Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

UPDATE: [BELOW] "Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did." Glenn Greenwald says what I wanted to say but didn't.

Walter Cronkite, one of the true giants of American broadcast journalism, passed away last night at the age of 92. Often cited in public opinion polls in the 1970s as "The Most Trusted Man in America," Cronkite was, for me, the embodiment of what a broadcast journalist should and could be. A consummate professional, he told us what was happening with a blend of integrity, humanity, warmth, and a rare and genuine gravitas.

After growing up in Houston, Cronkite attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked on the student newspaper The Daily Texan. Though he left UT in his junior year to become a newspaper reporter, he maintained a connection to the school throughout his life. His personal papers are housed there at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and he also served as the voice of numerous recruiting ads for the school. While a lot of famous people have attended UT, I've always felt especially proud that Walter Cronkite was a fellow alum.

Maybe because I grew up watching Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, and his voice seems to resonate in various childhood memories, I felt a real loss upon hearing the news of his death. Not a loss for him, because he lived a tremendously rich and full life, but a loss for the rest of us. It's the simple, powerful feeling that a great and good man has passed from the world.

The last few days, I've been following the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing - is a terrific site - and it's interesting that Cronkite passed away during this time, because I have some wonderful reminiscences of the Apollo missions - lying on the floor of my old house, a kid totally enthralled by the events taking place on TV - and it seems to be Uncle Walter's voice that narrates those marvelous moments.

Cronkite loved the space program, and in the clip above, speaks eloquently of what it meant in an often dark and chaotic time in our history. Incredibly, his was probably the voice that first told millions of Americans about the darkest and brightest moments of the 20th century: World War II, the Nuremberg Trials, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Vietnam, the Lunar Landing, Watergate, and Three Mile Island.

Here are some clips of Cronkite reporting these events. It's like a tour of 20th Century History.

The Assassination of JFK. (November 22, 1963)

Editorial on Vietnam. (February 27, 1968)

The Assassination of MLK. (April 4, 1968)

Apollo 11 Landing on the Moon. (July 20, 1969)

Death of LBJ. (January 22, 1973)

Three Mile Island. (March 30, 1979)

Other interesting videos are Cronkite in his own words and President Obama remembers Cronkite.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald eviscerates our flabby, obsequious contemporary "news" media in his post on Cronkite: "Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did."

"The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . 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" -- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.

"I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role" -- David Gregory, MSNBC [and current host of Meet the Press], May 28, 2008.

. . . .

Tellingly, [Cronkite's] most celebrated and significant moment -- Greg Mitchell says "this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million" -- was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn't trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false. In other words, Cronkite's best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do -- directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won't even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.

Despite that, media stars will spend ample time flamboyantly commemorating Cronkite's death as though he reflects well on what they do (though probably not nearly as much time as they spent dwelling on the death of Tim Russert, whose sycophantic servitude to Beltway power and "accommodating head waiter"-like, mindless stenography did indeed represent quite accurately what today's media stars actually do). In fact, within Cronkite's most important moments one finds the essence of journalism that today's modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.

"And that's the way it is."


crystal said...

RIP Walter.

I last remember seeing him (tapes of him) in the movie Apollo 13.

Jeff said...

That's the way it is, and Walt was the best there ever was. I remember watching each and every one of those real-time, although 1963 is very fuzzy.

I remember being curled up on the couch with my dad, watching the evening news, as Cronkite would go over the body counts in 'Nam. He looked so old then, it's hard to believe in some ways that he was still around until now.

Thanks for mentioning the space program. People have been thinking about the Apollo days a lot lately. It was such an exciting time.

Cronkite had quite an interesting WWII set of experiences with the Air Force too.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, I had forgotten about the Apollo 13 movie.


"He looked so old then, it's hard to believe in some ways that he was still around until now."

He lived a long, full life. Did a lot of interesting things after CBS Evening News.

Jeff said...

How is that book, The Family?

cowboyangel said...


I thought it was very good - and very important in a couple of ways. Sharlet writes well and seems to have done an extraordinary amount of research. Most of all, I like the way he writes about religious experience - intelligently, thoughtfully, with a cool, observant eye and yet with genuine understanding. I thought it might be a typical liberal rant against the Evangelical right-wing, but it really wasn't, though he does a masterful job of showing how dangerous these people are. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to religion in America.

I've wrestled a long time with the deep theological conflicts of Christianity in this country, and I thought he did a good job of getting into some of those murky but ultimately crucial issues. How did our fairly weird amalgamation of Capitalism, fierce individualism, and Christianity develop? Not just in the beginning, but throughout the 20th century?

The Jesus of these people has never been a Jesus I recognized, and I thought Sharlet did an excellent job of helping me understand why that is the case.

It's a pretty creepy book, though. Man, these people are scary. For as much as some of them like talking about the Anti-Christ, I think they need to take a good, long at themselves.

Highly recommended.