Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite, 1916-2009

Much has been said and written in the past 12 hours or so about the death of Walter Cronkite, who was dubbed "the most trusted man in America" in a national survey.

Certainly Cronkite was one of the pioneers of the business, being the first to anchor a regular 30-minute network newscast and helping to make network news a dominant force for decades. He also provided a comforting and reassuring voice during some of America's most turbulent moments, including the assassination of President Kennedy.

Some of my favorite memories of Cronkite were actually of Johnny Carson's parodies of him on the "Tonight Show." I remember one in particular in the early '80s, when Johnny delivered the newscast that Cronkite might have wished he could and called new anchor Dan Rather a "pretty boy."

I heard Brit Hume say last night that Cronkite was part of an era of journalism that has also died. But I think he was actually among the first to usher in the present era of introducing opinion into television newscasts. Remember that he came out firmly against the Vietnam War in his broadcasts, at a time when injecting such opinion into news just wasn't done. Sure, the sharing of opinions by Cronkite and others in his era was much more subtle than it is for the network anchors of today. But the political bent of the anchors of that day was generally well known -- so much so that by the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was touted for his ability to "go over the heads of" the national media.

While you could still respect Cronkite, John Chancellor and others even though you sort of knew where they were coming from, later generations of newscasters and even print journalists have taken their brand of opinion-based journalism to a whole new level, and their industries have suffered greatly as a result. When Cronkite himself began engaging in full-throated activism in his later years, it caused many of us to see his entire body of work in a whole new light.

So it's certainly appropriate to call Cronkite a pioneer in the news business. But when it comes to his legacy, it's fair to say that it didn't stop being shaped when he went off the air.

[ The observations in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Capital Press as a whole. ]

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