And That’s The Way It Was, November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009

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Walter Cronkite, often called “the most trusted man in America,” has died at age 92. Cronkite was anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, bringing many key moments of modern world history into American homes before the age of cable “news.”  The Washington Post writes:

CBS was widely considered the best news-gathering operation among the three major networks, and Cronkite was a major reason why. With his avuncular pipe-and-slippers presence before the camera and an easy, yet authoritative, delivery, he had an extraordinary rapport with his viewers and a level of credibility that was unmatched in the industry. In a 1973 public opinion poll by the Oliver Quayle organization, Cronkite was named the most trusted public figure in the United States, ahead of the president and the vice president.

“He was the voice of truth, the voice of reliability,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor and sociologist. “He belongs to a time when there were three networks, three oil companies, three brands of bread.” He was the personification of stability and permanence, even when, in Gitlin’s words, his message was “that things are falling apart.”

In the decades before media outlets and media audiences splintered into numberless shards, Cronkite’s broadcasts reached an estimated 20 million people a night. His name became permanently linked in the minds of millions of Americans with the major news events of his time: the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the triumph of the first moon landing; the Watergate scandal; the return of American hostages after the Iranian Revolution; and a series of political conventions, national elections and presidential inaugurations.

Cronkite was on the air for hours after the Kennedy assassination. The video above shows Cronkite announcing the death of JFK. He was a such a strong promoter of the space program in its early years that he was called “the eighth astronaut.” When Apollo XI landed on the moon, “Cronkite was on the air for 27 of the 30 hours that Apollo XI took to complete its mission.”

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Many have wondered where the media was in the build up to the Iraq war as the press frequently repeated the lies of the Bush administration without doing independent reporting. Walter Cronkite experienced a similar situation with Vietnam, ultimately becoming instrumental in changing public opinion:

Initially, Cronkite was something of a hawk on the Vietnam War, although his program did broadcast controversial segments such as Morley Safer’s famous “Zippo lighter” report. However, returning from Vietnam after the Tet offensive Cronkite addressed his massive audience with a different perspective. “It seems now more certain than ever,” he said, “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is a stalemate.” He then urged the government to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese. Many observers, including presidential aide Bill Moyers speculated that this was a major factor contributing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to offer to negotiate with the enemy and not to run for President in l968.

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11 Comments

  1. 1
    Leslie Parsley says:

    Nice post, Ron.

  2. 2
    Christoher Skyi says:

    Interesting that he would die today — the 20th is the 40th anniversary of the first moon walk.
     
    Not to give away my age, but I remmber, vaguely, actually stayed up till 3am with my parents to watch Neil take that first small step. It seem to take forever for him get out of of the LEM and get down those steps. After he stepped on the surface, I remember thinking, wow — he did it. Well, that wasn’t so hard! And from then on, the moon never seemed as far away.

  3. 3
    Leslie Parsley says:

    This antique can remember further back than that.   :  ) When I was in HS I already had an intense interest in history, politics, etc. I couldn’t wait to watch You Are There and subsequently You Were  There. As time went by Cronkite became more and more of a hero to middle America. Contrary to what the public thinks, there was animosity between Cronkite and Murrow (who, btw, screwed William Shirer in the back and cost him his career).

    Like so many others, I associate Cronkite with Kennedy’s assassination. Cronkite removing his glasses as he’s about to loose his composure and the idiot woman who called in to complain about Cronkite being on the air without his jacket!
    Cronkite happened to be walking by the phone when it rang, so being the gentleman he was, he picked it up and, if I remember correctly, told the woman she was an idiot. (Those folks haven’t changed only now they’re bitching about Obama not wearing a coat in the Oval Office.)

    Murrow and crowd thought Cronkite was spineless but WC demonstrated a quiet strength and dignity of his  own when he criticized the war in Vietnam. We antiwar protesters were thrilled and awed by his courage.

    He wan’t flamboyent but he was damn good. I have to say that I can’t think of a journalist in modern times who can begin to equal him.

    Sorry for the length here. I yield the floor.

  4. 4
    Christoher Skyi says:

    After all these years (I wasn’t born yet), watching Cronkite announce the assassination and death of JFK is still surprisingly . . . shocking.  The country must have been reeling.
     
    I do remember when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. My mother woke me up and she was crying. I asked her why and she something like ‘they killed Senator Kennedy. I don’t know what happening to the world.’ I remember the late 60’s being, from a child’s viewpoint, frighteningly violent.  It seemed to me, everything got better after the 60’s. The 70’s seemed like a big party. The 80’s was even more of a party and the 90’s, well, boy don’t we all wish we could go back to those years. However, even today, it doesn’t seem as bad as those times in the 60’s, but I was very small at the time.

  5. 5
    Fritz says:

    Christopher, this will date me…  I vividly remember the announcement of JFK’s assassination coming over the elementary school PA system.  Yes, it was riveting and terrifying.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    I heard about JFK after getting out of school. I recall that some of the bigger kids were saying it happened and we weren’t sure whether to believe them at first.

    I recall in the case of Bobby, before hearing he died, people were talking about how having his hair chopped off for surgery would affect his image. Afterwards that sure was a trivial worry.

  7. 7
    Leslie Parsley says:

    Chrisopher: I LOVED the sixties and 0ften mourn their passage. Why? Because young people were interested in our country and wanted to make a difference. We weren’t negative – we were for the end of segregation and for the end of the war in Vietnam. We helped to build sidewalks in poor areas of Houston so that kids didn’t have to walk on very busy narrow roads. We helped in day care centers. We organized groups to register people to vote. We were activists and we cared.

    The 70s were a transitional period going from activism to the “me generation” of the 80s. Except for the recent campaign, young people really have not cared much about anything but their next party or CD or whatever.  (I could party like hell but that wasn’t my soul purpose in life.)

    Jay Leno used to have these funny but revealing questions he asked young people on the street. Most didn’t know what party the president belonged to, or where Seattle is, etc. So give me the 60s and a group of young people who give a sh –.

  8. 8
    Fritz says:

    Leslie, I am convinced that the destruction of the social awareness and activism of the ’60s was not accidental and it was not fully suicide — it was pushed.  The establishment was threatened, and it effectively responded to an existential threat.
     
    I took my kids to see the traveling company of the revival of Hair a few years ago.  Yes it was beautiful.  And yes it was more than a bit of a nostalgia trip (especially knowing that another stupid war was on).  But it was also exquisitely painful to realize was has been lost.  On the other hand, some of the anti-racism numbers are almost quaint (at least in urban Seattle) and that’s a good thing.  But on the whole… a strong sense of “what might have been?”.
     
    Hunter Thompson said it best, I think:
    And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

  9. 9
    Leslie Parsley says:

    This is my final comment – promise. Ron, I was in GA in a dorm setting when JFK was shot. Trust me, out of some 30 girls, there were only about three of us who did not shout for joy. Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was on a plane back to Atlanta when passengers were told about the shooting. The guy sitting next to him offered to buy drinks to celebrate.

    When RFK was shot I was in college and had a support group to help get through that numbing experiece. Remember it hadn’t been too long since MLK’s assasination.

    And now I will shut up.

  10. 10
    Leslie Parsley says:

    I lied. Fritz, thanks for making that observation and especially for quoting Hunter Thompson.

    I’ve always felt that Kent State was the beginning of the end for the movement. “They” had guns and “they” wouldn’t hesitate to kill “us.”

  11. 11
    Fritz says:

    I was in high school about 40 miles from Kent State when it went down.  I thought the revolution had come and I was behind enemy lines.
     
    The next week a teacher said “They should have shot more.”  I stood up and started leaving the class.  He asked what I was doing.  I said “I’m either going to the office or punching you out.  Which would you prefer?”.  I went to the office.
     
    I was at the class graduation (not mine) a few weeks later (because I was in the band to play Pomp & Circumstance).  The valedictorian did not give the speech that had been approved.  The speech she gave started “They are killing us now”.
     
    For better or worse, that time has drastically affected my child-rearing.  I have been unable to give my kids even the smallest amount of lip service about trusting the government or the society — so they were brutally cynical at way too early an age.   But so it goes.

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