Monday, July 20, 2009

Uncle Walter Has Left Us

It would appear that we've waited until just about everyone with access to a computer keyboard has weighed in on Friday's passing of CBS News icon/legend Walter Cronkite, who died at the age of 92.

That's partly because we really had no special insight or stories to share with you. We were just regular viewers of Cronkite via now former local CBS affiliate WJW/8, where he was part of the news dominance the station had in the Cleveland market for so many years. (WJW flipped to Fox network affiliation and later, ownership, a decade and a half after Cronkite retired.)

But it felt odd to not note Cronkite's massive influence on the world of journalism and television news in some sort of way, so here we are.

For millions of Americans, "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" was the once-a-day venue where they learned about the important news of the day...things that had happened after they put down the morning newspaper and went to work.

In those days, that meant that the breakfast table and the dinner table were your two "time points" for news, give or take a radio newscast or two in the car on the way to and from work.

All of this must seem like news from a foreign land for today's younger adults.

And many of them don't know Walter Cronkite - "The Most Trusted Man in America" - other than someone who may have done network news on TV before their birth.

Cronkite retired from the "Evening News" chair in 1981, giving way to Dan Rather...who had his own run, but really didn't take the "most trusted man" mantle from Cronkite for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the TV news business changed drastically pretty much starting in the early 1980's.

Just one year before "Uncle Walter" left daily TV news, a small, scrappy and initially derided Cable News Network launched the era of 24 hour news from a converted mansion in Atlanta.

Though CNN's chances of success were not believed to be large in June 1980 (wags called it "Chicken Noodle News"), it ushered in an era where Americans didn't have to wait for a 22-minute newscast at 6:30 PM Eastern to find out what was going on across the nation and world.

And though CNN and its later competitors certainly had notable anchors and reporters, the news message was delivered by teams of people, not by trusted solo anchormen like Walter Cronkite.

It's as if Cronkite sensed this at his retirement, as if he knew that 25 years later, the network evening newscasts would be just one, much lesser used option to find out about world events.

That decline in the network evening casts makes them a walking remnant of another era, despite the best efforts of Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Cronkite's eventual successor, Katie Couric.

And all three anchors have been forced to adapt to today's new world news order - the Internet.

There's no way that today, we can turn back the clock to a time where America first found out about wars, budgets and catastrophes by sitting in front of the TV at 6:30 in the evening.

On Friday evening, your Primary Editorial Voice(tm) was returning home from a one day out-of-town roadtrip. Various circumstances and events forced us out of the car just before the time that Walter Cronkite's death was announced.

Instead of being at home and watching a TV news bulletin about Cronkite's death, or even being in the car and hearing it on the radio, we found out about the passing of America's most iconic TV news anchor...via Twitter, on our mobile device.

We heard about the death of the respected veteran newsman via the most modern of news dissemination methods, a social networking Internet site that today is used by all sorts of news organizations to share their reporting.

Some of the "tweets" were from major news organizations, but a large flood of them were regular Twitter users either re-tweeting those announcements, or just sharing news they'd heard/seen somewhere else, on their own...with their own take on Cronkite's passing. Shortly after the news was released, as many as 20 tweets per minute related to Cronkite flooded our device.

If you look to our Twitter feed over to the left, you'll see our own contribution to the massive tweeting on Friday night.

And it struck us...that when Walter Cronkite was behind the desk at the "CBS Evening News", many Americans found out about deaths of iconic national figures, first, on his nightly newscast, even if the death happened many hours earlier.

The irony is not lost on us.

And we have just one wish, as the news machine rockets into the future with Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, online video and chat...that trusted, reliable, vetted news reporting, guided by principles held by Walter Cronkite, does not get lost in a sea of "everyone can report via the Internet".

In effect, someone reasonably impartial, with a reputation for veracity, has to find, report and deliver the facts, without spin, with experience and judgment, no matter what delivery method is used to deliver those facts.

Those of us who watched Walter Cronkite - and in our youthful years, that'd include your Primary Editorial Voice(tm) - need to impart the Lessons of Uncle Walter to the younger generation of those who report the news...and we hope that Mr. Cronkite's passing last week won't mean the eventual death of "real news" reporting.

And maybe the fact that a host of people in journalism today were influenced - in some way - by Walter Cronkite will help keep that from happening...


Mike Golch said...

Walter was the Gold Standard of what a journalist should be.He set the Bar quite high!

andrew727 said...

If you look at Walter Cronkite, he earned his ‘stripes’ many times over. He covered both World War ll and the Korean Conflict on the battlefield for United Press International. Even in Vietnam, he risked his life covering the story on the ground for a CBS News Special. This was one tough man. Walter was real and not afraid to show his emotions - whether it was reporting JFK’s assassination or his excitement of watching man step on the moon. However, he always practiced sound news judgment. As another blogger wrote, he did indeed set the ’bar’ high in news judgment. Walter’s ’Most Trusted Man In America’ mantle looks like its in no danger of being updated. And the corporate decision to replace Cronkite with Dan Rather looks like it was poorly executed. Is there anyone who could take over the CBS Evening News once Katie Couric decides to move on by her choice or by CBS brass? Well yes. Harry Smith more than deserves the chance to sit in that magic chair. Problem with too many anchors, whether at national or local levels is the over-reliance on teleprompters, granted, it is a good and needed tool. However, anchors rely on it too much in some instances, coming off as plastic on the home television screen. Walter not only delivered the news, but his title as Managing Editor was real. He was indeed busy in the newsroom putting his cast together. I know myself and scores of others in the news business got our interest in journalism watching Uncle Walter’s newscasts in the 1960’s and into the 1980’s. Walter was indeed the man. Another important factor is Cronkite was never afraid to show a true sense of humor - he didn’t shy from a good laugh or joke off camera. Then again, when you are helping raise three children, you need all the ’humor’ you can get!-) Walter, we do remember you and miss you, whether as viewers or fellow journalists.

- Andrew Boggs, -