2009-07-30 / Features

Walter Cronkite: From Depression-era Newspapering To Blogging

"The most trusted man in America" defined reporting for generations of print and broadcast journalists
By Brad Knickerbocker STAFF WRITER OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

It's impossible to imagine any of today's network or cable news anchors being called - with no sense of irony - "Uncle Walter." Or described as "the most trusted" person in America.

Nothing against today's news readers, but how could they be in an age when bloggers and Twitterers and talk radio bloviators snipe incessantly and in real time from the sidelines? Or when "that's the way it is" is really a matter of opinion - fact-based or not - more likely to draw a snarky "Oh, yeah?"

Newsman Walter Cron-kite's passing last Friday doesn't so much mark the end of an era in news reporting - it's been 28 years since he retired as anchorman for the CBS Evening News - as a point at which the rapidlychanging business reflects on where it's come and where it's headed.

In a CBS tribute broadcast last Sunday evening, actor George Clooney (whose father has been a journalist and anchorman) puts it this way:

"That's probably good that there will never be a most trusted man in America again," says Clooney, who wrote and directed "Good Night, and Good Luck," the film about another news legend, Edward R. Murrow, "because if we're not lucky enough to get Walter Cronkite, then we might be in a lot of trouble."

Cronkite seemed to cover every major story in the latter half of the 20th century. World War II (when he flew on a bombing raid over Germany), the Nuremberg trials, the first presidential conventions to be televised, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first moon landing.

His words carried enormous weight.

Returning from a reporting trip to Vietnam in 1968, he declared: "We are mired in stalemate."

Hearing this, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

CBS's "All in the Family" had Archie Bunker call Cronkite "a pinko," and then-vice president Spiro Agnew accused the newsman of bias.

In an interview with Time magazine years later, Cronkite explained his position:

"I do not consider a liberal necessarily to be a leftist. A liberal to me is one who - and it suits some of the dictionary definitions - is unbeholden to any specific belief or party or group or person, but makes up his or her mind on the basis of the facts and the presentation of those facts at the time. That defines what I am."

In that same 2003 interview, he was asked whether he believed most reporters are "liberal," as many conservatives charge.

"I think they're on the humane side, and that would appear to many to be on the liberal side," he replied. "The meaner side of life is made visible to most young reporters. I think it affects their sentimental feeling toward their fellow man and that is interpreted by some less-sensitive people as being liberal."

Cronkite's reputation never faded.

Years after he retired as CBS's news anchor, a TV Guide poll ranked him No. 1 in seven of eight categories for measuring television journalists. Only in "attractiveness" did he lose out - to Maria Shriver.

Walter Cronkite certainly did not reject today's "new media." There's no record that he ever "tweeted" or collected "friends" on Facebook, but he did become a blogger on Huffington Post.

In one of his columns there, Cronkite explained his "that's the way it is" sign-off at the end of each broadcast. "To me, that encapsulates the newsman's highest ideal," he wrote. "To report the facts as he sees them, without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue."

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