Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite was the iconic way it was

THE PASSING of Walter Cronkite has reminded us of a towering journalist and his times, and of someone unlikely to be fashioned again in the helter-skelter world of modern media. The contrast between the distinctively civilized bearing of Cronkite and the wearying hurry-up talking heads of today should be quite apparent to anyone who managed to watch any of the replays of the historic Cronkite moments at his CBS studio microphone or in the field as a reporter. It is no exaggeration that as a broadcast icon, he was remembered as "the most trusted man in America." As Lyndon Johnson, struggling as a torn president with the war, said when Cronkite turned solidly against the the war in Vietnam: "If I lose Cronkite, I've lost America."

But where would he find a welcoming hand today? Where would he fit into edge-of- your-seat reality news programming? How could he possibly sustain the gotcha formula? Clearly, there is no one of his stature and public command in front of the cameras. The networks are tiptoeing with inoffensive coverage of critical issues, and cable has developed a strong taste for breaking-news madness rather than in-depth news coverage. Meanwhile, back at the printing press, newspapers continue to humiliate themselves on their way out the door. How else can you explain the aborted scheme of the Washington Post to have lobbyists sit down at the publisher's house with key reporters and editors for a fee of, say, $25,000 (to the paper) to advance their own self- serving story lines? The Post's mandarins had a lot of explaining to do to save face as well as credibility, but it was too late.

Who would accept Cronkite's measured words and gently clipped tones as the way to improve one's Neilsen ratings? Yet who among today's broadcasters will someday earn the title as "the most trusted man (or woman) in America."? Wanna bet?

As I was growing up in the newspaper field, Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid held fast as my broadcasting models. They always made sense. I trusted them. Can we say the same of anybody in the bloody business today that is so committed to fatuously entertaining us rather than informing ?

In a world every bit as disheveled as today, Walter Cronkite's was the remarkable soft-spoken reassuring uncle who compelled us to watch, listen and believe. His tag line for his newscast was, "And that's the way it is." Who could disagree? Today, we can only wistfully add, "And that's the way it was."


Mencken said...

I photographed Walter Cronkite one day while he was hosting a corporate video. After the taping, I asked if I could get a picture with the two of us. He said sure, no problem. As we were waiting, I told him that I had only asked to have my picture taken with one other celebrity.

"And who was that"? asked Walter.

"Captain Kangaroo". I replied.

The PR folks on the soundstage gasped at what they thought was a disrespectful answer.

Walter laughed heartily.

He said, " When I was at CBS, Bob Keeshan's office was across the hall from mine, and every so often a mother with her children would stick her head in the door and ask breathlessly if I was Captain Kangaroo. I'd say no, Captain Kangaroo is across the hall..... I'm just Walter Cronkite".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog today. It reminds us all of what we miss in the news analysis today. Just tell it like it is, and then "Shut Up" should be the rule.

Grumpy Abe said...

Thanks for both of the above comments. The anecdote about Cronkite's self-deprecating charm says volumes about the kind of news celebrity that he was. I was around enough of the later brand at national conventions and on the presidential trail to know that in the end, they wanted you to know that they were the VIPs in the news field.. At one of the conventions, a network platoon gathered in the hall the day before the opening ceremony for photo ops should you want to show the pictures to your grandchildren. .

fargo said...

What a great story re Cronkite/Capt Kangaroo...that is a moment of a lifetime.