Uncle Walter in his time



Walter Cronkite - "Uncle Walter" to those of us who grew up in his heyday - was a guy who thrived in a far less fractious America. He was comfortable and reassuring on camera, a quintessential heartland American, a Missouri dentist's son who trained as a wire service reporter and sustained his instinct for serving up the news right down the middle, straight and opinion-free. When he finished his broadcasts by intoning, "and that's the way it is," nobody questioned uncle's imprimatur; after all, his only competition was NBC, ABC, and a couple national newspapers. 

As the writer David Halberstam observed 30 years ago, late in the CBS anchorman's reign, Cronkite was the epitome of the "Good Guy American," someone who "represented in a real way the American center...a mass figure who held centrist attitudes for a mass audience."

In other words, Cronkite was, inextricably, a man of his time. His journalistic values were shaped by the formative experience of covering World War II; he was gee-whiz about the news, as opposed to ironic and jaded. He retired in 1981 just as cable TV was being born, and roughly 15 years before the average American family first learned of the nascent Internet. So times have indeed changed. There could never be an Uncle Walter today, because the mass audience has been fractured and narrowcasted to the point where it's difficult to even locate the American center.

Cronkite never courted controversy on the air, and how quaint that seems today in our era of 'tude. Nobody will ever think of Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly as a kindly uncle. The broadcast template today is to be the Bad Boy, not the Good Guy. Anyone who tries to be folksy and reassuring is likely to be vaporized; witness, Aaron Brown on CNN. Anyone trying to replicate Cronkite's role as the authoritative centrist dispenser of news would be quickly savaged by both conservative and liberal bloggers as presumptuous, and as a toady for one side or the other.

One shudders to think how Cronkite would have fared had he been broadcasting during the digital era, at a time when Americans were free to indulge their polarized opinions via the customization of news sources. Just imagine what would have happened, for instance, if Cronkite had anchored the 1968 Democratic National Convention under these circumstances.

That was the convention when Chicago police battled in the streets with antiwar protesters; inside the arena, Mayor Richard Daley's security people took it upon themselves to haul away impertinent journalists. At one point, they got physical with Dan Rather...which prompted even Uncle Walter to lose his cool on camera. Cronkite exclaimed from the booth, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan!" Shortly thereafter, however, Cronkite invited Mayor Daley up to the booth, to tell his own side of the story. Daley told it at very great length, a mix of bluster and evasion, with Cronkite playing the genial host and never managing to muster a single tough question. (CBS ran an hour-long tribute to Cronkite last night, and never mentioned the '68 Democratic Convention.)

The point is that, under today's rules, Cronkite would have been eviscerated by the cherry-pickers on the left and right.

For calling the Daley security people "thugs," conservative posters and bloggers would have written that Cronkite had torn away his mask to reveal the liberal beneath it, that he was a mere water boy for the Liberal Media and the antiwar forces that were tearing down America, that his credibility was shot forevermore, and that he should quit and go flip burgers.

Meanwhile, for failing to get tough with Daley during the interview, liberal posters and bloggers would have written that Cronkite had torn away his mask of objectivity to reveal the establishment lackey beneath it, that by indulging Daley so disgracefully he was implicitly editorializing on behalf of the forces of repressive authority, that his credibility was shot forevermore, and that he should quit and go flip burgers. And he probably would have felt compelled to defend himself on the Walter Cronkite blog.

But without the kind of cross-pressures that are so common today, Cronkite was able to anchor not merely a broadcast, but a centrist American sensibility that no longer seems to exist. As the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold....the worst are full of passionate intensity." Soaked in irony, we are reflexively suspicious of all elected leaders, and we can hardly imagine ever again viewing a journalist, of all people, as The Most Trusted Man in America. There can never be another Cronkite, nor an era such as his. For better or worse, that's the way it is.