Ninety-two years. That’s a tremendous lifespan for anyone, but 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 was raised. He had the good sense to attend the University of Texas where he persued a Journalism degree and worked for 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 from station managers has preceded some of the most successful careers.
And Cronkite’s career exemplified success.
Upon news of Cronkite’s death Friday night, I was asked if he 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 not have influenced me.
I was raised with Walter Cronkite. I learned about the latest anti-war protests on some college campus. I learned about the number of B-52’s that were downed in Vietnam that day; he told me about the latest firefight over some jungle hilltop and I knew the number of body bags that would soon be returning to the States.
My earliest memory of Walter Cronkite was at four years of age. Few believe I can remember anything about the Kennedy assination 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. A few minutes later, he came back on to announce that Kennedy had died. My mother, then a card carrying Democrat, started to cry and a few minutes later, so did Cronkite.
He did something that no network anchor had done before: he showed his emotions.
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 it stunned some people. America was used to seeing their stoic, stone-faced network news anchors in overtly humanistic roles.
But Cronkite changed that.
And the man 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, even landing on the moon bore a degree of mundanity for me, but for my parents, their contemporaries and Cronkite who were raised in a world of limitations, improbabilities 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 shows 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 news he was reporting.
He would never have called President Bush (41) a wimp to his face; 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 ever get 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 duly inspired by his 19 year reign as America’s premier newsman. I 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 coverage 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 and a cadre of hair and make-up stylists are out in the field reporting on day ten 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 many if the good things about network news.
And sadly, that’s the way it is.