While being interviewed several years ago, Walter Cronkite explained that good journalism is telling the public what it needs to know, not just what it wants to know.
It’s a code of conduct he exemplified, but too frequently is not in evidence today, as the news media scramble to keep up with the public’s fascination with pop culture. Witness the continuing coverage of Michael Jackson’s death.
The public is unlikely to see that type of attention paid to Cronkite, who died Friday at age 92. But his impact on this nation was much greater than the King of Pop.
Perhaps no one, other than his one-time mentor Edward R. Murrow, has meant as much to broadcast journalism. With his clear, matter-of-fact delivery, Cronkite came into American homes for 20 years to deliver the news for the CBS television network.
He was there in tragedy, to announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He was there is triumph, to proclaim an American presence on the moon in 1969. Each time, he briefly put aside the treasured objectivity of a veteran newsman to acknowledge his own humanity.
And Americans loved him for it. He was “Uncle Walter,” once polled as the most trusted person in the nation. If Cronkite said it, it must be true. Thus President Lyndon B. Johnson concluded, after a Cronkite analysis that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, that neither could he win reelection.
Cronkite was born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1916. After two years at the University of Texas, he worked at newspapers and radio stations in the West and Midwest before joining United Press in 1939 to cover World War II. He covered D-Day, and parachuted with the 101st Airborne.
Cronkite joined CBS in 1950, gaining some notoriety as host of the historical reenactment series, “You Are There”. He briefly co-hosted the “CBS Morning Show”, and narrated the documentary series “Twentieth Century.” So, he was a familiar face in l962 when he took over the “CBS Evening News.”
For years, that nightly program duked it out in a ratings battle with NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” but in 1967 Cronkite took the lead in viewership and didn’t relinquish it until he retired in 1981. In retirement, Cronkite remained a familiar face on TV, occasionally doing special reports and being called on for analysis.
His informed, deliberate approach remains the standard for TV anchors today, not just here but overseas. Indeed, Swedish and Dutch anchors are known as “Kronkiters,” or “Cronkiters.” But they’re only wannabes. America once had the real thing.