Saturday, July 18, 2009

Uncle Walter

Here's as close as I ever got to Walter Cronkite:

In the winter of 1976, my class at Syracuse University went to New Hampshire to cover the Presidential primary. We stayed at a hotel in Concord. As I recall, the place was nothing special as hotels go -- but it must have been convenient and universally used. I believe R.W. Apple of the New York Times stayed there.

But it did have a new-fangled invention in the lobby -- a coin-operated video game.

At some point shortly after the primary, I read an account of the primary. Some reporter wrote that the biggest laugh of his time in New Hampshire came in that very lobby, when he saw Cronkite look at his watch and say with quite a bit of enthusiasm, "I think we've got time for one more game of Tank!" And in the quarters went.

You'll hear the cliche "they don't make them like that any more" in the coming days, and it's certainly true. If Edward R. Murrow helped create radio news, Cronkite brought the electronic news business fully into the television era. The coverage of the Kennedy assassination and funeral really united the nation at that sad time. He became a giant in his field, to the point where CBS deserves major demerits for not using him more often after he left the Evening News.

Wiser people than I will be commenting on Cronkite's legacy, and I'll leave most of that to them. But not quite all of it.

Cronkite was at the height of his influence in the Seventies, when about the only place to get national news on TV was at 6:30. He brought a ton of experience to the table every night, starting with a job with the wire service UPI before moving on to CBS. Cronkite knew his craft.

It's interesting to note in hindsight how little talk there was about "bias" in the media back then. Everyone accepted the fact that news people really could compile a story and present the facts in a logical manner. Oh, there were suspicions that Cronkite leaned to the left, suspicions that were more or less confirmed when he wrote a book after retirement. And, it was admittedly a more innocent and less partisan time. Even so, Cronkite was believed when he came on the air.

What's more, he was a strong advocate of a "hard news" approach. I'm sure he wasn't happy about the trend toward "info-tainment" in the news business over the last several years.

I found it a little sad, then, to go dial-hopping Friday night to see how the story was reported. CNN had a graphic that said, "Breaking News: Cronkite dead." MSNBC and Fox had a similar look. Then on CNN Headline News, the graphic under Nancy Grace read something to the effect: "Breaking News: Michael Jackson may have used different names to obtain prescriptions."


1 comment:

John Fraissinet said...

When I worked at CBS in the '80s, I would occasionally have a mission to take a trip over to the Broadcast Center on W. 57th. I had free reign once inside the building, and would always take a loop up past the Cronkite studio where you could look in through a glass window. I never did catch him there, but his presence was always felt. A hero to those of us who had been schooled in journalism.