I was saddened yesterday to have learned about Walter Cronkite’s passing. Saddened, but not surprised. He was 92 years old, after all, and was in declining health. And it was reported recently that he’d been quite ill; some of the reporting predicted that it would only be a matter of time before his death. Regardless, it marks the end of an era in journalism and broadcast news in particular.
He was born in 1916 in Missouri and grew up in Texas. It was reported that he became intensely interested in journalism as a young man, starting in newspaper then going into radio. During World War II he reported in Europe as a member of the Correspondents’ Corps. He also was part of the press contingent that reported the War Crimes trials at Nuremberg following the war. Later he went to Vietnam to report during the Tet Offensive. What he saw then caused him – the only time in his career – to express an opinion about an issue. He believed we needed to be out of Vietnam, and we needed to get out honorably, not only for the sake our our country, but also for the sake of the Vietnamese people.
I believe what he’ll likely most be remembered for is his coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy. I was not old enough to remember watching it live (in November of 1963 I was 17 months old) but I have seen it many, many times since. His reaction immediately after reporting the time of the President’s death was as genuine as it was spontaneous. In 2001 he told Larry King during an interview that it was the only time in his career that he’d ever come close to losing his composure. And he wasn’t ashamed of that having happened. Nor should he have been; I suspect it was an emotional response shared by many. Years after the fact, when I got to see this footage, I had that reaction myself. Even though I knew what was coming I didn’t expect that to happen.
Probably the biggest attribute that Cronkite had was his integrity, both journalistic and personal. Other than his views on Vietnam (President Johnson said words to the effect on this that “if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite then I’ve lost the war”) he was rampantly neutral in his reporting. And he was adamantly opposed to what has become 24-hour news reporting. He believed that the encroachment of entertainment into broadcast journalism was detrimental to his profession, and he did everything he could to stop this from happening. It is unfortunate that many of his efforts didn’t succeed, as it seems that entertainment is pervasive in news broadcasting as it is today.
After his retirement he contributed to a number of news organizations – the venues I’ve seen him in that I followed were his occasional reporting for National Public Radio and the columns he wrote for the Huffington Post. He made no secret of his liberal political views, but they didn’t get in the way of his obligation of being an objective reporter.
He was known as “The Most Trusted Man in America”, and it was a title that, at least in my opinion, he totally deserved.
He will be missed.