Sunday, July 19, 2009

And that’s the way he said it was: Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

He had a career as a globe-trotting journalist acquired years before he hunkered down in the medium that secured his reputation, but Walter Leland Cronkite really established his bona fides for us on the blue-glow box in the living room, the same device whose importance to everyday people has been transformed by the velocity of modern times, and by that other blue-glow box: the one on your desktop.

Cronkite, who died on Friday at the age of 92, died three days before the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (which delighted him), and more than 45 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (which brought him to the verge of tears on the air).

In 19 years at the CBS Evening News, Cronkite ushered us into those events and more: the administrations of five U.S. presidents, the folly of one war, the assassinations of two of the nation’s best and brightest; and the rich pageant of 20th-century life.

His passing brings us to the inescapable: there was television news B.C. and A.C., and the difference is more than mere chronological wordplay.

Before Cronkite began his incarnation of the CBS Evening News, in April 1962, the CBS evening news was all of 15 minutes long, not so much a digest of the day’s pivotal events as a snapshot whose content might not be more substantial than the stuff of a chat with your neighbor over the hedge.

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Cronkite helped codify the experience of the evening news, for his network and the others; he helped give the concept a shape and meaning, and a definable personality, affable and avuncular, that the nation could gather around.

One of Cronkite’s great gifts to his viewers was the ability to boil down not what was important generally, but what was important to him — and by extension, what he knew would be important to the rest of the country.

He distilled the mess of the Watergate scandal down to graphics and plain language that people could understand. He helped make sense of the Iran hostage crisis in a daily chronology that puts things in perspective.

And earlier, Cronkite went up against the military-industrial establishment and tapped the collective unconscious. In a documentary that properly separated Cronkite’s role there from his role as the CBS News anchor, he went on the air in February 1968 and said flat-out what Americans had been saying and thinking privately: that the Vietnam War was unwinnable:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.”

It was a statement that broke the back of the nation’s gung-ho military psyche. President Johnson said as much after the broadcast: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” It was also a statement that probably saved hundreds, if not thousands of American lives, and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Vietnamese lives.

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Even a casual look at the mediascape since he left the air, on March 6, 1981, confirms: For the most part, after Walter came the deluge.

Before he left the anchor’s chair, Cronkite was witness to the future — a little bit like the vintage car mechanic observing his first fuel-injection engine. CNN, of course, had launched in June 1980, the first all-news, all-the-time venture in the history of the medium, and one that was steadily growing its reach and influence.

MTV, which ushered in a new source for music entertainment, another kind of news (that largely bypassed the TV networks that largely bypassed them), was launched on Aug. 1, 1981.

In January 1982, after he’d left the scene, CNN launched Headline News, airing a continuous cycle of half-hour newscasts, a style of delivery that continues on the channel today.

The Internet we know and love first acquired its recognizable contours when British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989.

And after Cronkite’s news went off the air, eventually we got the sleek, relentlessly manicured television news to which we’ve become accustomed … followed by the political caged matches so common on the cable networks today.

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Walter Cronkite symbolized civility in journalism. On Friday, Dan Rather, who succeeded Cronkite in the big chair at CBS, said as much to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “Being on television,” he said, “… it’s an egocentric, narcissistic business, but you rarely if ever saw that in Walter Cronkite … he had the ability to get through the glass, which is to say, to connect with people.”

Cronkite did that in front of about 22 million Americans five nights a week for 19 years. He may well have been the last television news personality who really deserved to be a television news personality. He seemed to wear his authority lightly. He wasn’t just a man comfortable in his own skin; he went out of his way to make us comfortable in ours.

He tried to be that neighbor you talked to over the hedge.

Ironically, he was also one of the last emotionally accessible symbols of fortress journalism, represented by those mammoth news operations (like CBS) that reveled in maintaining an insulating distance between the press and the public — and a one-way directionality that effectively told people what news was.

Those days are over. You won’t get that kind of attention on the Internet or the cable nets; the emotional responses that haven’t been boiled down completely by e-mail emoticons are always about to boil over on the pit-bull shows on cable. And news? Whose news? Yours ain’t like mine ain’t like hers, and that’s a democracy-wall prospect that’s both thrilling and terrifying.

Cronkite’s nightly signoff was legendary: And that’s the way it is. And maybe that was Uncle Walter’s big inside joke, for those who watched him long enough. Truth was, that’s the way it was according to Cronkite. And today, the news is the way it is according to you and me.

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“Barely a generation has passed since Walter Cronkite disappeared from our evenings,” wrote Ted Anthony of The Associated Press, in a valedictory essay. “But the notion of one man — a single, authoritative, empathetic man, morally reassuring and mild of temper — wrapping up the world after dinner for America seems incalculably quaint in the technological coliseum that is 21st-century communications.”

“We are now confronted with a rushing, 24-hour river of information, much of it chaotic and raw, with no one to shepherd us through it,” writes Anthony.

But we’ve always been confronted with that river, certainly in the life of our 20th-century time. That river’s always been there for the last forty or fifty years, moving more swiftly every decade, obeying some Moore’s Law of information flow. Maybe we just didn’t know it. Uncle Walter knew it, and he knew it way before the Internet said as much: the world was a nonstop event machine, a tragicomic parade.

Cronkite’s role was the same role as performed by news anchors before and certainly since: to pick and choose what stays and what goes; to pull something from that river of information that resonates and breathes and matters, widely and personally. He didn’t do it first, but that amiable, avuncular riverboat captain may have done it the best.
Image credits: Top Cronkite: NASA (public domain). Cronkite 1963, 1981: © CBS News.

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