Saturday, July 18, 2009

And that’s the way it is: Walter Cronkite dies

On the fortieth anniversary of humanity’s biggest feat – the first moon landing – the man who told his nation “and now we have two Americans on the moon” has died. Walter Cronkite died in New York aged 92. The man who anchored the CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981 died of cerebrovascular disease with complications from dementia. In July 1969, he was on air for 27 of the 30 hours of Apollo 11’s mission and his marathon live coverage brought the excitement and impact of the moon landing into the homes of millions of Americans and observers around the world. He remains the only outsider to have won NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration Award which he picked up in 2006.

That award was one of many in a lifetime of achievement. His name has become virtually synonymous with the position of news anchor worldwide. In Sweden anchors are known as Kronkiters whereas the Dutch called them Cronkiters. In America, Cronkite was not just an anchor he was also an honorary member of families he had never seen or met. “Uncle Walter” was voted the most trusted figure in American public life in surveys in 1972 and 1974. But Cronkite viewed himself as a working journalist and his title at CBS was "managing editor" of the Evening News. His way was to get the story, "fast, accurate, and unbiased".

Cronkite learned this credo during his days as a wire service reporter. Walter Leland Cronkite was the only child of a dentist father and homemaker mother who moved from Missouri to Texas when he was young. Walter attended The University of Texas at Austin in the 1930s and worked as a student reporter for The Daily Texan campus newspaper. Cronkite left university without a qualification. He worked at public relations firms, newspapers, and in small radio stations throughout the Midwest. In 1939 Cronkite joined United Press to cover World War II. He joined a unit fondly remembered as the "Writing 69th" a group of civilian journalists trained to take part in high-altitude bombing missions.

The breath of his war coverage was enormous. As well as flying many bombing mission over Germany, he went ashore in Africa and D-Day landings, he parachuted with the l0lst Airborne, he covered the Nuremburg trials, and ran the UP's first post-war Moscow bureau. His own view of his war record was characteristically modest. “Personally, I feel I was an overweening coward in the war. I was scared to death all the time,” he said. “I did everything possible to avoid getting into combat.”

True or not, Cronkite was certainly made for media combat. Fellow war veteran Edward Murrow recruited him for CBS Washington in 1950. "My first love was newspapering," Cronkite later wrote. "But as the 1940s drew to a close television was coming into its own, and it became evident that the young industry would eventually become the dominant form of entertainment and news."

His first job in front of the camera was as host of a historical recreation series You Are There. He briefly co-hosted the CBS Morning Show with the puppet named Charlemagne the Lion. Cronkite impressed with his anchoring of CBS's coverage of the l952 presidential nominating conventions. But it would take another ten years before he would finally take over the centre stage Evening News anchor role from Douglas Edwards. In October 1963 the broadcast was increased from 15 to 30 minutes and the first expanded broadcast included an exclusive interview with President Kennedy.

Barely a month later, Cronkite fought back tears when he reported to a shocked world that Kennedy had been assassinated. If that announcement was Cronkite’s apotheosis as a news anchor, it was the coverage of the Kennedy funeral that manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process. And Cronkite was ideally placed to benefit from that power. From 1967 through to his retirement, the CBS Evening News was the nation’s top rating television program. Americans turned to Cronkite to learn about the Moon landings, Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis.

Cronkite was acclaimed as an unbiased reporter but when he took sides, he was extremely influential. In 1965 he applauded the “courageous decision that Communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia”. But three years later he was not so sure. He visited Vietnam after the 1968 Tet offensive where his report advocated negotiations and the withdrawal of American troops. "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," he said. "We are mired in bloody stalemate." Though Cronkite’s 30 second TV grab was inaccurate, his report shifted public opinion and was crucial in Johnson’s decision not to recontest the 1968 presidential election. After the broadcast, he reportedly told advisors, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

When Cronkite announced he was going to retire in 1981, there were signs of palpable public panic. A briefly popular T-shirt posed the half-joking question, "Oh, my God - what are we going to do without Walter Cronkite?" But he did not disappear from the public eye. His hosting of PBS's broadcast of the Vienna Philharmonic has become as much a New Years Eve tradition as the dropping of the ball in Times Square. He has also hosted PBS documentaries on health, old age and poor children. In l993 he signed a contract with the Discovery and Learning Channel to do 36 documentaries in three years.

Failing health finally crippled his output in the last few years. Tributes poured in from ordinary viewers after his death. “There is not one major (public) event in my life that Walter didn’t lead me through. Not one,“ said one. “I don’t believe Walter Cronkite has departed. Not until I hear it from him!” said another. Cronkite was at the height of his power (and powers) during an era of attributed-style journalism. There was no CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews or Al Jazeera. The Internet was still the plaything of military scientists. When he said “that’s the way it is” at end of his TV network news, America believed him, partially because of his aura and partially because there was so little choice but to believe what he reported. But the era of news that does no more than quote officials and experts is just as dead as the master broadcaster himself. And that’s the way it is.

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