Friday, July 17, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite (1916-2009)

In 20 years of journalism I have only once witnessed reporters break journalistic etiquette and applaud the remarks of an interview subject. Walter Cronkite, legendary newsman, was the interviewee and the occasion was a Television Critics Association (TCA) press session for Witness to History, a 2006-07 PBS TV special that chronicled his remarkable, storied career.

What a privilege. Every journalist in that room will recall that moment for the rest of his or her days. And today that remarkable man's time on Earth came to end. Walter Cronkite, 92, died today.

Cronkite even took time during that conference to school one reporter who posed a question that Cronkite misunderstood. After Cronkite replied, the reporter tried again and started with, "What I meant was..."

"Oh. I misunderstood the question. Hmmm. My question was better."

No doubt.

As Spiro Agnew said, "If Cronkite doesn't know what to say, don't expect me to come up with anything good."

Agnew made those remarks almost 40 years ago while commenting on the historic first moon walk, July 20, 1969. Cronkite considered his coverage of the moon landing and space program one of the greatest successes of his career. His successes were many, and there won't likely be another like Cronkite. That's way it is...

Here's an edited version of the article I wrote after the Cronkite session.

And that's the way it is
by Alison Cunningham
The National Post (July 22, 2006)

As PBS marks his 90th year, Walter Cronkite continues to weigh in on the issues of the day

When Walter Cronkite was born, back in November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States, Canadians were fighting the Battle of the Somme, most women couldn't vote and Russia was on the brink of revolution. It's difficult to believe -- but that's the way it was.

Now, almost 90 years later, the legendary CBS broadcaster, who was once voted the most trusted newsman in America, looks back on a career spent covering the events that shaped the world. His story is history, and it's the basis of Walter Cronkite: Witness to History, airing as part of PBS's American Masters series.

"Walter Cronkite was the man from print who ushered the nation into the age of television," says Catherine Tatge, the project's writer and director. "When television arrived in your home, so did Cronkite. He brought us the most important news of our lives. During troubled times, he gave it to us straight. Yet, he also shaped it. Throughout, he was both responsible and courageous."

Many Americans -- and Canadians -- first learned of such events as the 1963 assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy and the landing of American astronauts on the moon from Cronkite's newscasts. He was at the helm of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to '81, signing off almost every night with his tagline: "And that's the way it is."

Earlier this year, the 89-year-old Cronkite met with reporters in Los Angeles to discuss the PBS documentary. As he was seated, the assembled media broke with the journalistic ethos that frowns upon applause at news conferences.

He didn't seem dismayed by the display of subjectivity. "I don't know what else can happen to a man after that introduction, for heaven sakes," said the avuncular Cronkite.

Witness to History features Cronkite speaking about his life, career and the many historic events he observed with keen interest, intelligence and integrity. It also presents interviews with his peers, including Robert MacNeil, Helen Thomas and Mike Wallace.

"Probably 24 hours after I told CBS that I was stepping down at my 65th birthday, I was already regretting it. And I regretted it every day since," Cronkite says.

Still an intellectual dynamo, Cronkite shares his thoughts on the state of TV news. "I'm a little worried about the possibility of entertainment creeping into news broadcasting," he says, "so that we're really not getting the serious news that we desperately need."

As a lifelong student of global affairs, Cronkite also isn't one to shy away from his views on U.S. policy in Iraq. "We've done everything we can [in Iraq]. We're going to have to leave it with them some day, and it is my belief that we should get out now."

In the 1960s, Cronkite made similar remarks on the air about Vietnam. His criticism influenced then-president Lyndon B. Johnson into not standing for re-election and hastened America's withdrawal from Southeast Asia. "If I've lost Cronkite," Johnson reportedly said, "I've lost Middle America."

Cronkite recognizes his words don't carry the political sway they once did -- but, he says, "The editorializing that I did on the Tet offensive in Vietnam, I think, helped speed the end of that war. That, I'm proudest of.

"And I was proud of coverage throughout the buildup of the space program. I took that as my own assignment. I spent a lot of time with it.

"Those, I think, would be my two favourite stories of all time. Of course, when you ask somebody as old as I am, who was an active war correspondent [during the Second World War], there was a new experience every day that lives in my memory."

Katie Couric, who is taking the anchor's chair at CBS Evening News in September, narrates the documentary. Couric, of course, is officially replacing Dan Rather. Rather, who spent 24 years in the job, replaced Cronkite in 1981.

"I think she's a darn good journalist," Cronkite says of Couric. "I remember her when she was an NBC reporter -- a correspondent in Japan, and I thought she did great work."

Couric will be the first woman to anchor an American network's evening newscast. It's just another piece of history in the making for Cronkite to witness.

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