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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.

In a broadcast career that lasted over a half-century, Walter Cronkite was more than a famous newsman or an icon in television history. Cronkite will be remembered as “the master of ceremonies for our contemporary history,” observed Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Just before Cronkite’s death, syndicated columnist Marie Cocco talked to Thompson for the AARP Bulletin. Thompson, an expert in broadcasting history, assessed Cronkite’s pivotal contribution in creating the role of network anchor, a fixture that has survived the proliferation of cable news channels and other rapid changes in the contemporary media environment.

Q. How did Walter Cronkite become Walter Cronkite? What set him apart from what had gone before, and what has come since?

A. He really is the representative symbol of the era of network news. Edward R. Murrow [the legendary newsman who came to prominence with radio reporting during World War II] is considered the dean of broadcast news, but he of course did his great early work in radio—“this is London” and all that kind of thing.

Murrow moved into early television. He was a great reporter who was doing all of these important stories. Cronkite becomes something else entirely—that nickname of Uncle Walter that he had. That really did communicate a lot about what he was doing. He was not only a really good anchor/reporter. But he did have this avuncular quality to him—the most trusted man in America. In that era, the evening news became the nighttime source of record of where you got your news. In the morning, you’d get your morning paper and read about what happened the day before. Then … the evening [broadcast] news emerged in Cronkite’s time as opposed to the afternoon or evening addition of the paper. CBS went to 30 minutes of evening news in 1963.

That’s the time when the evening news is really becoming a force in the civic equation of how people got information.

Q. What are the specific aspects of his coverage that made Cronkite the towering figure he eventually became?

A. Three landmark news events are what made him a symbol. [The first was President John F. Kennedy’s assassination].

[The way breaking news is presented] today really gets its dress rehearsal here. … NBC has a devil of a time. They have somebody on the phone in Dallas but can’t get the phone hooked up so we [can’t] hear audio.

By all means the coverage that is most compelling and the most modern is CBS. And Cronkite is doing two things really extraordinarily. One, he is reporting these facts, he’s managing to both give the information of what they’re reporting—but he doesn’t say what can’t be confirmed. When he takes off his glasses and he has that little gesture, that is so subtle but so incredibly powerful, and he doesn’t do that until he gets the confirmation [that the president is dead]. Even though it’s clear what has happened, even his emotions aren’t going to confirm this story until it’s confirmed. I think that is where you get your Uncle Walter. You’ve got a guy who is both being a careful, professional journalist—he’s delivering this in a clear, sane, not-panicking sort of way—but at the same time, these emotions.

That first hour, that first 90 minutes of Cronkite’s coverage where he breaks the news is really quite an extraordinary performance. He wasn’t reporting this like a robot. It let you know that to some extent he was mediating this information, but he’s one of us. He’s part of the same species whose life was impacted. But he always throttled it down. His voltage was really, really low.

It really gave the sense that these news anchors are becoming the MCs of our civic life—the master of ceremonies for our contemporary history.

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.