The death of the most trusted man in America

Walter Cronkite was the first and greatest of a line of TV newsmen

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Walter Cronkite, anchorman. He wasn't just a reader or a presenter of the news, but an anchor, the first and greatest of the line. The description of what he did was created for him. In Sweden, an anchorman was a "cronkiter."

In the United States he was, for an entire generation, the most trusted man in America. In a business where credibility is the only currency, that made the CBS Evening News the most powerful force in U.S. journalism for the two decades he sat in the anchor chair, from 1962 to 1981.

Previously, he anchored conventions and election nights going back to Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Altogether, for three decades, he was a familiar face in American and, it might be said, Canadian homes. He was not a pretty face, but a reassuring presence, first in black and white, and then in colour.

It is difficult to imagine now, but when Cronkite took the CBS News to half an hour in 1963, it was the first 30-minute news broadcast on television. That was 15 minutes the affiliates had to give back to the network, and that was an interesting conversation in itself.

And from the beginning, he insisted on a working newsroom, rather than a studio. It was no coincidence that he was seen sitting in the slot, and that the sound of news wires could be heard humming in the background. That's how he wanted to be seen, not just reading the news, but choosing it. While his broadcast was always introduced as "the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite," the last line of the closing credits was always, "Managing editor - Walter Cronkite."

At its peak, Cronkite's broadcast - he was loath to call it a show - was viewed in 20 million American homes, more than the combined audience of the big three U.S. network news shows today. This was before cable news, which arrived with CNN only in 1980, and before the fragmentation of TV audiences. It was in the era of appointment television, in the best sense of the term. Because so many people watched Cronkite, there was a common point of reference.

And there were so many momentous points of reference - from the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, to the Vietnam war abroad and the anti-war movement at home, culminating in the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. From Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon to the curious presidency of Jimmy Carter. And along the way, the desperate race with the Soviets to conquer space and be first on the moon.

Cronkite decided that space was the biggest story of the decade in the 1960s, culminating in the Apollo 11 moon landing, 40 years ago. President Kennedy had set the course in a famous speech at Rice University - "We choose to go the moon." But it was Cronkite who narrated the story, from John Glenn's first three orbits of the Earth in 1962 to Neil Armstrong's "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" in 1969. When the moment finally occurred, Cronkite was speechless. In a moment that has played countless times since his passing at 92 last Friday, he could only rub his hands in delight and say, "Oh, boy!" Which, of course, was exactly right.

Cronkite wasn't speechless very often. But because he had so much equity with his audience, he was very careful about expressing his own opinions, so that on those occasions when he did, viewers knew he had something important to say.

When he went to the frontlines in Vietnam and reported on the Tet offensive in 1968, he concluded in a special broadcast that "the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." Watching in the White House, Lyndon Johnson concluded that if he'd lost Cronkite, he'd lost middle America.

On Watergate, the Washington Post was virtually alone on the story until Cronkite devoted 14 minutes of his 22-minute program to a narrative that connected all the dots. This was unheard of, and it was also extremely courageous, just days before the 1972 election in which Nixon would win 49 states over George McGovern.

And occasionally, he would just blurt something out, as when Dan Rather was being roughed up by the Daley machine on the floor of the 1968 Chicago convention. From his anchor booth, Cronkite spontaneously declared: "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan."

It is interesting that Cronkite relinquished the anchor role at the peak of his fame, graciously handing over to Rather on his last broadcast, saying he "will be sitting in for a few years."

Cronkite went on to make documentaries, and occasionally lent his famous voice to children's features such as Steven Spielberg's We're Back, in which he played Captain Neweyes, guiding modern dinosaurs back to Central Park.

"Who's Walter Cronkite?" my daughter asked at the time, a decade ago.

"He's playing himself," I explained, "he brings the news."

Did he ever.

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