When I think about Walter Cronkite, who died Friday at age 92 after arguably the most distinguished career in the history of broadcast journalism, this is what I remember.
n The man covered World War II.
n He got his start in radio back when radio was in the business of actually reporting the news instead of making largely uninformed comments about it.
n He knew Edward R. Murrow for goodness sakes.
n TV news was invented and Walter Cronkite was there.
n He wasn’t really the handsomest guy in the room and his hair was not only gray but sparse. That didn’t matter much because something else seemed more important in those days: Credibility.
n Today’s news readers only have hair.
n The Kennedy Assassination, because I’ve seen video clips over and over of Walter Cronkite removing and replacing his eyeglasses, yielding a tear and clearing his throat as he announced the death of the president as a result of “this shooting” in Dallas.
n He never thought it was wrong to show emotion. It was wrong, however, to be wrong.
n He covered the U.S. space program from its beginning when the original “Right Stuff” Mercury 7 astronauts were introduced to the dawn of the space shuttle and the end of true U.S. space exploration. It’s the only thing I can ever remember him being a cheerleader for. And in this case, it made us feel good.
n He was always a newsman first who left the rather lazy chore of dabbling in speculation to those less inclined to do any real work.
n That Jesse Helms, then a local TV commentator and state political operative posing as a legitimate newsman, threw rocks at the already venerable Cronkite. He did so from the Raleigh-based studio at WRAL-TV — calling Cronkite a “hysterical crybaby” simply because he reported facts, not the company line, about the war in Vietnam.
n Ironically, those harangues by Helms and his subsequent political career, truly started a blame-the-messenger brand of politics that defines the media and political discourse to this day.
n After Apollo 1 astronauts, including Gus Grissom (the second man in space), died when the capsule caught fire on the launch pad in 1967, Walter Cronkite’s own personal grief was on display, which made us all grieve. And when Apollo 13 astronauts appeared in jeopardy of never making it home, his anxiety became our anxiety.
n When Walter Cronkite ran the show at CBS News, the program was sharply divided into two segments. The news part and the commentary part — much the way newspapers do it. Most frequently, but not always, the opinion was placed in the hands of the perpetually dour Eric Sevareid.
n But when Cronkite did decide to give an opinion, it happened so seldom, folks had to sit up and take notice.
n Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann are not newsmen.
n Because of TV, no one before or since witnessed more history with so many others: The whisker-thin election of 1960; Vietnam, the first TV war; the assassination of JFK and later his brother, RFK; The march on Washington and civil rights movement; the first American in space, Alan Shepard; the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; rioting at the Democratic Convention of 1968; “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”; Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.
n This is how good he was. David Brinkley was absolutely no competition.
n People of my generation generally referred to him as “Uncle Walter.” Some used the more casual, “Uncle Wally.”
n He worked at a time when there were only three networks and the news cycle actually ended for a few hours a day..
n TV news seemed respectable when Walter Cronkite was involved in it because it actually was.
n He was widely acknowledged throughout much of his career and beyond as “The Most Trusted Man in America.”
Let’s see anyone in the media today top that.