There is a generation that hasn’t known Walter Cronkite. He was forced to leave his post as the Managing Editor and Anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in March, 1981. He later reportedly said, he didn’t really want to go. And we weren’t ready to see him go. But, corporate politics has a way of catching up with even the best.
Much has been said and written since the news broke tonight at 8:42 PDT that Walter had died.
Just a few weeks ago rumors had swirled that he was dying. While the news was not unexpected, it was still a shock when I received the news on my BlackBerry. We’re now receiving the news primarily from new devices and technology, which, by in large is wonderful. However, that has challenged the so-called traditional media, so much so, media companies are in deep financial distress.
Back when Cronkite anchored the “Evening News” from 1962, when it was just a fifteen minute broadcast, until March 6, 1981, we learned of most major news events from television. Radio news in most markets became, what we call “rip and read.” Afternoon papers were dying. In fact, the year that Cronkite retired from the anchor desk, the coveted “The Washington Star,” then owned by Time, Inc., went out of business. Other dailies would soon follow.
Cronkite is a primary reason why we turned to television news. He was calming, trusted and respected the news. He had integrity. You can’t make that up.
Walter covered every major news story since he reported on WWII for the United Press wire service. He was at the Nuremburg trials, sitting not far from those in Hitler’s inner circle, who were on trial for crimes against humanity. He was one of the first anchors at the CBS station in Washington, D.C. He anchored the political conventions in 1952 and 1956. He even briefly hosted a CBS morning news show with Dick Van Dyke.
When he took over the nightly newscast on CBS in 1962 from another respected journalist, Douglas Edwards, television news was still in its infancy.
CBS defined quality in broadcast news, both on radio and TV. Cronkite led CBS News to new heights as the primary voice. The 1960s and 1970s were difficult decades. Just a year after Cronkite became the anchor of the 15-minute broadcast, and 2 months after CBS expanded the program to 30 minutes, renamed the “CBS Evening News,” President Kennedy was killed in Dallas.
Millions remember Cronkite’s unflappable presence as he took us through the four days in November when we were in grief and shock.
The stories that followed over the years from America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam, Cronkite’s riveting documentary and commentary about America’s presence in ‘Nam, which may be credited for President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election is quite known.
CBS News’ coverage of the U.S. space program is legendary. Its reporting of the Watergate crisis that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency has not been rivaled in broadcasting. It was “The Washington Post” and CBS News that persevered. Cronkite convinced Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin to agree to be on the same broadcast, later prodding President Sadat to make his historic visit to Jerusalem, Israel, which later paved the way to the peace accord between those former enemies.
Like most of my generation, I can remember almost every major event from the early 1960s, much to the credit of Cronkite.
I was in West Gemany in the summers of 1973 and 1974 as university student during the final two years of Nixon’s reign as President. However, via American Forces Radio, I heard Cronkite and Dan Rather reporting on the severity of what we would later learn were the crimes that Nixon and his men committed. We were in unchartered territory. Cronkite made those events understandable and calming when it came time for Nixon to quit, and later during the early months of the Ford Administration. Our Republic did not collapse. Other than “The Washington Post” and later “The New York Times,” it was the CBS News team that brought the story home to us. Those reporters were some of the finest in our industry: Eric Severeid, Daniel Schorr, Robert Pierpoint, Bob Schieffer, Harry Reasoner, Bernard Shaw, Leslie Stahl, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Richard C. Hottelot, Bert Quint, among so many others.
The world and the media have changed so dramatically since Walter passed the baton to Dan Rather in 1981. We’re now in a 24/7 news cycle via cable, the Internet and social media. Much of journalism today is defined by rumor and gossip. Witness the hysterical coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. The very worst of broadcasting is on exhibit almost daily. Broadcast and print have pretty much evolved into a caricature.
Tonight, CNN was prepared and devoted its prime time to Cronkite’s career. They mainly carried it well. MSNBC had broadcast at least an hour. Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, was seen on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” an MSNBC talk show. FOX all but ignored the evening.
What is more startling is that CBS ignored the loss of Cronkite’s death, as well, other than a ‘program interrupt’, read by Katie Couric, at 8:42pm EDT, (5:42pm PDT during the West Coast re-broadcasts of the network newscasts). CBS chose not to air any special programs tonight.
When asked by “The New York Times” media reporter, Brian Stetler, why CBS did not have any coverage tonight, Sean McManus, the CBS News and Sports President said, “few viewers watch on Fridays; Sunday night spot is much more prominent.”
CBS treated its most-respected treasure (since Edward R. Murrow) as a commodity. It wasn’t the first time. CBS all but banished Cronkite to television Siberia. They did not use his knowledge and expertise during his post-anchor years, much like NBC has wisely called on Tom Brokaw to bring perspective and analysis during big events. Cronkite’s most celebrated post-CBS broadcasts were for CNN and the Discovery cable network.
As “The Washington Post” media reporter Howard Kurtz stated on Facebook and Twitter tonight: “Much of the loss of respect for media since Cronkite is the fault of journalists.”
I hesitated to use Cronkite’s most acclaimed closing signature in this piece, but, McManus’s comment pretty much sums up the state of journalism today.
“And that’s the way it is.”
Good bye, Walter. YOU WILL BE TRULY MISSED.