The Way It Was

by Nathan Bruschi | 7/27/09 10:00pm

Of the recent celebrity death parade that has streamed across newspaper headlines and the bottom of CNN, none of the late American icons has had such a profound effect on the course of American history and thought as broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite. After his passing on July 17, notable reporters from a bygone generation poured out to pay respects to their distinguished colleague, and younger news anchors have done the same for him as their esteemed mentor.

Absent in this period of retrospection and public mourning have been the voices of today's youth. Yet oddly enough we are the ones who gobble down more news than Cronkite in his heyday could likely handle, who can use the Internet to customize flows of information from a diverse network of decentralized sources, instead of relying on a single news network as our parents once did.

Now I can't really offer any meaningful "remembrance" of Cronkite he retired before I was born. But what I can do is speak to the legacy he has given us, the generation his viewers begot.

I understand the affection older people have for Cronkite, who hosted the "CBS Evening News" from 1962 to 1981, and why contemporary opinion polls consistently labeled him "the most trusted man in America."

For Americans of an older generation, Cronkite earned his reputation through his professional experience, affable demeanor and tremendous journalistic ethics. Certainly he possessed all three in spades. He was a phenomenon of his time the likes of whom will probably not come again.

In Cronkite's day, CBS was one of just three network television stations. Cronkite's mere possession of the anchor chair made him the personal face of the news that beamed into homes all across America. With that familiarity came authority, and with that authority came trust.

To make an analogy, there's a saying that the U.S. Supreme Court is not final because it is infallible it is infallible because it is final. Cronkite's near-monopoly on TV news gave him something similar. Beyond Cronkite, there were few other sources to which Americans could turn. So of all the people who could have filled his seat, we were lucky we got him.

In remembering Cronkite, many have looked back to the historical moments he brought to the world by virtue of his position. Chief among these is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. View it again online now if you have the ability.

Pundits have argued that Cronkite's greatness in that moment was the emotion in his voice. It was the pain of a common man with the extraordinary job of telling his country of the murder of its president choking back his own tears and hiding his own emotion just long enough to fulfill his duty as a journalist. And while he did that a Herculean task in itself that broadcast in particular is actually notable for what Cronkite chose not to say.

Cronkite did not embellish the truth. He did not plaster the story with adjectives. He did not call Kennedy's assassination tragic, even though it was. He did not opine for the masses or insert himself as the lead in the story. Even in this apocalyptic moment, in the pit of his own despair and in the darkness of a nation's uncertain future, Cronkite simply read the news and left its meaning up to our interpretation.

He was the conduit between Americans and the world around them. He was the friendly man on the screen in the living room box. He was the last of his kind, and he will be sorely missed.

There will likely never be another Cronkite because the nature of the news has fundamentally changed. The 24-hour news cycle makes nightly newscasts too late, cold objectivity too stale and the news in general too large for any individual to master. In a world where "up-to-date" means "in the last 30 seconds," newspapers are forever reporting yesterday's news. Blogs and decentralized "guerilla" news services seem to consistently outpace the bigger brands. Technologies like Google Reader centralize a desired diversity of information and opinion without the need for a news anchor or content editor.

Today, a guy like Cronkite would probably be considered too boring to maintain the short attention span of the average television viewer. Cronkite filled a temporary function in the continuum of human events one that is now gone and will likely never come again.

And as Cronkite used to say at the end of his news reports, that's the way it is.