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Walter Cronkite, ‘the MC of our Civic Life’

Syracuse University professor Robert J. Thompson reflects on the career of TV pioneer Walter Cronkite.

Q. What of the other two landmark events, his 1968 report on Vietnam and the 1969 landing on the moon?

A. The famous editorial in 1968, that we have to think about getting out of the war and negotiating a peace—this shows that the network news anchor begins to wield editorial power. [Cronkite concluded a reporting trip to Vietnam with his broadcast editorial that the war had become a stalemate and the United States should seek a settlement.]

That one really shows that the news anchor has now become a significant political power in and of itself. … One could argue that all that stuff has now moved to 24-hour prime-time cable networks. [Though it is widely reported that President Lyndon Johnson said that if he’d lost Cronkite he’d “lost middle America,” Thompson notes that the quote has never been officially confirmed.]

Finally, [the] Apollo 11 mission from blastoff. … There are times during that coverage where he is as giddy as a schoolgirl in a party dress. He covers it with a degree of enthusiasm that makes some purists uncomfortable. It almost seems to be boosterism, but it was fun to watch.

Q. Do we have anything like Cronkite in our current era?

A. The job he did doesn’t exist anymore, [anchoring] one of three shows where people were getting their news. …When Cronkite was doing it, he was doing it with two other networks and that was it. Here’s a guy who worked in a time where he had the audacity to say at the end of every broadcast, “That’s the way it is.” Look at the hubris in it.

That part will never come back. [The era of broadcast news from the 1920s to the 1980s was unprecedented in the concentration of its audience around certain shows and cultural figures.]

In the broadcast era, we had an audience the likes of which we’d never had in human history. Young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight—everybody saw I Love Lucy and Walter Cronkite. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have this kind of complete, dominant, consensus audience. Cronkite was a central figure to how many, many of us perceived what had gone on that given weekday in the news.

Marie Cocco is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

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