Friday, July 17, 2009

“And That’s the Way It Is”

I just turned on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and heard the sad report that broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, who provided an important soundtrack component for my youth--he WAS the news in my childhood home--died today at age 92.

Tributes to Cronkite are already pouring in, and I’m sure there will be more over the coming week. In its obituary, The New York Times recalls that
From 1962 to 1981, Mr. Cronkite was a nightly presence in American homes and always a reassuring one, guiding viewers through national triumphs and tragedies alike, from moonwalks to war, in an era when network news was central to many people’s lives.

He became something of a national institution, with an unflappable delivery, a distinctively avuncular voice and a daily benediction: “And that’s the way it is.” He was Uncle Walter to many: respected, liked and listened to. With his trimmed mustache and calm manner, he even bore a resemblance to another trusted American fixture, another Walter--Walt Disney.

Along with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, Mr. Cronkite was among the first celebrity anchormen. In 1995, 14 years after he retired from the “CBS Evening News,” a TV Guide poll ranked him No. 1 in seven of eight categories for measuring television journalists. (He professed incomprehension that Maria Shriver beat him out in the eighth category, attractiveness.) He was so widely known that in Sweden anchormen were once called Cronkiters.
Not surprisingly, the CBS News Web has much more to say about this iconic figure, beginning with the ruminations of another familiar TV newsman:
Cronkite dominated the television news industry during one of the most volatile periods of American history. He broke the news of the Kennedy assassination, reported extensively on Vietnam and Civil Rights and Watergate, and seemed to be the very embodiment of TV journalism.

“Cronkite came to be the sort of personification of his era,” veteran PBS Correspondent Robert McNeil once said. “He became kind of the media figure of his time. Very few people in history, except maybe political and military leaders, are the embodiment of their time, and Cronkite seemed to be.”
Cronkite was often called “the most trusted man in America.” He was a welcome daily presence in the lives of TV viewers for so long. Our own breaths caught when we saw him fighting back tears during his broadcast of news about President Kennedy’s assassination. We thrilled with him when he narrated man’s first landing on Earth’s moon. When Cronkite told you something, you believed it. Which is why his evolving opinions of the Vietnam War in the 1960s were so important. Again, the Times explains:
In 1968 he visited Vietnam and returned to do a rare special program on the war. He called the conflict a stalemate and advocated a negotiated peace. President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the broadcast, Mr. Cronkite wrote in his 1996 memoir, “A Reporter’s Life,” quoting a description of the scene by Bill Moyers, then a Johnson aide.

“The president flipped off the set,” Mr. Moyers recalled, “and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’”
Today’s evening TV news anchors can be skillful. They can come across as honorable and even, as in the case of NBC’s Brian Williams, as pleasant guests in one’s home. But their impact is significantly lessened with the decline of the evening broadcasts as sources of news and information. Cronkite was king of the medium at the height of that medium.

I could go on and on about Walter Cronkite’s impact. However, he was someone who existed for most of us on the screen, not in words. So it’s better to see him in action. Below, I’ve embedded a video of Cronkite talking about how he covered the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. The 40th anniversary of that event comes up on Monday of next week. Cronkite didn’t quite make it to the anniversary. But I suspect that, for millions of Americans--like me--who watched him narrate the first moon landing on fuzzy little black-and-white TV sets, Cronkite will still be prominent in our memories as we celebrate this noteworthy occasion.

Thank you, Walter, for being there when we needed you most.

UPDATE I: After hearing the news of Cronkite’s death, President Barack Obama released the following statement:
For decades, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted voice in America. His rich baritone reached millions of living rooms every night, and in an industry of icons, Walter set the standard by which all others have been judged.

He was there through wars and riots, marches and milestones, calmly telling us what we needed to know. And through it all, he never lost the integrity he gained growing up in the heartland.

But Walter was always more than just an anchor. He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family. He invited us to believe in him, and he never let us down. This country has lost an icon and a dear friend, and he will be truly missed.
UPDATE II: I like something that Robert Lloyd, who is the television critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in his tribute to Cronkite’s societal impact:
When Cronkite spoke, it was with a thoughtfulness that the 24-hour news cycle does not encourage; and when there was no time for reflection, he avoided melodrama, frenzy and guesswork. His reports on the deaths of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are online to hear, and they are marvelously straightforward, and all the more moving for it. And his famous editorial that Vietnam was most likely not a winnable war came from his own, on-the-ground observations; he went there looking for answers after the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive made him question the official reports of American military progress and superiority.

The rolling rise and fall of his voice and the rhythms and pauses he built into his prose gave his reporting the subtle weight of blank verse. Cronkite cut his teeth telling stories in print and over the radio; he knew how to make pictures from words. Similarly trained reporters dominated TV news for the medium’s first decades; it was an oratorical era. But as they aged and retired, the networks turned to more telegenic models, to prettier people and--reasonably enough--a more visual approach to the news.

Network news anchors still aim for that mix of eloquence and authority that Cronkite embodied, but they compete, at a disadvantage, with the noise of an ascendant punditocracy and the mountain-from-molehill nattering of cable news organizations that live on crises--it’s not the old voice of reassuring honesty that they cultivate, but one of perpetual anxiety. There are many more rooms in the mansion that is television news nowadays, but they have grown proportionately smaller; they are no longer fit for giants.
LEARN MORE:Walter Cronkite Dies at 92” (CBS News); “Trusting Walter Cronkite,” by Joan Walsh (Salon); “Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009,” compiled by Dana Cook (Salon); “Ted Baxter Meets Walter Cronkite,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “The Secret World of Walter Cronkite,” by Al Reinert (Texas Monthly); “A Personal Remembrance of Walter Cronkite,” by David Terrenoire (A Dark Planet); “Requiem for a Trusted Voice of Reason,” by Scott Simon (National Public Radio); “And That’s the Way Cronkite Was ...,” by Tom Shales (The Washington Post); “We Won’t See Cronkite’s Like Again,” by Gene Lyons (Salon).

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