Isn’t it odd that Walter Cronkite passed during the 40th anniversary of his career’s highlight—covering the Apollo 11 mission?
Because my father was a dairy farmer, suppertime at our house was 5:00, so Dad could go out and milk the cows afterward. At 5:30, I usually turned on somebody’s network newscast. I watched the other networks occasionally while growing up, but when big news went down, the story could come only from Uncle Walter. Assassinations, space missions, political conventions and election nights, Nixon’s resignation—could it really have happened if Cronkite didn’t report it? It didn’t seem possible.
After Cronkite retired in 1981, the CBS Evening News was never the same, despite the fact that Dan Rather had been a fixture on the network since the middle of the 1960s. I soon switched over to Peter Jennings on ABC and never looked back. Perhaps the 1980s would have seemed different if Cronkite had been there to report on them every night. It’s not that he vanished entirely after 1981, however. He wrote a book, he made documentaries, he opined on the state of journalism, he filed reports for NPR.
And as time went by, we came to understand that even though he ended each broadcast with “and that’s the way it is,” his broadcast was not “the way it is”—not when fallible humans had to make choices about what to include and what to exclude. But even if the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite didn’t contain all the news there was to report, we believed it had all the news that mattered most. If Cronkite really was the most trusted man in America, that title wasn’t a marketing slogan. He was a tireless, fair-minded reporter; he had learned his craft during World War II as a wire-service reporter, just as broadcast journalism was being invented. He went on television in the 1950s, and when Edward R. Murrow left CBS for a post in the Kennedy Administration, Cronkite became the public face of the “Tiffany Network,” at a time when news divisions were the jewels in a television network’s crown.
Could Walter Cronkite have survived and thrived in the modern journalistic world, reporting celebrity scandal, political gossip, and endless ratings-driven speculation about everything under the sun?
Would you want to be the producer who had to ask him to do it?
On the night of Cronkite’s last broadcast in 1981, several friends and I watched together at my apartment. When he signed off for the last time with “That’s the way it is,” we raised a toast to him. This weekend, we raise a toast to him once more.
Last night’s superb CBS special report on Cronkite’s death is here. (The network is planning a one-hour special for the 60 Minutes time slot Sunday night at 6PM US Central.) There’s a fine tribute here, with links to lots of video clips.
I’ll have more about Apollo 11 on Monday.