In Memoriam: Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

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Walter Cronkite passed away tonight.

And with him passed a generation’s reference point on what is important and what it means to be an engaged citizen.

Walter Cronkite and the Space Program

I have been thinking about Mr. Cronkite all week, as we approach the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Mr. Cronkite’s personal involvement in covering the space program brought it to life for Americans, and gave us confidence that it was worthwhile.

I was 12 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I lived the US space program through CBS News — I have no memory of the program that doesn’t include Mr. Cronkite’s baritone narrative, analysis, and humanity.

And despite his success and his influence, Mr. Cronkite’s humility was a defining attribute: As the Eagle lunar module settled on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969, Mr. Cronkite turned to astronaut Wally Schirra and said, “Wally, say something.  I’m speechless.”

Similarly, my first memory of watching the news — of JFK’s assassination — also features Mr. Cronkite’s commentary, including his taking off his glasses with moist eyes, and choking up as he delivered the news that the president was dead.

Trust in an Era of Mistrust

In the early 70s Mr. Cronkite was identified as the most trusted person in America, in the wake of the “credibility gap” over Vietnam and Watergate.  As Americans lost faith in their elected leaders, they invested Mr. Cronkite with that faith.  And every night we tuned in the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite; he ended each broadcast reassuringly, by telling us  “That’s the way it is…” We believed him, and we were right to do so.

Forty years later, we’re hard pressed to find any individual so trusted, much less among members of the news media.

Broadcast News Today:
Lowest Common Denominator as Normative Standard

I had the great good fortune to meet Mr. Cronkite several times in the last few years, through the Interfaith Alliance, whose honorary chairman he was, and on whose board I serve.  For several years Logos Consulting Group has been a sponsor of the annual Interfaith Alliance Foundation’s Walter Cronkite Faith and Freedom Awards Dinner.

I spent about 10 minutes alone with Mr. Cronkite in late October, 2004, a week or so before the general election between George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry.  I asked Mr. Cronkite what he thought of his profession’s coverage of the presidential election.  Afterward, I scribbled notes of our conversation on cocktail napkins, lest I forget.  In essence, he said the following (according to my notes and recollection):

In my day, the news division of CBS didn’t have a budget, and didn’t make a profit.  (CBS CEO William S.) Paley said that he never made a dime on the news, but that it was the best investment he ever made.

But now the news is part of a big company.  So the news has a budget, and needs to make a profit.  So the news can’t just decide what’s important and cover it. News operations are closing bureaus, and reducing staff.

We thought that 24 hour news would mean more news, but it just means more time to fill.  And with attention spans getting shorter, what makes it on the air is lots of unimportant stories.  There used to be a big divide between the network news and the cable news.  But now the audiences are the same, so the networks do the same thing as the cable channels.

I tried to paraphrase: so, what used to be the lowest common denominator is now the normative standard?

He smiled, and used plain English:

Now it’s about what we think people want to watch, not what they need to know.

I saw Mr. Cronkite at several later Interfaith Alliance dinners, including one celebrating his 90th birthday.  Each was an honor to attend and a joy to be part of.

Mr. Cronkite hasn’t been a regular on the air since 1981.  But his influence remains with us.  As former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw said in a tribute tonight, “Walter Cronkite was the gold standard for television news.”

He will be missed.


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