Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite hosts coverage of a Gemini space flight in the mid-1960s.
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite hosts coverage of a Gemini space mission in the mid-1960s.

There were many influences on my choice of journalism as a career, but one of them was surely Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite was the avuncular, articulate and dispassionate TV news anchor who, for an entire generation of North Americans, acted as narrator and guide through the most momentous events of their time. During an era when television networks held enormous sway over how Americans understood the world and their own republic, Cronkite was literally the face of CBS News. He personified — and helped define — the term “anchorman.” He was there behind the anchor desk through both Kennedy assassinations, America’s manned space missions, Martin Luther King’s March of Washington and his death years later, the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, Watergate, the Vietnam War and many other seminal stories, his tenure spanning almost two decades (1962-81).

Always the consummate professional, Cronkite only occasionally allowed glimpses of his personal feelings about the stories he covered. The most memorable were his anguish over the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (see the clip below, at about the 5:18 mark), his exhilaration at the success of America’s first attempt to land an astronaut on the moon, and his famous editorial on the Vietnam War.

In terms of his influence on history, Cronkite will probably be best remembered for the series of reports he personally filed from Vietnam in 1968, and the editorial that followed on the heels of those reports, in which he declared that war essentially unwinnable (see the clip below). After hearing of Cronkite’s editorial, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” In later years, Cronkite modestly played down his influence on Johnson, saying that his stories and the conclusions he broadcast were probably only one straw in an already heavy load the president was bearing, and that Johnson had probably already reached the same conclusion himself.

With the arrival of cable television, VCRs and audience fragmentation in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, the reach and influence of venerable news anchors such as Cronkite steadily diminished. The simultaneous rise of the “shock jock,” news-talk radio and television, and the cult of personality in journalism has rendered figures such as Cronkite as anachronisms. For me, however, his work characterized precisely what good journalism should be: informed, knowledgeable, trustworthy, courageous, considered, balanced and, ultimately as a result of all these, influential.

Cronkite was the gold standard.

Fortunately, he was also a philanthropist. A number of important causes and institutions will carry on thanks to his inspiration and generosity. Among them is the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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