Monday, July 20, 2009

Uncle Walter

To be honest with you Walter Cronkite had more of an impact on my parent’s viewing habits then influencing my life as a newsperson. He left the anchor chair on CBS-TV in March of 1981, nearly a lifetime ago for some. But it’s the impact he had on TV journalism that was the focus of tributes this past weekend.

Think about the things he reported on during a six-year span from 1963 to the end of that decade. First there was President Kennedy’s assassination, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (which signaled a turning point in the War), the rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. These were formative years for television news.

By 1972, more than 70 percent of Americans polled voted him the most trusted man in the country. If Walter Cronkite came out in your favor, it was an endorsement. When President Johnson heard Cronkite say the Vietnam War wasn’t winnable, he was heard to say that they’d just lost Middle America.

Today’s TV news is too often more about celebrity than substance. It’s almost expected that a reporter will make a personal observation in reporting on a national story. In Cronkite’s heyday that was the exception to the rule. The news was the story, not the reporter. You can in part blame that on the advent of 24/7 news channels and the promotion of news personalities. Even in my role, with the exception of this blog, I report the news and rarely give an opinion about a story.

When CNN debuted in 1980 it marked the emergence of immediate news. It was the beginning of the end of the network nightly news. Although you still have three primary nightly network news casts, their audience has eroded and the role of anchor isn’t what it used to be. However credit Walter Cronkite and his colleagues that when the nation has a tragedy or a crisis we still turn to the network news channels out of sheer trust. Weren’t you glued to coverage during 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina?

For me Walter Cronkite is like an uncle. I never knew my Grandpa Nelson. He passed away before I was born. Pictures I’ve seen of him however look like old time pictures of Walter Cronkite. I’m told that like the famous newsman he always had an interesting spin on things. And that’s just the way it is.

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