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Journalism great passes, ‘and that’s the way it is’

When Walter Cronkite retired in 1981, in his typical, fatherly, and always gentle manner, he said that his departure wasn’t all that important. He had been preceded by a fine journalist and would be followed by a fine journalist. It was, in his words, “just a passing of the baton.”
At the time he was probably right. Broadcast news was still at its height. CNN had only been on the air for a year and the Internet was still a long way off. The evening news, anchored by names such as Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith, was still one of the principal sources for news and information. And the people who guided us through that half hour wrap-up of world events each evening were trusted visitors to our homes. Walter Cronkite, one of those handful of welcomed TV visitors, died last week at age 92. According to several polls in the 1960s and ’70s, when Cronkite was at the height of his fame, he was considered the most trusted man in America.

The era of the great anchormen has passed. Times have changed. True, all three of the legacy networks still have evening news broadcasts and they each draw a substantial audience. But the demographic for that audience is substantially older than it once was. Just watch the advertising and you’ll know what I mean. The majority of Americans, and particularly younger Americans, don’t count on people like Walter Cronkite to help them make sense of the world’s events. And that, for all the glories of instant multimedia access to the world’s events, is a loss.
Cronkite represented broadcast journalism at its best. During his 19 years anchoring the CBS evening news, he didn’t miss a single world event. The image of his reading that short, journalistically precise announcement of President Kennedy’s assassination is one that resonates in my memory. At a loss, emotionally overwhelmed after reading the time of President Kennedy’s death, and having no other words, Cronkite took off his glasses, peered at the clock, and rather desperately added, “...some 39 minutes ago.” Of course, being the experienced newsman he was, he quickly found his composure, but for a moment, he was just like the rest of us. He didn’t know what to say.
Perhaps what he enjoyed the most was America’s space program. From Project Mercury, to the Gemini program, and finally, to the Apollo moon landing, there was no one in broadcast news who enjoyed covering it more than Walter Cronkite. He was passionately interested in every detail of the space program, watched its ups and downs, and with the rest of us, 40 years ago this week, marveled at Neil Armstrong, as Cronkite said, “a 32-year-old American standing on the moon.”
Cronkite’s career included radio at it peak and the rise of television. During World War II he was a print and radio correspondent with the U.S. Army. He covered the D-Day landings, flew in a B-17 attacking Germany, and was on hand for the Battle of the Bulge. After World War II, he was, like most broadcasters, on the radio. But in the late ’40s he joined Washington, D.C.’s own WTOP. Or, what many of us simply know as Channel 9. Later, he went to New York, pioneered television coverage of political conventions and campaigns, and in 1962, replaced Douglas Edwards, another great name in broadcasting, as the host of a 15-minute CBS Evening News. This later became the familiar half hour format we know today.
The era of the great TV reporters seems to be passing. There is a lot of talent out there, but there will probably never be anyone in the business quite as well known or as respected as Walter Cronkite. He was a welcomed visitor to my family’s living room every evening at 6:30 and he will be missed. So, one last time, to borrow, with respect, from his closing at the end of every broadcast, “and that’s the way it is.”

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