That's the way it was
Walter Cronkite’s signature signoff—“and
that’s the way it is”—gives pause in today’s
media world. Is it—the multimedia universe of the Internet,
blogs, Twitter and YouTube—the way it is?
CBS’s long-time White House correspondent Mark Knoller
tweeted that Cronkite, the CBS legend, “would have enjoyed
Twitter…straight news reporting one sentence at a time.” Maybe.
We’re caught up in the capacities of instant communication
these days. Yes, I’m on Twitter, too. How else to know
Cronkite was an experiential journalist. With the troops on
D-Day. On the ground in Vietnam. At Cape Canaveral for the space
launches. Speculation was that Cronkite would have been the prime
candidate for the journalist-in-space program had it gotten off
the ground. He was not the vicarious correspondent tied to cable
news and Google. Not the blogger in the basement type with zero
frequent flier miles and no time in the field.
In the wake of Cronkite’s death at 92, it is significant
to note that he is still remembered and eulogized as “the
most trusted man in America,” even though he left the CBS
anchor chair 28 years ago. Nearly every remembrance notes Cronkite’s
on-air declaration that the Vietnam War could not be won and
President Lyndon Johnson’s lament that “if I’ve
lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” With respect
for Katie, Brian and Charlie and their journalistic chops, no
one would say that about today’s network anchors. It’s
not their fault; times have changed.
Cronkite’s editorial judgment on Vietnam notwithstanding,
the line between news and opinion was clearer in his day. Cronkite,
the anchor, anchored the news. His colleague Eric Sevareid, at
least for part of that tenure, provided the commentary. On some
purported news shows today, the anchor is host, commentator,
provocateur and, often, irritant.
I knew Cronkite in the casual way that people in the business
know each other, crossing paths on campaign trails or in studios.
We spent an evening together, ten years ago, at Kutztown University
in Pennsylvania. It was a “Conversation with Walter Cronkite.” I
was invited to be his conversation partner. Appropriately, Walter
did most of the conversing. Cronkite did not like to give speeches.
He much preferred to reminisce and respond to questions, undoubtedly
much the same ones from one “conversation” to another.
Changes in the business, politics, leadership, war, space.
Over the years that I’ve been in classrooms, I frequently
ask journalism students what they aspire to be. The answer is
often “a network anchor,” even in these tumultuous
days for the business of journalism. (Note that I rarely hear “a
I admonish, in a kindly, dean’s way, that the best anchors
I’ve worked with were reporters first and foremost. Cronkite
was a reporter’s anchor, focused on helping the reporters
tell the stories they’d gathered. That’s not surprising.
He had not aspired to become a network anchor, only a journalist.
Wire service reporters, as Cronkite was, revel in the grit and
detail of a story. (Disclosure: I was a wire service reporter
briefly, and I married one.)
Part of Cronkite’s appeal to his loyal viewers must have
been that he did not look like a TV anchor. Yes, he had that
baritone broadcast voice. But the glasses, the hairline and the
mustache were avuncular.
Cronkite did not leave the CBS anchor chair eagerly. He was
only 64 in 1981 when he handed it over to Dan Rather. But the
industry was pressing on towards an era of glitz and sizzle,
demographics and computer graphics, megamedia and multimedia.
Cronkite more than kept his hand in. He made documentaries,
critiqued today’s media and drew appreciative crowds to
Ironic, in the way news often is, that Walter Cronkite’s
death comes in the week that we commemorate man’s first
small step on the moon. Ironic, that the CBS Evening News with
Katie Couric is introduced by the voice of Walter Cronkite.
That’s the way it is.