Legendary journalist Walter Cronkite has died. “The most trusted man in America” passed away from a brain illness at 92 years of age. “Uncle Walter” sat at the helm of CBS News (1962-1981), creating a style of journalism and establishing a standard of excellence that has yet to be matched.
As a child, I remember watching Cronkite deliver the news. He was direct, gave you the facts and closed each show with “and that’s the way it is” — because that’s the way it truly was.
There was little to no editorializing — just the facts, plain and simple. Unlike today where news reporting and opinion live side by side, Cronkite made sure that the distinction was plain. There was no muddying of the two, which is why people tuned in to see him. His voice was a steady, throaty baritone, unmatched by anyone in news (with the possible exception of the late Charles Kuralt), and his calm delivery reassured America during trying times.
It was Cronkite who delivered the terrible news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Choking back tears, he confirmed the country’s greatest fear that indeed Kennedy was dead. The man, who insisted that news be delivered in a steady, non-partisan manner, visibly fought back tears, reflecting the pain that many Americans felt. Cronkite tapped into the hearts and minds of America, uniting with them in sorrow over the loss of a president.
When I say America, I mean all of America. He was beloved by many because of his ability to bring controversial and painful topics to the forefront. His coverage of Vietnam and the civil rights movement brought people together at a time when this country was tearing itself apart. He insisted on delivering the truth, no matter how painful it was.
After returning from Vietnam in 1968, Cronkite aired a news special, pronounced the war effort a “stalemate,” and suggested that a negotiated peace agreement needed to happen. After the special, President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
This is how trusted Walter Cronkite was; if he said it, people believed it. Many journalists agree that his coverage of the civil rights movement is considered to be the most fair and objective on the subject.
National Association of Black Journalists President Barbara Ciara, a television anchor in Norfolk, Va., said that Cronkite served as an inspiration to her growing up as he did to many black broadcast journalists. “Walter Cronkite set a standard for all of us to follow, which was the truth whether it was the struggle of the civil rights movement, the travails of the Vietnam War or questioning authority at its highest level,” said Ciara. “He was certainly a grandfather of journalism in its infancy and continued to make contributions throughout the rest of his life even into retirement.”
Walter Cronkite was admired by many not only because of his objectivity but also because of his love of news. He took his profession seriously and mastered the art of news gathering, delivery and interviewing.
One only had to witness the horror of watching the CBS Saturday morning anchors try to cover his death over the weekend. Thank God CBS had Katie Couric on the phone to help out the struggling morning show hosts who seemed distant, bored and lethargic when talking about this news icon.
Walter Cronkite is someone whom they should have known inside and out, and it was clear that they knew very little about him. He is the man who pioneered a medium that continues until this day. He is the first person to be called an “anchorman.” He covered all of the major news stories of his time, including the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 1968 Democratic National Convention ruckus, race riots and the Watergate trials of President Richard M. Nixon.
Who can forget when Cronkite was “speechless” upon the first moon landing? He was speechless and then giddy. Why? Because he loved the news.
Say what you will about Katie Couric, but she loves the news. Harry Smith, who thankfully joined the Saturday morning broadcast to help out the floundering morning show hosts, loves the news. Bob Schieffer loves the news. Morley Safer loves the news. Leslie Stahl loves the news. Dan Rather, former CBS news anchor who succeeded Cronkite, appeared on NBC to talk about Cronkite’s legacy. Like the others, Rather clearly loves the news. To love the news means that you love Walter Cronkite.
It is with this in mind that we say goodbye to a great journalist, who established a standard of excellence that has yet to be surpassed. He will forever be loved because “that’s the way it is.”
This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where she serves as cultural critic. She is also managing editor for TheLoop21.com and Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College.