Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite


"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate - not as victors - but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best that they could. This is Walter Cronkite, good night."

February 27, 1968

I am a news junkie. You may be wondering who is responsible for the info-addiction that I have been trying to live with for over forty years now. My connection's name was Walter Cronkite.

Walter Cronkite died peacefully yesterday at 7:42 PM EST
. If you happened to be watching CBS last night, you'll be forgiven for missing this major piece of news. For reasons I can't quite figure out, they decided not to preempt their regularly scheduled programming in honor of the man who, along with Edward R. Murrow, made CBS News. The bulk of last evening's coverage was handled by CNN and the NBC-owned MSNBC.

Although most of the daily papers in the New York area placed the story prominently on their front pages, you might also have missed it had your major source of information been the paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, the New York Post Toasties.
In what should surprise no one familiar with that awful rag, the passing of this giant of broadcast journalism was relegated to a single column on page eight. Apparently the Toasties' editorial department deemed the nervous breakdown of Mischa Barton - a women I had never even heard of until this morning - more newsworthy than the death of Walter Cronkite. How nice and typical.

Three years ago on June 27, 2006, in a piece called, "The Death of CBS News", I wrote on this site:

"I'm just barely old enough to remember November, 22, 1963 (I was born on August 16, 1958). In those days, whenever a major news story was breaking, you automatically went to CBS News - no questions asked. Think of its history: Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingswood. Walter Cronkite; those sons-of-bitches had gravitas, baby!"

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end.

In 2006, Dan Rather, who replaced Cronkite in 1981
, was forced out of CBS for reporting that George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the National Guard back in the early seventies. The fact that the story was true didn't matter in the least to the suits at Black Rock, the headquarters of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Rather had offended the homicidal little thug in the Oval Office who (by the way) controlled the Federal Communications Commission. That was enough for them. The network which in 1954 courageously took on Joe McCarthy, had spiraled into near-comic irrelevance.

After Bob Scheiffer took over the duties of anchor for several months, the CBS Evening News - the diamond of the "Tiffany Network" - was handed over to "cute 'n' perky" Katie Couric, a "journalist" utterly lacking in any journalistic credibility. And no accusations of sexism, please. Leslie Stahl would have been a much better choice.

There is no reason for us to mourn the death of Walter Cronkite. He spent his formative years at the top of his profession and no one did it better. He lived for nearly ninety-three years and by all accounts they were happy ones. In fact in the torrent of reflections on his life and career that have come pouring through the airwaves since the announcement of his death last night, one of his contemporaries described him as "the happiest man I ever knew."
I agree with Tom Brokaw. Instead of mourning his death, we should be celebrating his life.

What we should be mourning is the death of broadcast journalism in general and CBS News in particular.

It is touching that Uncle Walter's passing came when it did, on the fortieth anniversary of that weekend in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldren landed a lunar module on the surface of the moon. Throughout his career, Cronkite was a boyishly enthusiastic supporter of NASA and America's Space Program. When Armstrong transmitted the this message:

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed"

the normally stoic and articulate Walter Cronkite stuttered and stammered like a kid on Christmas morning:

"MAN ON THE MOON! Oh boy!"

It was riveting television to be sure. I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I watched that historic broadcast again, only hours before Walter Cronkite quietly slipped away from us.

In 1998, when John Glenn returned to space as the world's first senior citizen/astronaut, Cronkite, nearly two decades removed from his CBS News anchor chair, was sought after for his much-valued commentary - by CNN. Apparently the geniuses at CBS never thought to use him.

As pitiful as that might sound to you, consider this: In a perfect world, Dan Rather would have been leading the coverage of Cronkite's passing from his former desk in the CBS newsroom at Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City. Last night, the only place he could be found was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow on her relatively low-rated MSNBC program.

Let's not kid ourselves. If CBS News is not moribund, it appears to be going gently into that good night of oblivion. The only thing they've got going for themselves at the moment is their Sunday programming. It's only a matter of time, however, before Bob Scheiffer is replaced by Britney Spears. I can See It Now.

It isn't surprising that he was "the most trusted man in America". Did he earn that trust? I think he did. Although it used to make me cringe seeing photographs of him schmoozing with Henry Kissinger or sharing a hearty laugh with Ronald Reagan, I would remind myself that he often acted as ambassador for the entire CBS network. I am also reminded of November 22, 1963:

"From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at One PM, Central Standard Time, Two o'clock, Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago."

Suppressing a tear, a catch in his voice for only a moment, he delivered those words with quiet dignity and gentle authority. Somehow, without even trying to, he was reassuring a traumatized nation that everything was going to be all right. Honestly, can you even imagine getting that news from someone like Bill O'Rielley? Yeah, we trusted Uncle Walter.

It was a different world in which Walter Cronkite thrived. Lord only knows how he would have functioned during the age of Twitter and the twits on FOX Noise. That he was unhappy with the direction TV news had taken since his final broadcast on March 6, 1981 is common knowledge. The world of mindless info-tainment saddened and bewildered him. I've often wondered if he ever sat through an entire edition of FOX and Friends - or even a few minutes of it. One can only imagine his reaction.

It is said that television news came of age with the death of John F. Kennedy forty-six years ago. I had vague hopes that cable news, too, would "grow up" after the trauma of September 11, 2001. Apparently those hopes were in vain.

Walter Cronkite is dead and he's not coming back.

And that's the way it is.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
tomdegan@frontiernet.net

SUGGESTED READING:

A Reporter's Life
By Walter Cronkite

SUGGESTED VIEWING:

Goodnight and Good Luck
a film by George Clooney

For more hideous ramblings on this awful site, go here:

"The Rant" by Tom Degan

Just awful stuff.

18 Comments:

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

I know that Walter was 92 because that is what the news release stated; however, he will always be the Nightly News and a fixture in the memories of my childhood of watching the news with, or without, my Dad.

Cronkite made me a news junkie; there isn't anyone I make a concerted effort to watch report the news anymore. Cronkite was there every day, a presence that concisely and precisely reported the news; he didn't *make* it as the current zeitgeist deems appropirate, and indeed, necessary in order to fill air time. Walter filled air time with THE NEWS; we need another Walter, however, there will never be the chance for one and, of course, he is irreplaceable.

An era has passed; not only in news but in my life and the lives of millions of Americans of my generation.

Sometimes we are forced to grow-up a little bit more as our leaders die and leave us to replace the empty spot with one from our generation.

Middle America thanks you for the news and all the "good nights" you provided; journey well dear friend, you spent a lot of time with my family and we thank you for it.

Waif

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger Kevin Swanwick said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 1:43 PM, Blogger Kevin Swanwick said...

BRAVO!
BRAVO!
BRAVO!!!

 
At 2:45 PM, Blogger Jefferson's Guardian said...

Tom, let me compliment you for another fine piece. Being a few years older than you, I vividly recall Mr. Cronkite being on the family TV each evening. Those two particular times stand out for me, too, when he announced JFK's death and when the Eagle landed.

I also recall many years later, when I made a point of watching his last broadcast, that I felt I was saying goodbye to a close and longtime friend.

I don't watch network (or local) news any longer. I haven't for years. As you referenced, it has become irrelevant.

Thanks for the fine article.

 
At 12:28 PM, Blogger charles moore said...

Tom, A beautiful tribute. Thank you. Like JG, I no longer watch network news - in fact haven't for years, and can barely tolerate reading the Chicago papers.

What passes for news today is truly pathetic.

 
At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Tom for the beautifully written tribute to Walter Cronkite.

In Australia we only had those snapshots of his life from the time of JFK through Vietnam to his retirement. Our grabs were as much about Walter the person as the news he was delivering which said much about the high regard other news services around the world had for this man, particularly our public broadcaster in Oz, the abc.

Less than 10% of communication is verbal, yet the tone and quality of the human voice which draws you to a person cannot be disguised; as a contemporary of Nelson Mandella perhaps this is where his honest courage warmed to the listener which even after his death, still reassures us of a future far less cruel if we take the time to speak out, be heard and get it right.

ian

 
At 8:47 PM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Thanks for reading, Ian. Yes he was indeed respected around the world. I just learned the other day that in Sweden news anchors are known as "kronkiters".

A great tribute to a great reporter.

All the best,

Tom Degan

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger Anna Van Z said...

The following comment is not from me; it's from a contact of mine with years of network news experience. For obvious reasons I'm not identifying him:

The death of Walter Cronkite should be a time for reflection among those that profess to follow in the footsteps of the man who was known as the "most trusted man in America." It won't be.
Walter Cronkite understood the primary obligation of a journalist was to the truth, not some concept of "balance" that allows teleprompter-readers to simply find a crazy guy on one side of a political issue, another crazy guy on the opposite side and call the resulting trainwreck "journalism." Remember Cronkite's frank assessment during an editorial that American forces, despite what the Johnson administration was reporting, was not in fact winning the war in Vietnam? When's the last time you saw an "editorial?" In those days, Cronkite and CBS News had the integrity to differentiate "the news" from an "editorial." Cronkite was still speaking truth to power, he was just framed it the same way Edward R. Murrow did; "It seems to this reporter . . . "
Today, opinion is news, the media feels no responsibility to the truth and companies like Fox News that don't even attempt to mask their political bias and are allowed by the FCC to say they provide "fair and balanced" coverage.
We'll miss you Walter.

 
At 10:02 AM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Your contact was onto something, Anna. Having a bunch of ranting talking heads screaming at each other may be many things. Journalism it ain't. We should remember what Edward R. Murrow said about television:

"This instrument can teach, it can entertain - yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that men and women are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing more than wires and lights in a box."

I think he was on to something.

All the best,

Tom Degan

PS -
Your anonymous contact isn't Steve Ducey, is it? Just kidding.

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

Walter Cronkite, NYT Editorial

 
At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom,

Indeed, an end to an era. My earliest memories of Walter Cronkite was during the Vietnam War. I was 8 yrs old in 1968, when my brother had the bad luck to be drafted and sent to the war. Every night I would watch CBS news in vain hopes of catching a glimpse of my brother as the various war correspondents filed their news footage.

I remember a lot of scenes of the correspondent holding his hat as helicopters landed and took off in the background. I also remember that all of our boys looked the same in their camos and helmets running to the copter or jumping off and running into the jungle. Even at eight, I recognized the fear and pain in their faces. At that time, they were all my brother and I wanted them all to come home.

When Mr Cronkite called for the war to come to an end, I did not understand the political implications. My mother gasped at his words- after all her generation was not accustomed to losing or retreating from wars - but I remember my heart raced at the thought of seeing my brother soon. Somehow, I thought Walter Cronkite was calling the shots! Perhaps in his way, he was.

I never stopped watching Mr. Cronkite after that. I trusted him as I have not trusted a news source since.

During the memorial program aired yesterday on CBS, Micky Hart (of the Grateful Dead) stated that it is a good thing that we don't have one trusted voice in news today - that we were lucky when we put all our faith in Walter Cronkite. Indeed, we were.

Peace to all,

Jo in AZ

 
At 3:16 PM, Blogger Ellis D., Esq. said...

Imagine a television newsman so trusted and well respected that he had an influence in ending our involvement in Viet Nam !!! Today such a person would be fired and blackballed ( and end up a blogger ). Maybe Cronkite's death will serve to wake people up to recall how news reporting used to be......before it became soley a propaganda machine for the establishment.

 
At 11:44 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Another 50 year-old New Yorker piping in. I remember Cronkite on TV back when I was a kid. Even as a kid, I always kept an eye on politics and world events and I still recall Cronkite broadcasting with Wally Shirra the day we landed on the moon 40 years ago yesterday.

Damned fine blog you have. I've blogrolled you under my "Must See Blogging" list.

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Thank you for the kind words and the link, pal.

The memory of that particular broadcast just won't go away. I remember the screened window next to the TV was opened onto our back deck. There was a small, crescent moon in the summer sky. I looked up at it while listening to the transmission of Armstrong and Aldren.

"Someone is actually up there!" I said aloud. It was a magical time to be alive.

All the best,

Tom Degan

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger Prairie Waif said...

Jayzeus!!

I need to rant and this would be the column. Cronkite never manufactured the news! I LOATHE this current Fucked up way of "covering" the news; they manufacture it and then fill in the story they created.

I just woke-up from a nap in the middle of some cop demanding and apology from the President of the United States! What?! Oh, right, for the last 4 days the 24 hour news cycle has been asking, "Should the President have *SAID* that the actions of George, Dick and Harry were ridiculous?

WTF?!?

Would someone please REMIND ME of the number of apologies demanded of President "W" Goober Bush, in National Press Conferences (covered by those who created the story) for calling a reporter an "asshole" in front of a campaign crowd? Please remind me of any time the media covered government officials demanding President "W" Goober apologize for ANYTHING.

Jayzeus! I have become an addict of Le Tour de France and re-watched every documentary the History Channel offers, to the point of memorization, rather than watch American News. Thank GOD, for CTV and CBC Television and CBC Radio.

Walter, Uncle Walter, come and haunt the halls of these news organizations. And I want real poltergeist actions from you! Scare some sense into them and you are my man to do it!

 
At 4:31 PM, Blogger Ellis D., Esq. said...

Arresting Gates was as safe as staying in the doughnut shop. Why don't these pussy cops try arresting real criminals. Oh nevermind, that could be dangerous !!!

 
At 7:06 AM, Blogger W.D. Shirley said...

My father strongly supported the Viet Nam War right up to the point when Uncle Walter didn't. Then he changed his mind. I've written CNN several times suggesting they broadcast a NEWS program with NEWS stories and maybe find some brilliant man to do a single editorial at the end, instead of shows featuring opinions of various talking heads. They don't answer and I have to assume they like infotainment. All despots stupid down the news and control it's content. That's how fascist countries like America control the masses. Too bad they invented the Internet so people can find out what is going on in the world and in our own country. With Uncle Walter gone it's our main source of information on the actions of our government.

 
At 2:57 PM, Blogger George said...

Th me Mr. Cronkite was truly the best reporter in my generation! I think that a reporting award should be named in his honor and made one of the highest awards that can be given! Now the good reporters have an ANGEL watching over them!!

 

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