brief and polite and all things considered, it was appropriate.  Nevertheless,  I think this demonstration stunned some people.     America wasn’t used to seeing their stoic, stone-faced network news anchors in overtly humanistic roles.    

But Cronkite changed that.

And years later, he didn’t hide his boyish enthusiasm when Neil Armstrong landed the lunar module on the surface of the moon.      I was ten on July 20, 1969.   I had been raised with the space program.  By that time, it bore a degree of  mundanity  for me, but  for my parents, their contemporaries, Cronkite and  others who were raised in a world of limitations,  improbabilites and Flash Gordon, landing on the moon and the journey it took to get there, was colossal.

While my TV relationship  with Walter Cronkite started waning in the mid- 70’s,  my appreciation for his style, his efforts and his professionalism never ceased.   As network news anchors go, Huntley and Brinkley did it first, but Walter did it better.

He was called, ‘the most trusted man in America” and we believed it…perhaps for reasons we still don’t know.   You just had a sense with  daily ministrations of Cronkite’s baritone and often monotone delivery, you were getting nothing but the facts; the real story.   He would have never made the very news he was reporting.

He would never have called President Bush (41) a wimp;  he would never have launched a smear campaign against a sitting president (Bush 43) by publically maligning and bending reality regarding his military history.

Cronkite would never have done half the things that so many newscasters do today.

It’s odd, you know.  Odd when you reach a certain age and you start to look at things differently.   Life and death and the fine line which separates them, while not foremost on your mind, becomes more of a concern.   I’ve been thinking about Cronkite’s life.   It spanned 92 years.  He saw war,  death and violence and he saw wrongs that were never made right.   He reported on good things too I suppose, but those so rarely get any press.

I made it a point to watch Cronkite’s last newscast in 1983 and I remember doing so with a slight lump in my throat.   Not because I was some ardent fan and not because I was in Journalism school at the time and there because I had been inspired by his 19 year reign as America’s premier newsman.   It watched because goodbyes are often historic and this one was.    His departure also represented the end of an era and sadly, the beginning of a new one.

I firmly believe network news changed after Cronkite left the anchor desk and it’s only gotten worse since news programming has become so ubiquitous in recent years.    News people are now TV stars more than anything else.  Beauty has replaced ability.    Ken dolls anchor while Barbie is out in the field reporting on day ten of  the death of Michael Jackson’s allegedly mottled penis and how it once owned a set of Ghandi’s gilded steak knives.

When Cronkite left, so did network news quality.  

Nuetrality died.

And sadly, that’s the way it is.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Blanche permalink
    July 18, 2009 7:49 am

    Nicely done.

  2. July 18, 2009 4:54 pm

    I was waiting for this. I knew you would have a lot to say about it. You said it better than anything I’ve seen written about this so far. I expected that too.

    I remember him mostly as the man on our black and white TV who said Vietnam and guerrilla every night. Or day. I remember being fixated on his upper lip. Something about that semi-mustache weirded me out. But, he was the face and the voice of the news. He didn’t editorialize . . . He reported.

  3. chrisitne permalink
    July 19, 2009 6:07 pm

    Another great American has left us, he will alway be remember! Farewell!

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