“It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate – not as victors – but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best that they could. This is Walter Cronkite, good night.”
Walter Cronkite, February 27, 1968
By Tom Degan
Walter Cronkite died peacefully yesterday at 7:42 PM EST. If you happened to be watching CBS last night, you’ll be forgiven for missing this major piece of news. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, they decided not to preempt their regularly scheduled programming in honor of the man who, along with Edward R. Murrow, made CBS News. The bulk of last evening’s coverage was handled by CNN and the NBC-owned MSNBC.
Although most of the daily papers in the New York area placed the story prominently on their front pages, you might also have missed it had your major source of information been the paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, the New York Post Toasties. In what should surprise no one familiar with that awful rag, the passing of this giant of broadcast journalism was relegated to a single column on page eight. Apparently the Toasties’ editorial department deemed the nervous breakdown of Mischa Barton – a women I had never even heard of until this morning – more newsworthy than the death of Walter Cronkite. How nice and typical.
Three years ago on June 27, 2006, in a piece called, “The Death of CBS News”, I wrote on this site:
“I’m just barely old enough to remember November, 22, 1963 (I was born on August 16, 1958). In those days, whenever a major news story was breaking, you automatically went to CBS News – no questions asked. Think of its history: Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingswood. Walter Cronkite; those sons-of-bitches had gravitas, baby!”
Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.
In 2006, Dan Rather, who replaced Cronkite in 1981, was forced out of CBS for reporting that George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the National Guard back in the early seventies. The fact that the story was true didn’t matter in the least to the suits at Black Rock, the headquarters of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Rather had offended the homicidal little thug in the Oval Office who (by the way) controlled the Federal Communications Commission. That was enough for them. The network which in 1954 courageously took on Joe McCarthy, had spiraled into near-comic irrelevance.
After Bob Scheiffer took over the duties of anchor for several months, the CBS Evening News – the diamond of the “Tiffany Network“ – was handed over to “cute ‘n’ perky” Katie Couric, a “journalist” utterly lacking in any journalistic credibility. And no accusations of sexism, please. Leslie Stahl would have been a much better choice.
There is no reason for us to mourn the death of Walter Cronkite. He spent his formative years at the top of his profession and no one did it better. He lived for nearly ninety-three years and by all accounts they were happy ones. In fact in the torrent of reflections on his life and career that have come pouring through the airwaves since the announcement of his death last night, one of his contemporaries described him as “the happiest man I ever knew.” I agree with Tom Brokaw. Instead of mourning his death, we should be celebrating his life.
What we should be mourning is the death of broadcast journalism in general and CBS News in particular.
It is touching that Uncle Walter’s passing came when it did, on the fortieth anniversary of that weekend in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldren landed a lunar module on the surface of the moon.
Throughout his career, Cronkite was a boyishly enthusiastic supporter of NASA and America’s Space Program. When Armstrong transmitted the this message:
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
the normally stoic and articulate Walter Cronkite stuttered and stammered like a kid on Christmas morning:
“MAN ON THE MOON! Oh boy!”
It was riveting television to be sure. I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I watched that historic broadcast again, only hours before Walter Cronkite quietly slipped away from us.
In 1998, when John Glenn returned to space as the world’s first senior citizen/astronaut, Cronkite, nearly two decades removed from his CBS News anchor chair, was sought after for his much-valued commentary – by CNN. Apparently the geniuses at CBS never thought to use him.
As pitiful as that might sound to you, consider this: In a perfect world, Dan Rather would have been leading the coverage of Cronkite’s passing from his former desk in the CBS newsroom at Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City. Last night, the only place he could be found was being interviewed by Rachel Maddow on her relatively low-rated MSNBC program.
Let’s not kid ourselves. If CBS News is not moribund, it appears to be going gently into that good night of oblivion. The only thing they’ve got going for themselves at the moment is their Sunday programming. It’s only a matter of time, however, before Bob Scheiffer is replaced by Britney Spears. I can See It Now.
It isn’t surprising that he was “the most trusted man in America”. Did he earn that trust? I think he did. Although it used to make me cringe seeing photographs of him schmoozing with Henry Kissinger or sharing a hearty laugh with Ronald Reagan, I would remind myself that he often acted as ambassador for the entire CBS network. I am also reminded of November 22, 1963:
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at One PM, Central Standard Time, Two o’clock, Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.”
Suppressing a tear, a catch in his voice for only a moment, he delivered those words with quiet dignity and gentle authority. Somehow, without even trying to, he was reassuring a traumatized nation that everything was going to be all right. Honestly, can you even imagine getting that news from someone like Bill O’Rielley? Yeah, we trusted Uncle Walter.
It was a different world in which Walter Cronkite thrived. Lord only knows how he would have functioned during the age of Twitter and the twits on FOX Noise. That he was unhappy with the direction TV news had taken since his final broadcast on March 6, 1981 is common knowledge. The world of mindless info-tainment saddened and bewildered him. I’ve often wondered if he ever sat through an entire edition of FOX and Friends – or even a few minutes of it. One can only imagine his reaction.
It is said that television news came of age with the death of John F. Kennedy forty-six years ago. I had vague hopes that cable news, too, would “grow up” after the trauma of September 11, 2001. Apparently those hopes were in vain.
Walter Cronkite is dead and he’s not coming back.
And that’s the way it is.